Transitioning away from fossil fuels

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Transitioning away from fossil fuels

Sunday, 24 December 2023 | BK Singh

Transitioning away from fossil fuels

The USA, Canada, Australia, Norway and the UK which had the moral responsibility to rapidly phase out oil and gas production are responsible for planned expansion from new oil and gas fields for next decade and half. How can these countries advise India to cut on coal consumption? Our greenhouse gas emission is nearly 3 Giga tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually. We are distant third behind the two top emitters China with 14 Giga tonnes and the US with 8 Giga tonnes

Among the important outcomes, COP 28 text proposes to triple renewable energy capacity and double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.

It calls for transitioning away from fossil fuels in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this decade so as to reach net zero by 2050.

The text addresses global goals on adaptation to monitor finance, adaptation needs, and sustainable development with targets on health, water security and ecosystem restoration. On the climate finance front, the text envisages $250 billion for mitigation, $100 billion for adaptation and $150 billion for loss and damage to be provided to developing nations.

The World Bank will oversee the loss and damage fund and a specific percentage of it would be provided to least developed countries and small island countries. Green Credit initiative is also conceptualised that envisages plantations on waste and degraded lands and treatment of river catchments areas.

After the confirmation by World Meteorological Organization ahead of COP 28 that 2023 is the warmest year on record, more than 1.3 degrees Celsius hotter than the pre industrial temperature (between 1850 and 1900), the agreement reached in annual climate conference at Dubai is to transition away from fossil fuels and not to phase out fossil fuels.

While some experts hail the language “transitioning away from fossil fuels” and call it historic, the others find that the language does not guarantee the emission cut.

The agreement has been adopted in the divided world, despite climatic catastrophes hitting the regions with greater frequency and fury. The agreements at earlier climate conferences at Glasgow and Sharm El Sheikh also did not adopt “phase out” of fossil fuels and instead “phase down” was adopted in both.

To me, both the languages “phase down” and “transitioning away” look similar. As the one did not work, the other will also not work. In one of the reports IMF has said there has been an annual surge in fossil fuel subsidy, which has registered a record of $7 trillion in 2022. Even when the energy prices were dropped during the pandemic, rich countries did not cut the subsidy.

Western countries dependent on Russian oil and gas changed over to coal after the Ukraine conflict commenced. Five developed countries namely the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway and the United Kingdom which had the moral responsibility to rapidly phase out oil and gas production are responsible for planned expansion from new oil and gas fields for next decade and half.

How can these countries advise India to cut on coal consumption? Our greenhouse gas (GHG) emission is nearly 3 Giga tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually. We are distant third behind the two top emitters China with 14 Giga tonnes and US with 8 Giga tonnes. Our contribution to the emission is only 4 per cent of total global emissions, whereas our population is 17 per cent. There is rapid surge in our power demand and owing to such low per capita emission; we cannot sacrifice the growth and aspiration of people of India.

Ahead of Dubai conference, UNEP also brought out its Emission Gap Report saying the warming can be within 1.5 degrees Celsius only when the emissions predicted till 2030 is cut by 42 per cent. The IPCC report also adds that global mean temperature would be exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 and 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, if current path of carbon emission and the commitment from countries to cut emission are considered.

These reports should not have been brushed aside when a global stock take was taken at the conference for the first time.

Relying on IPCC scientists, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stressed for phasing out fossil fuels by countries on different dates in line with the rise in temperature below 1.5 degrees celsius to prevent low lying and island nations disappearing from the map. His suggestion was for historical emitters to phase out first and others can follow.

Several researches have been undertaken to capture carbon from atmosphere, but all these are uncertain, expensive and time consuming. The technology of sucking carbon and storing in bunker underneath sea has not picked up speed and scale so far. In a similar way employing geo-engineering technique to put a layer of sulpher as aerosol in the atmosphere for reflecting solar radiation in backward direction can only prevent warming of few countries capable of financing this expensive exercise.

Further it may take some time for green hydrogen fuel is rolled out at adequate scale. Studies have also revealed that conserving natural forests for carbon capture is found to be a better option than fresh afforestation. COP 28 deliberations are also a testimony to all these and only course left for world leaders is to take drastic step to cut emissions.

To compensate the developing countries for the destruction caused by the warming “loss and damage” fund was agreed at COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh. This was in addition to $100 billion pledged at Copenhagen COP 15 in 2009 to be provided by historical emitters (the developed countries) annually for adaptation, technology transfer and transition to renewable energy.

Developed countries have not fully complied with the pledges. However after a lapse of one year the loss and damage fund was made operational and all developed countries put together pledged $ 800 million, which hardly meets 1 per cent of the cost of damage inflicted on developing countries by climate change.

In COP 28’s “Nature Day” event on December 9, the floor was taken by ecologist Thomas Crowther, the former Chief Adviser of United Nations’ trillion trees campaign.

In 2019, his lab at ETH Zurich found that the earth had room for additional 1.2 trillion trees, which could suck two third of the carbon historically emitted into atmosphere causing warming of the globe by 1.2 degrees celsius. 2500 Giga tonnes of CO2 equivalent has been emitted in the atmosphere by all human activities on the globe since industrialisation begun.

The study concluded that the global tree restoration is the most effective climate change solution thus far. This sparked a tree planting craze by leaders of different countries without making any efforts to cut the emission.

Climate scientists criticised Crowther’s study saying that it had overestimated the land for forest restoration and the amount of carbon it could soak. Consequently the study authors corrected the paper and said that the tree planting could be one of the effective solutions, not the only solution and 1.2 trillion trees could suck only one third of carbon in the atmosphere and not two third.

Crowther came up with another study paper last month that shows the naturally occurring forests can have greater climate impact than planted trees. In my opinion, the planting of trees is bound to sequester CO2 provided it is done with utmost care and sincerity. Without any real and effective step to cut the pollution, mere announcement of afforestation would not do the wonders.

To succeed with the afforestation on the ground is quite challenging. For instance planting in refractory areas would have absolutely no carbon sequestration potential, plantations can be damaged by fire and anthropogenic pressures, planted areas can even be occupied by local communities for agriculture and so on.

In response to Paris climate accord, many countries pledged afforestation. If we sum up all such pledges, total area of planting to be covered is 500 million hectare, which is area equal to half the size of United States. India too announced the planting of 26 million hectare degraded and waste lands by 2030.

The areas are to be identified and verified for the suitability of plantations. Further India’s target is yet to be broken in States and districts.  Also when forest lands are diverted for non forest uses, the compensatory lands received in lieu are often planted up. These plantations are never quite successful.

Several evaluation reports of compensatory afforestation indicate that these plantations have shown dismal result as regards survival and growth are concerned.

There is no contradiction between Crowther’s two studies. Earlier study did not take into account the reasons for low productivity of the plantations. The countries have pledged to grow plantations over millions of hectare and at the same time expanded fossil fuels production and consumption.

Another example is the failure of the plantations in countries that accepted money in the carbon trade for cutting emissions. Amount was paid by developed countries where it is costly to cut emissions.

The study of Crowther was not correctly understood by world leaders. Immediately after he concluded his talk on December 9 at COP 28, UAE’s Climate Change and Environment Minister Mariam Almheiri praised the lecture and boasted about the planting of 100 million ha mangroves in her country by 2030.

The planting programme was to offset the surge in emissions caused by the biggest expansion planned for state run oil firm. We have missed the path that keeps us within 1.5 degrees celsius warming.

(The writer is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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