By Grace Guo
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of activists congregated in San Francisco, Paris and dozens of other (primarily Western) cities to march against the ongoing pursuit of fossil fuel projects around the world. These ‘Rise for Climate’ demonstrations boasted impressive turnouts. They also highlighted one of the key shortcomings affecting the environmental movement—a chronic inability to find room for diverging opinions and, most importantly, complementary solutions.
The issue of climate change is an expansive one. To mitigate the catastrophic potential impact of rising global temperatures, public and private stakeholders across the planet need to simultaneously deploy a multitude of responses and solutions. Unfortunately, many of the ‘Rise for Climate’ marchers have a difficult time finding room in their narrow worldviews for alternative suggestions. By demanding unrealistic targets, zeroing in on pipe-dream silver bullets, and ostracising important carbon mitigation strategies, these militant climate activists may well be ultimately setting themselves—and indeed our planet—up for failure.
What, exactly, were the protesters marching for? Above all, an immediate switch to ‘100% renewable energy’ to power the global economy. While the feasibility of that goal remains a matter of heated debate in places like the US, it is all but impossible for much of the developing world.
In Asia, energy security in key emerging economies, including India, has meant doubling down on coal consumption as opposed to giving it up. Between 2006 and 2016, coal consumption across the continent grew 3.1% year-on-year, comprising almost 75% of total global demand. Even after the world’s largest coal consumer, China, decommissioned many plants and halted work on new ones, a surge in demand that saw electricity consumption rise by 9.4% in the first six months of 2018. This has forced the country to relax its coal crackdown, restarting 46.7GW worth of dormant coal energy projects.
In India, the government plans submitted to the COP21 talks projected energy demand would triple between 2012 and 2030. Indian coal production is projected to rise to as much as 1.9 billion tons by 2030. Not only does coal meet over 75% of India’s energy needs, but it also comprises 10% of industrial production and provides jobs for up to half a million people. Political scientist Rohit Chanda estimates 10 to 15 million more Indians rely indirectly on the coal industry through social programs centred around the industry. Put simply, coal is a cornerstone of Indian life.
Hypocrisy and hegemony
In India, this massive level of energy demand masks a stubbornly high level of energy poverty. Thirty-one million households in rural India still need to be connected to the electric grid. Even many of those who do have access cannot count on a reliable supply. Against this backdrop, Indian officials have repeatedly called out their Western counterparts for ‘climate hypocrisy’.
In 2015, for example, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar castigated the US for deriving 68% of its energy mix from fossil fuels. Javadekar pointed out that Indians consume a mere fraction of the coal per capita that Americans do—1,000kWh compared to 15,000kWh. This frustration is not isolated to India. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has criticised “China, America, and Europe” for causing climate change in the first place and continuing to exacerbate it now.
As Javadekar, Duterte and other Asian officials have made clear, expecting countries like India and the Philippines to meet their considerable energy needs while foregoing the energy source that powered the West’s development and relying instead on intermittent renewable technologies is unreasonable.
It’s difficult to argue with the points being made. Under President Donald Trump, officials in Washington are echoing them. The Trump administration has responded to Asia’s energy trajectory by pushing forward with a ‘Clean and Advanced Fossil Fuel Alliance’ that dovetails with America’s exports of coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) overseas. American steam coal exports are projected to jump 58% this year, while the US has agreed deals to ship LNG to countries including China, India, Japan and South Korea.
Choosing the right battles
With the world’s two most populous countries and many of its fastest-growing economies leaning on fossil fuels to keep up with energy needs for the foreseeable future, what are the environmentalists who marched across San Francisco and Paris to do? As opposed to staking out an extreme position that turns off potential partners in the developing world, they could instead soften their own stance and accept the scientific consensus that calls for developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. From the moment the COP21 agreement was signed in 2015, it was clear CCS technologies would be indispensable in curbing emissions.
In places like China and India, where coal and other fossil fuels will continue to make up a significant proportion of the energy portfolio, being able to remove up to 90% of CO2 emissions from the air would be an important tool in balancing these countries’ economic needs with the imperative to protect the environment. As climate scientists Jan Christoph Minx and Gregory Nemet explained in a Washington Post editorial, a whole host of carbon capture and carbon removal technologies will be required to meet the COP21-enshrined goal of keeping the global increase in temperatures below 2°C.
Unfortunately, CCS is frequently written off by much of the environmental community as a fig leaf for continued fossil fuel use. This leaves environmentalists at a huge disadvantage when it comes to trying to untangle the knotty quagmire of problems our planet currently finds itself in.
Of course, the fact that Rise for Climate drew tens of thousands of ordinary citizens to march for environmental justice shows the level of sheer enthusiasm driving the movement, even as the future of global climate efforts appears in doubt. That said, the failure to understand the nuanced challenges faced by those living in other parts of the world leaves little room for negotiation, precisely when effective compromise is needed most.
Grace Guo is a Vienna-based researcher, working as a Program Associate for a small NGO focused on Asian politics.
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