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Fossil fuels can’t be replaced anytime soon – so, is zero emission achievable?

N.S. Venkataraman is of the view that rather than chase the Utopian dream of eliminating generation of greenhouse gasses, world leaders at the next climate change meet must adopt the pragmatic approach of finding ways to minimise the impact of global warming

The State of the Global Climate Report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed that 2023 was the warmest on record, with the global temperature 1.4 deg.Celsius above the pre-industrial 1850-1900 baseline. In a subsequent report published in March 2024, the WMO said that while 2023 topped the warmest 10-year period on record, there is a high probability that 2024 will be even hotter. This rise in global temperature will inevitably lead to several adverse consequences in the overall climate scenario, with variations in seasons, melting ice, rising sea levels, and the occurrence of droughts and floods in various regions. The socio-economic consequences of such climate change could be very severe in the coming years.

The ultimate goal of zero emission is a subject that has been discussed repeatedly over the past two decades at global climate conferences each year in which a large number of countries participate. The consensus view at such conferences is that the emission of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane gas should be brought down and, ultimately, the world should achieve zero emission of these global warming gases. And to do this, the use of fossil fuels, namely, crude oil, coal and natural gas, should be curtailed and methane emission, largely due to livestock population, should be stopped.

No slowdown in fossil fuel production
Countries like China, US and a few others promised at these climate conferences that they would achieve zero emission by 2050 and India said it would do so by 2070. However, the fact is that even after a few years of lofty promises, neither production and use of coal and crude oil nor methane emissions has been brought down so far. On the contrary, they have been increasing, prompting the WMO’s warning that 2024 could well be the warmest year in the recorded history of the world.

It is necessary to recognise that crude oil-producing countries are not ready to curtail production, as it will upset their national economy. Countries like China, India, Indonesia and Australia are actually increasing production and use of coal as an energy source, even as they shout from the rooftops that they will reduce emission levels. For example, India’s coal production during 2022-23 was 893.19 million tonnes, as compared to 778.21 million tonnes during 2021-22, an increase of 14.7 per cent. Coal is still the major source of energy, according to the recent Energy Statistics 2024 Report released by the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. This is despite a concerted strong push for green energy sources by the government.

Ground reality
The ground reality is that alternative eco-friendly sources of energy and feedstock have not yet been adopted on the required scale. While technology development efforts are continuing, it looks to be unlikely that use of fossil fuel will be suspended in the global scenario in the foreseeable future. The solution being discussed is the development and utilisation of renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro power and green hydrogen produced by water electrolysis. They can be part of the solution, certainly, but it is unlikely that they will be able to replace fossil fuel any time soon, because of several limiting factors.

Also, while a few developed and developing countries have spoken about targeting zero emission at one time or another, a large number of countries which are either developing or underdeveloped have been silent on this issue. For them, access to energy is a more important and immediate concern than climate change. There is apprehension that the current global approach to overcome climate change by insisting on reduction of emissions will mean that several countries have to reduce use of fossil fuels to generate energy, which would force the underdeveloped and developing nations to remain economically and industrially backward, an unacceptable situation for them.

Balanced approach
Any move to curtail the use of fossil fuels without alternative eco-friendly energy sources in adequately quantity will end in disaster for the economies of the poor countries and for the world economy at large. There is an emerging view globally that it is necessary to strike the right balance between economic and industrial development and emission mitigation. While all countries should aim to reduce emissions within their limitations by pursuing policies and programmes which are a mix of regulatory measures and incentives to formulate eco-friendly production and consumption patterns, it is necessary to keep in view that the mindless targeting of zero emission is a Utopian dream which will not materialise.

At the next global climate conference, world leaders must be honest and pragmatic enough to admit that achieving zero emission globally is an impossible task, and reconcile themselves to the continuing global warming situation. Instead, the formulation and initiation of measures to reduce the adverse impact of global warming could be the right course of action.

(The writer is managing trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived. He is a chemical engineer and lives in Chennai.)