Updated: March 2, 2020 9:46:10 am
Spend a few days in Europe and one cannot help but be struck by the change in the tenor of the discussion on global warming. It is no longer about the credibility of the scientific data on the trajectory of global temperatures: Whether the data does no more than generate a lot of hot air, as people like US President Donald Trump would aver, or whether it is indeed a harbinger of an existential crisis. The consensus view is that the world is on a pathway towards disaster. The discussion is now all about what must be done, by whom and by when. It is about the steps that must be taken by firms, sectors and governments to reduce carbon emissions, the mix of regulations and incentives that must be put in place to hasten the transition to a decarbonised future and the tests that entities must pass to counter the charge of “greenwashing”. It is about tackling an immediate threat, not about an unfolding crisis with indeterminate future implications.
What is missing in this Eurocentric debate are the tough questions. Will these efforts by the developed world be sufficient to alter the trajectory of global warming? Who will pay the costs of the sustainable development of poorer nations? Does the current UN-led multilateral effort offer any prospect of a consensus around an appropriate and urgent global action plan?
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The movement towards decarbonisation in the West has built up strong momentum. There are tangible markers. The most impactful is technology and innovation. Together, they have almost bridged the competitiveness gap between the current fossil fuel dominant energy system and a renewable clean energy alternative. Many reports provide supportive data of this trend. Let me cite data from one by Bloomberg. The global average levelised cost of electricity generated from solar (PV) per MW/ hour has fallen from approximately $360 in 2010 to around $60 in 2019. The cost of electricity from offshore wind has reduced from $190 to around $90 over the same period and for onshore wind from $100 to just under half at $50. The cost of storage has also reduced comparably. A lithium ion battery cost approximately $1,000 per KW of storage in 2010. These costs fell to around $380 by 2015 and last year they averaged $180. Bloomberg’s forecast assumption is that costs will fall to $100 by 2024 and around $30 by 2030. The message is clear. There will be many obstacles to the creation of a non fossil fuel, clean energy system. But competitiveness will not be one of them. Technology will overcome that obstacle.
A second marker is the conspicuous shift in the “decarbonisation” strategies of companies and financial institutions. These entities have for long affirmed their green credentials but few have provided details of how they plan to achieve their clean energy targets. Now, they are filling in these gaps. For instance, BP has announced that it will achieve net zero carbon emissions across all of its operations by 2050 and Shell has said it will become a major electricity company — it has invested in solar battery manufacturing and charging solutions for electric vehicles. Goldman Sachs has stated it will not finance any new coal power plants unless these plants have incorporated carbon emission reduction technologies and AXA , the insurance giant, has indicated it will not insure new coal construction. These are just a few examples of the paradigm shift in the corporate and financial world.
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A third marker is the mix of regulatory, pricing and fiscal measures that Western governments have put in place to contain the growth of fossil fuels in the energy mix, incentivise investment in technologies like carbon capture and sequestration and, in general, reduce the per capita stock of GHG emissions. These are heartening and necessary developments but they are not sufficient to move the world off the global warming treadmill. Two-thirds of global carbon emissions come from the emerging economies particularly China and India. Whilst these countries have made tremendous strides down the pathway of decarbonisation, they are not moving fast enough. And for good reasons. They are impeded by the trilemma of generating growth, providing their citizens access to affordable energy as well as protecting the environment. The global challenge is to help them resolve this trilemma and accelerate the pace of decarbonisation.
Can this challenge be met through the current UN-led multilateral effort? The world is fractured by resurgent nationalisms and hardened boundaries. To expect, therefore, the COP 26 to be held in Glasgow in November to forge an international consensus around a climate change mitigation and an action plan that results in the developed world making good on its financial commitments — the sine qua non for resolving the above trilemma — is perhaps a chimera. The world needs to find another avenue, one that does not take off from the current international system but draws on the power of global society — an avenue that leads towards new sovereigns defined not by conventional post-World War II national and political boundaries but by identities that are forged to tackle cross-border issues like global warming and/or health pandemics.
This may sound too idealistic. But then who would have expected the efforts of Greta Thunberg, the 18-year old Swedish schoolgirl who skipped class every Friday to sit in front of the Swedish Parliament week after week, to attract not just the attention of the country’s parliamentarians but also that of the world? She offers an example of what is possible if society deems that “enough is enough” of “politics as usual” .The world is headed over the cliff . There is much to be done but a crucial next step is to integrate the developing world more firmly into the search for a global response. This requires society to pressure the developed world to help finance the sustainable development of the developing world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 2, 2020 under the title “Yes, Greta Thunberg can”. The writer is chairman and senior fellow, Brookings India
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