Global warming is not hysteria – it is for real. Fortunately, we did not really need actor Leonardo DiCaprio to reiterate this in his Oscar speech for world leaders to take the issue seriously. On Friday, 119 countries were expected to sign the Paris Agreement to strengthen the momentum created at the COP21 summit late last year. If adhered to, the agreement signals the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, with countries pledging to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2050.
The Paris Agreement has given us a stronger, tougher temperature threshold. The world had already agreed to try to keep the average global temperature rise to below 2 degree Celsius. Now, the goal is to limit the rise to well below 2 degree Celsius and aim to keep it to 1.5 degree Celsius.
The only feasible way to achieve this goal is to stop any new coal mining or drilling for oil and gas, and phase out all fossil fuels and achieve a fair transition to 100% renewable energy for all, by 2050 at the latest.
We have reached a situation where actions speak louder than words. The world does not need promises, but actions that are concrete enough to slow down the climate catastrophe the planet is experiencing. Here’s the question: will the countries – developed or developing – demonstrate diligence in adhering to commitments made in the agreement?
The Paris Agreement is not legally binding, nor is it as strong as it should be. But it is certainly better than expected. There was an unprecedented alliance of the most vulnerable countries and a united civil society – backed by a climate movement that has never been stronger – to write this new chapter in our development narrative.
For 195 countries to reach a global consensus was not an easy task. India, the third largest emitter, had a crucial role to play in the battle between the developing and the developed nations. India insisted on the inclusion of the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities”, which explicitly recognises the differences in historical carbon contributions as well as the current differences in the national circumstances of the developed and developing countries.
Even though India’s per capita carbon emissions are miniscule as compared to the US and China, an agrarian economy like India, which is heavily dependent on the monsoon, is highly vulnerable to climate change. As an example, even though the ice sheets are melting very far away at the poles, they will have a catastrophic effect on India. We have reached a stage where nobody can really escape the effects of man-made climate change.
Enter the dragon
The world’s largest polluter, China, has done a remarkable job in shifting to renewable energy. Data on economic performance in the first quarter of 2016, released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, shows that while China’s overall economy saw some improvement, coal use and carbon dioxide emissions continue to fall. Electricity consumption grew by 3% year-on-year, but growth in non-fossil energy pushed fossil power generation down by more than 2%. Coal output fell by a dramatic 5%, as coal-fired power generation and steel output reduced.
The question is whether this shift be achieved in India. Let’s first see what India has committed. While China has committed to cut emissions after peaking, India has committed to cut the rate of emissions relative to Gross Domestic Product by 33-35% by 2030, from 2005 levels.
India is planning to boost its energy production from non-fossil fuel sources (including nuclear energy) to 40% of the total by 2030. To achieve this target, the government has set a target of a five-fold increase in renewable energy capacity by 2022 to 175 gigawatts. However, the recent World Trade Organisation ruling against India that its power purchase agreements with solar firms were “inconsistent” with international norms seems to be a spanner in the works of the local solar manufacturers in the country. Union power minister Piyush Goyal plans to challenge the WTO ruling and also file 16 new cases against the US for flouting trade norms.
Besides this, India plans to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 million-3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through increasing forest cover by 2030. But paradoxically, the country’s forests are endangered as the government has drastically diluted the inviolate policy – one of the safeguards for forests against destruction caused by mining.
Not just this, the ministry has set higher production targets for Coal India Ltd so that it increases its annual output to 1 billion tonnes of coal by 2022 from 550 million tonnes targeted for 2016.
No longer a luxury
It’s unfair to compare India with China, given the fact that over 300 million people in India still live without electricity. Our targets seem more challenging. But 100% renewable energy by 2050 may still not be an unrealistic dream for us. The good news is that renewable energy solutions are already here and accounted for around 90% of new electricity generation globally in 2015, according to the International Energy Agency. Renewable energy is being deployed on a massive scale, with the potential to provide clean, accessible and affordable energy to all. Clean energy doesn’t need special subsidies, it just needs a level playing field to realise speedy, massive and sustainable growth.
In the words of Union power minister Piyush Goyal: “India’s renewable energy space has become a hotspot for investors owing to lower tariffs and massive potential.”
This can put India on the fast track to growth. The question is do we have the will, conviction and staying power to do so. But we do not have the luxury to choose between renewable energy and fossil fuels. Any investments in coal, oil and gas must now be considered an irresponsible gamble. We also can’t just leave this to the market; governments which have signed the Paris Agreement must now legislate to keep fossil fuels in the ground, ensure stricter protection of forests, restore natural ecosystems, strongly support policies which lead to 100% renewable energy and eliminate all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
Time is running out and we have a planet to save.
Ravi Chellam is the Executive Director of Greenpeace India.