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Will the global zero emission target go for a toss?

The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 27 has concluded in Egypt, which brought together several governments and other participants to share ideas, solutions and build partnerships and coalitions to overcome the climate challenges , threatening the world. N.S. Venkataraman provides a broad sweep of what transpired and says that COP26 targets were not adequately achieved. He offers suggestions on what needs to be done

In the COP26 Glasgow Climate Meet, all the presidents and prime ministers of the various countries who participated, expressed deep concern about global warming and pledged to limit the emission of carbon dioxide and other noxious gases in their regions, to save the world from possible disaster. Different countries   promised and pledged that they would bring the emission to zero level in their regions, with different target dates.

The United States has set a goal of 100 per cent clean electricity by 2035, which would result in a crucial foundation for net-zero emissions not later than 2050  in  the country.  China informed that it would aim for peak carbon emission before 2030 and would reach carbon net zero by 2060.  Japan declared that by 2050, it aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. The Russian Government drafted a new decarbonisation strategy that sets a 2060 net zero emission target. India’s prime minister had announced India’s zero emission target would be achieved by 2070.

At the end of the COP 26 Glasgow meet, looking at the commitments made by the leaders from different countries, many people around the world thought that zero emission would happen in the coming decades. However, the subsequent developments in the geo-political scenario in the world and consequent energy issues have created doubts and apprehension as to whether the zero emission target would be achieved at any time.

What has COP27 achieved?

Set against a difficult geopolitical backdrop, COP27 arrived at a  package of decisions that reaffirmed the commitment to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. COP 27 concluded with a breakthrough agreement to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries that are hit hard by climate disasters. Governments also agreed to establish a ‘transitional committee’ to make recommendations on how to operationalise  the new funding arrangements.

COP27 saw the launch of a new five-year work programme to promote climate technology solutions in developing countries. Countries launched a  a package of 25 new collaborative actions in five key areas: power, road transport, steel, hydrogen and agriculture. The decision, known as the  Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, highlights that a global transformation to a low-carbon economy that is expected to require investments of at least USD 4-6 trillion a year. The deliberations at  COP27 and the decisions taken were as impressive as those during COP26.

Proof of the pudding is in the eating

Some of the participants at COP27 expressed serious concern that the earlier decisions taken that the developed countries should  mobilise jointly USD 100 million per year to implement the various climate control measures have  not been met. There is anxiety that while high targets have been set during COP27, previous decisions taken during similar conferences earlier have not brought significant changes in the climate conditions, as the previous decisions were not implemented fully or adequately. The real worth, success, or effectiveness of any decision  can only be determined by putting it to the test,  by trying or using it.

The adverse impacts of global warming and climate change have already become evident across the world. In Europe, drought has threatened to make the  Rhine River, which has been a  crucial waterway for German, Dutch and Swiss trade for centuries, extremely difficult to be used. In several European countries, drought conditions have created severe water shortages   and the countries are now considering plans to  curtail the use of water in all possible ways. In several countries, heavy unseasonal rains and floods are throwing  life out of gear for people. 

China has now issued a warning regarding possible drought conditions in the country and some regions in China are reported to be suffering from heat waves. The significant regional warming leads to continued loss of sea ice, melting of glaciers and of the Greenland ice cap. The Arctic is warming three times as fast and the global average. These conditions are alarming by any  stretch of imagination.

Primary requisites

The primary requisite to achieve zero emission in the world is that the use of coal as fuel should be completely eliminated.  Further, the methane emission during storage and transportation of natural gas also need to be totally eliminated. Apart from these steps, the sulphur dioxide emission from vehicle exhaust also needs to be brought to zero level.  To eliminate the use of fossil fuel completely, the remedial measures that have been identified are the massive boost for the production of renewable energy from wind, solar and hydro projects and also large scale production and use of green hydrogen as energy source and feedstock source.

While there have been high focus on renewable energy projects, the ground reality is that the world over, such focus on renewable energy have failed to meet the energy needs caused by the recent developments. It  appears that  dependence on renewable energy as important strategy  to move towards low emission will not have significant impact,  in view of the fluctuating seasonal climatic conditions and low capacity utilisation of renewable energy sector, as well as large quantity of power required to produce massive quantity of green hydrogen that would be required in the world.

While all over the world,  there is  lot of focus on hydrogen energy which is  green energy, what is needed is the massive production of green hydrogen at affordable cost. Considering the  various technological and  infrastructure issues and constraints  such as storage and transportation and production cost, green hydrogen as the ultimate energy source to achieve zero emission in the world appear to be  little too optimistic  at this stage.

Target difficult due to world conflicts

The Ukraine-Russia war has led to serious questions on whether the zero emission targets would be attainable. Consequent to the war and with NATO countries and the US imposing various sanctions against Russia, the availability of crude oil and natural gas from Russia to NATO countries are rapidly declining. In such desperate situation, to tackle the scenario, several countries like Germany are restarting coal-based thermal power projects and are planning to restart the nuclear power plants which were closed earlier.

If the countries behave responsibly by avoiding war, which causes huge emissions due to bombing and missile attacks and energy related issues, then there could be some hope that the efforts of scientists and technologists to find a  way to achieve  zero emission  would be fruitful. However, geo-political conditions do not look like improving to ensure a strife free world. 

Dependence on coal

Many countries have started mining coal and boosting crude oil / gas production in their countries. The adverse impact of this shift towards coal, oil and gas on meeting global emission reduction targets are too glaring to be ignored. During 2021-22, India produced 778 million tonne of coal compared to 716 million tonne the previous year.  India has now set a target of increasing the coal production to 1000 million tonne per annum. The Government of India has announced that in the  financial year 2023, coal production in the country is likely to record 900 million tonne. Use of coal in India will certainly not reduce but it would only increase in the foreseeable future, if India were to maintain the industrial and economic growth and GDP growth of more than 8 per cent per annum. Coal will remain as the permanent baseload option for India for a long time to come.

Ultimately, one can say that the challenge of achieving zero emission should also be fought in the minds and hearts of men and women where war and conflicts and use of arms would become a thing of the past. Will it ever happen?

(The writer is trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived, Chennai.)

October – December 2022