Energy needs versus pollution
It has taken a lot of scientific research and irrefutable evidence of the impacts of climate change to compel ratification of the historic Paris Agreement earlier this year. While bringing together a vast majority of governments around the world to express a commitment to fighting climate change was quite a feat, ensuring these commitments are met will prove to be even harder.
Individual countries have made nationally determined contributions in Paris to help keep global average temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, whether major oil producing countries and powerful fossil fuel based corporations will allow these promised emission cuts overcoming months and years remains to be seen. The US president-elect’s opposition to the Paris Agreement, and his appointment of climate change deniers to important policy making positions, including as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is another major problem.
Resisting the allure of continuing to amass wealth by selling fossil fuels, which in turn sustain high levels of energy consumption, is, however, only one part of a multidimensional challenge. Many developing countries face their own unique set of compulsions when it comes to upholding commitments to curb emissions. Many such countries are also trying to overcome massive unmet energy needs. Less affluent countries, including our own, need to produce more energy not only to achieve greater economic development, but also to fulfill basic needs of their masses. Consider the findings of the World Energy Outlook Report for 2016, for instance, which has estimated that 1.2 billion people around the world still do not have access to electricity.
While there are varied options to produce needed energy, many of the mega cities of the world, particularly those in Asia, are still powered by antiquated coal-fired power plants. Such coal fired plants are very polluting compared to the more modern coal power plants, which are more efficient and cause less emissions, especially those equipped with carbon capture capabilities. Natural gas turbines used for producing energy are a better option than coal fired plants. Renewable sources like wind and solar, however, provide the best energy producing options since they cause zero emissions.
Confronting the challenges of curbing global warming causing emissions means letting go of short-term and stop-gap solutions, especially those which seem to suggest a directly inverse correlation between environmental and economic costs of energy production. Recent developments suggest that there are in fact many feasible options available to shift to low and zero carbon producing energy producing technologies not only in industrialised countries, but also across the developing world. The fact that the cost of producing renewable energy has been falling significantly in recent years is also encouraging. However, switching from fossil fuel based energy production still needs to be incentivised further. Thus far, it is fossil-fuel subsidisation which is continuing to distort energy markets, promoting inefficient and CO2 emitting energy production. In 2014, for example, fossil fuel consumption subsidies were more than three times higher than those provided to renewable sources. In countries like our own, coal fired energy production is also receiving much more attention than through renewable sources.
Policymakers around the world need to encourage decentralised renewable energy production capacity so that clean energy technologies can be deployed across different geographic areas. Moreover, almost forty per cent of the global population, which is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, still relies on the use of biomass and coal for cooking purposes. Use of such traditional cooking fuels for cooking cause significant indoor pollution which has major adverse health impacts and produces significant CO2 emissions. While investing in clean energy for cook-stoves merits close attention within developing countries, it receives far less attention than the need for electrification. This is another issue which energy policies of developing countries like our own must also contend with, is a more concerted manner.