Images showing the dramatic reduction in human-induced pollution in countries across the world have been trending on social media amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the World Environment Day on June 5th, it also reminds us that the climate crisis will continue after it passes, as countries restart their economies. We must use this opportunity to shift to clean energy technologies and accelerate steps towards climate change mitigation. So, what aspects of climate policies do we need to assess as we aim to balance economic growth and climate change?
The transition from fossil fuels
Global demand for energy is set to rise significantly in the next decade, driven by extensive economic and demographic growth, especially in the developing countries. Unless current trends are reversed, this demand will be fulfilled mainly by fossil fuels, at the cost of escalating emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, and the risk of global warming. To curb these emissions, immediate action is needed to switch to zero carbon technologies.
There is a strong link between energy, poverty and human development, which has traditionally prompted nations to heavily subsidize fossil fuels. Coal propelled the industrial revolution until the discovery of petroleum in the mid-19th century expedited rapid industrialization and globalization. As a result, fossil fuel-based technologies and institutions have now become integral to the global economy. According to a study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute in 2015, oil and gas industries contributed almost $1.3 trillion of annual turnover to the U.S economy and supported 10.3 million jobs. Moreover, fossil fuel reserves with unextracted coal are projected to last another 250 years. Economic interests along with consumers used to inexpensive energy options and incentives, are some of the many problems that hinder the switch to renewable energy.
Examining the trends of fossil fuel use, the proportion of total commercial energy supplied by fossil fuels decreased from around 94% in the 1960s to around 85% in the 2000s. There has been substantial investment in the renewable sector, but a radical, systematic overhaul of the fossil fuel-based infrastructure will be crucial to ensure a permanent, comprehensive transformation to renewables like solar, wind, hydropower, etc.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables currently contribute just under 30% of the global energy capacity. Renewable sources such as wind and solar continue to become affordable, but there are considerable challenges in the adoption of these sources. For example, we are yet to come up with viable energy storage technologies that would address the intermittent availability of renewable sources. Solar energy, after all, can be harnessed only during daytime! Extensive technological advancements are making renewables viable, but we also need to bring about a fundamental shift in the way we approach sustainability to ensure an appreciable transition.
Renewables in the power and transportation sectors
Effective renewable energy support policies are instrumental in the expansion of renewable energy. Renewables supplement climate change mitigation by addressing local air pollution and enhancing energy security whilst also creating jobs. Renewable energy policies are required to be dynamic in nature, and hence we have seen an evolution in the power and transport sectors.
Policy mechanisms in the electricity sectors have advanced considerably with governments providing a feed-in-tariff, auction or a green certificate system. Nowadays, many electricity providers also offer incentives to commercial and residential establishments in the form of tax benefits, bill waivers and grid allocations for installing solar-run systems. Policies in the transport sector mainly involve biofuel mandates, vehicular emission reduction policies and the push for electric vehicles.
In India, the main policy on emission reduction comprises of conformance to newer, cleaner vehicular emission standards like the Bharat VI (BS-VI) stage. This standard aims to regulate vehicular emission in India and comply with norms according to the Euro VI stage in Europe by 2020. Introduction of BS-VI standard fuels is expected to considerably reduce emitted levels of pollutants like NOX, SOX, carbon monoxide and particulate matter like PM10 and PM2.5.
Electric vehicles are expected to reduce urban air pollution considerably. Image credit: “Electric Car” by Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine is licensed under CC0 1.0. Source: https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/d551022c-2771-4bdb-a885-e5045992351d
The Indian government has taken steps towards making electric vehicles (EVs) affordable by announcing tax cuts, sanctioning free registration of such vehicles and tax benefits on battery technologies. But this move also leads to losses for oil companies, and ultimately a loss for the government exchequer.
As the role of various renewable energy sources grows, policies to facilitate their integration into the mainstream are needed whilst also allowing flexibility, in the short term. Hence, it is important that future targets for the share of renewables in the total energy production act as guidelines to enable policymakers to switch to renewable energy technologies efficiently. For instance, India has already taken positive steps in this regard. It has set a challenging target of achieving 175 GW of installed renewable energy capacity by 2022.
Challenges in climate change governance
Addressing climate change involves drastic alterations in global production and consumption practices in major sectors such as energy, transport, agriculture, etc. This poses difficult challenges for the administrative systems in various countries for efficient implementation. The complexities of adopting climate change governance policies means that countries are faced with scientific uncertainties, consequences of mitigation policies and the intricacies of global agreements over an extended timespan. The eventual result is that governments often delay action and avoid running the risk of economic and political instability.
The landmark Paris Agreement, drafted in 2015 by 195 countries within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is different in nature to previous climate accords. It demands that governments adhere to nationally determined commitments and contribute equally to mitigation and zero carbon initiatives, regardless of their economic status. Policymakers need to advocate effective policies that stand up to the scrutiny of the international community.
In case of developing countries like India, the demand for sufficiently available, cheap energy is extremely high. This makes emission reduction more difficult and expensive. Rapid economic growth needs to be sustained by adequate energy supply to ensure development within environmental constraints. Hence, establishment of clean energy sources and technologies becomes a necessity for developing countries. Critical issues related to poverty, public health, education, water supply and sanitation, etc. need to be addressed when formulating energy policies. Making bold policy decisions becomes complicated as the equilibrium between economic stability, climate change and energy security needs to be maintained.
Climate change policies will impact people in different levels of society across countries and regions. Hence, a generalized policy will be incompatible. The protracted timeframes associated with climate change governance means it will be impossible to implement them within a four or five-year electoral cycle and will require sustained efforts by successive governments. Finally, the global impact of climate change means significant participation by stakeholders, especially local citizens, along with a collective international response becomes imperative.
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