Fighting global warming is not just providing a path to net-zero carbon emissions for all countries. It is also about how to meet the energy needs of the people while doing so. If fossil fuels are to be given up—as they must be—countries in Africa and a significant part of Asia, including India, need an alternate path to provide electricity to their people. What course, then, is open to the poor countries if they do not use the fossil fuel route that the rich countries have used? How much will such a route cost, and who will pay the bill?
This discussion was completely absent from the COP26 agenda. The financing of a low carbon emission path was conveniently delinked from commitments to cut carbon emissions and is now scheduled for next year.
Some numbers are essential here. The European Union plus United Kingdom (EU-UK) produce more than twice the carbon emissions of the entire continent of Africa, with less than half of its population. With less than a quarter of India’s population, the United States emits significantly more carbon than India.
It is argued that as the cost of electricity from renewables has fallen below that from fossil fuels, it should be possible to phase out fossil fuels entirely with renewables without addressing funding. Indeed, today the cost per unit of electricity from renewables is lower than that from fossil fuels. What gets missed here is that we need to build three or four times the capacity from renewables to supply the same amount of energy that we obtain from fossil fuel plants. Their plant load factor (PLF)—how much electricity a plant produces compared to what it can produce when working continuously at full capacity—is much lower than plants running on fossil fuel. The wind does not blow all the time, nor does the sun shine at night. That means we will have to invest four times the capital using the renewable route to generate the same amount of electricity as we would get from fossil-fuelled plants.
If we are a rich country, that may not be a problem. But in a poor country trying to build its basic infrastructure of electricity, roads, railways, other public infrastructure, including schools, universities and health care, it is not easy without financial support from the rich countries. This is why rich countries asking poor countries for a net-zero pledge without committing any money is completely hypocritical. Tomorrow they can—and most probably will—turn around and say that since you committed to net-zero, you must now borrow from us at high interest and make good on your promises or face sanctions. In other words, a new form of green colonialism.
The second problem with renewables as the primary source of electricity is that there are significant additional costs for the grid for short-term and long-term electricity storage. Storage capacity is required to balance the daily or seasonal fluctuations that may arise in the electricity supply. For example, this summer, Germany saw a significant stilling of winds, leading to a sharp fall in wind energy generation. In their case, they balanced it with an increase of electricity from coal-fired plants, and their greenhouse gas emissions went up significantly. In a scenario that such plants do not exist, what will countries do?
While daily fluctuations can be met with large grid-sized batteries, this is not feasible for seasonal variations. Countries will have to either use pumped storage schemes with hydroelectric power or store hydrogen in large quantities in fuel cells. A pumped storage hydroelectric scheme means pumping water up to a reservoir when a surplus of power is available for the grid and using it to produce electricity when there is a shortfall. Storing hydrogen in quantities large enough to meet seasonal grid requirements is still an idea whose technical and economic feasibility needs to be explored.
The point here is that shifting to a grid entirely based on renewable energy is still technologically some distance away. We need to develop new technologies for storing energy. And we may need to use concentrated sources of energy—fossil or nuclear—to meet the requirement of daily or seasonal fluctuations until that time.
The other possibility is using fossil fuels without greenhouse gas emissions. It means not letting carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere by pumping it into underground reservoirs, or what is called carbon capture and sequestration. Carbon capture projects in rich countries were given up in the belief that renewables will solve the carbon emission problem. It is now clear that renewables as the only energy source in a grid are not enough, and we may need to look for other solutions as well.
In the short term, nuclear power does not appear to be a solution. It means that gas, oil, and coal are the only short-term solutions before us to meet long and short term fluctuations. It is here that the duplicity of the rich countries become clear. Europe and the United States have enough gas resources. India and China do not; they instead have coal resources. Instead of arguing how much greenhouse gas each country should emit, they decided to focus on what fuel must get phased out.
Yes, coal emits twice the carbon dioxide of fuel gas to produce the same amount of electrical energy. But if you produce twice the amount of electricity from fuel gas than from coal, you will still generate the same quantity of carbon emissions. If the United States or EU-UK are producing more carbon emissions than India or Africa—with lower populations—why ask for phasing out only coal, while the United States or UK-EU accept no such targets to phase out their carbon emissions using gas?
This is where the energy justice issue becomes important. The per capita energy use in the United States is nine times that of India and the United Kingdom’s six times. If we consider sub-Saharan African countries such as Uganda or the Central African Republic, their energy consumption is even lower. The United States consumes 90 times more energy and the United Kingdom 60 times more than these countries! So then why should we talk only about which fuels must be phased out and not how much emission countries need to cut, and immediately?
I am not raising the issue of an equitable share of the carbon space and how a country that has used more than its fair share should compensate the poorer countries. I am simply pointing out that by talking about net-zero and phasing out certain fuels, the rich countries are continuing on their path of excess carbon emissions while shifting the goalposts for others.
The last word on hypocrisy is Norway’s. While it is expanding its own oil and gas production, Norway, along with seven other Nordic and Baltic countries, has been lobbying the World Bank to stop all financing of natural gas projects in Africa and elsewhere. (See Foreign Policy: Rich Countries’ Climate Policies Are Colonialism in Green, Vijay Ramachandran, 3 November 2021.)
While Norway may have been the most blatant, twenty countries moved similar resolutions in COP26. For them, climate change negotiations are about maintaining their dominant energy positions while denying not only climate reparations but even finances to the poorest of countries that are trying to provide their people with subsistence-level energy.
It is clear we have no future if we do not stop the continued emission of greenhouse gases. But if we do not also find a path for the poorer countries to meet their minimum energy needs, we will also see the collapse of vast swathes of these countries. Do we think we can live with countries in sub-Saharan Africa living on 1/90th the energy consumption of the United States without consequences for all of us?
Modi and his followers may believe we are on the way to becoming a developed country, even a superpower. The fact is, in energy terms, we are closer to Africa than China or the club of the rich, the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom. Addressing climate without energy justice is only a new version of colonialism, even if it is clothed in green. Ramachandran calls this out for what it is when he says, “Pursuing climate ambitions on the backs of the poorest people in the world is not just hypocritical—it is immoral, unjust, and green colonialism at its worst.”