Climate change: Focus on CO2 may hurt mitigation efforts

climate change mitigation
Nations can get better results in climate change mitigation efforts by targeting methane that has 20 times higher heat trapping ability compared with CO2.

COP26 and Climate Change mitigation: “The environment and the economy are two sides of a coin. If we cannot sustain the environment, we cannot sustain ourselves.” This quote from renowned Kenyan environmental activist Wangarĩ Maathai who is the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize, aptly explains the need for saving the planet from climate change. The effects of climate change have cascading effects on key economic sectors such as agriculture and water resources. So, while we debate issues related to climate change, its implications on the global and national economy emerge at the forefront.

The UN Emissions Gap Report 2021 launched on October 26 2021, warned that there is a 50% chance that global warming will exceed 1.5°C in the next two decades. In the worst-case scenario, with no large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C or even 2°C by the end of the century will be impossible. The Paris Agreement gave the world a clear target to reduce the global CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels and reach net zero by 2050 to avoid temperature rise beyond 1.5°C.

To limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 should be around 350 ppm. The actual level of CO2 concentration was way beyond this limit at 419 ppm, as was recorded in May 2021 by Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory located in the Pacific Ocean. The reading shows an increase of 104 ppm since accurate measurements began in 1958 and is the highest so far. The situation is alarming and the only viable option is to reduce emissions and let the natural carbon sinks do their job, since the technology developed to extract carbon from the atmosphere and transfer it to soil has not reached the required efficiency to cope with the current levels of emissions.

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Global efforts on climate change

As world leaders, government negotiators, climate experts, campaigners and other stakeholders assembled and discussed pressing issues at COP26 in Glasgow, the focus was on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) for greenhouse gas emission reductions. They also deliberated on policies and measures through which the governments will achieve the targets set out in the Paris Agreement. Regrettably, the global leaders could not offer clear pledges backed by time-bound plans on securing global net zero carbon emissions by mid-century to limit global warming at 1.5°C degrees and mobilizing finance to achieve the same.

The conference was extended for a day as diplomats and experts engaged themselves in wordplay to reach a consensus on the final statement. In the end, individual national interests appeared to have taken precedence over collective responsibility. The statement by the UN chief admits that the summit did not achieve its goals. The young climate activist Greta Thunberg was not very far from the truth when she said that COP turned into a PR event, where leaders were giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets without any drastic climate action.

For some small island nations, climate action is a matter of life and death and they sought to send an SOS message to the world for urgent action. The rise in sea level in the past few decades has already swallowed five atolls of the Solomon Islands. The foreign minister of Tuvalu, a tiny group of South Pacific islands, highlighted the urgency for climate action by delivering a speech to COP26 standing knee-deep in seawater. The Marshall Islands, which are only 2m above sea level, is among the most threatened countries.

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Gauging successes of Glasgow summit

The outcome document is known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, though a forward-looking statement, reflected a sort of lacklustre attitude as it fell short of actions needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degree. It also failed to commit to the elimination of coal, after a last-minute suggestion from countries like India, Iran and China to replace “phase out” with “phase down” for unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies in the draft.

To overcome the shortcomings in NDCs, COP26’s final statement requested governments to revisit and strengthen their NDCs before the end of 2022 to bring them in line with the Paris Agreement’s goals. However, a commitment by about 50 countries to accelerate a transition away from unabated coal power generation by 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement provided a silver lining in an otherwise unfulfilling COP26. The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) was launched at the summit to push for an end to fossil fuel extraction, but it doesn’t have the support of major oil and gas producers.

If we go by the statements made at COP26, 120 countries as of September 30 2021 have made net zero pledges in the last two years. If such pledges are implemented, the Independent Energy Agency believes that global warming could be limited to 1.8°C, which would be a remarkable achievement. But there is a question mark on such NDCs as many of these are not backed by a credible plan.

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Interventions other than CO2 reduction

In addition to the burning of fossil fuels, other activities also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions like agriculture and land use changes such as deforestation, certain industrial processes like cement production, landfilling of wastes and refrigeration. Out of the above, agriculture, deforestation, and other land use changes have been the second-largest contributor to emissions of greenhouse gases other than CO2, specifically methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), produced from biological activities linked to bacterial decomposition in cropland soil and livestock’s digestive systems.

Policymakers often ignore the role of other greenhouse gases in global warming when working on mitigation measures. CO2 remains the largest contributor, accounting for around 74.4% of total emissions, as compared to other gases like methane (17.3%), nitrous oxide (6.2%) and others like HFCs and CFCs.

Though methane is produced in substantially smaller amounts, its role in global warming cannot be ignored as its heat trapping ability is more than twenty times that of CO2. This property of CH4, along with its shorter life in the atmosphere compared to CO2, means that any effort to reduce CH4 will have a quicker impact on global warming. The nature of nitrous oxide is also similar to CH4 in terms of life, but it has a much stronger effect. Therefore, information covering CH4 and NO2 emissions is important to assess their impact on global warming and prioritise strategies for its mitigation.

Proper data management key to success in climate action

Keeping in view variable factors, a need for accurate and reliable GHG emission data is emphasized for effective design and implementation of policies and action plans for achieving net zero. Obtaining near correct and best available data is the most challenging job for making estimates that are as realistic and reliable. Even in advanced countries, only a relatively low percentage of companies (around 35%) are reporting CO2 emission data. Different industrial sectors have different usage of fossil fuels and energy consumption patterns that makes estimation more tedious.

In respect of GHGs from agriculture, getting accurate data on methane and nitrous oxide from land use and waste is more difficult as it varies from place to place depending on the location, soil nature and farming practices followed. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, hence proper data management for GHG gas emission is of utmost importance to develop appropriate solutions targeting our unique needs and requirements, based on financial, and technical capability.

Role of transportation industry

The transportation sector is the cause of around 23% of the energy-related CO2 emissions leading to global warming and its growth in its contribution has been faster than those of any other sector during the last 50 years. If no corrective action is taken, its share could increase to 40% by 2030 as per estimates by International Transport Federation. COP26 failed to make significant advancement in the decarbonisation of the transport industry despite a clear warning in the UNFCC Report that the GHG emission from the sector is likely to double by 2050 from the level of 2010 unless corrective actions are taken. An announcement by Boris Johnson to end the sale of all petrol and diesel-fuelled cars by 2030 took even the industry by surprise.

Another group of twenty-four countries and leading car manufacturers including Ford, Mercedes, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz also committed to ending the era of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles by 2040 or earlier. However, major car-manufacturing nations such as China, the US, Germany, and France all refused to sign up. If we intend to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050, the transportation sector will have to work on electric-powered vehicles, engine efficiency improvements, and decarbonisation of the power generation using low-carbon fuels.

Climate finance

The discussions on the most important and contentious issue of climate finance remained inconclusive and the final statement urged the developed countries to do much more to address the needs of climate-vulnerable developing countries. On the $100 billion annual climate finance pledge by the developed countries, there was no clarity on the amount to be mobilized or the time frame for achieving the same. The larger responsibility of wealthy nations emanates from sound scientific data of the past, and not just because they have funds and technology to deal effectively with the crisis.

The GHGs, in particular CO2, have a long life in the atmosphere stretching up to 150-200 years. Thus, the gases emitted in the year 1870 would still be there and warming the earth’s climate. The magnitude of investments needed to achieve the climate goals is not possible from public funds only and additional resources must be mobilised for developing countries with scarce financial resources. Several risks and barriers make it difficult for the private sector to invest in climate adaptation and mitigation plans, and an appropriate policy intervention by the governments is needed to provide the necessary support to businesses to get over these by creating an enabling environment.

India’s action plan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a five-point action plan to deal with the climate challenge in India including taking its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030, meeting 50% of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030, and achieving the target of net zero by the year 2070 which took the world by surprise. The target of meeting around 50% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030 marks an upward shift in the target, as earlier India was aiming to have 40% of the total installed capacity by 2030 based on non-fossil fuel sources.

The targets announced in Glasgow by Modi are creditable and bold. Although for lack of details like whether this covers all greenhouse gases or just CO2, it is difficult to examine its feasibility at this stage. Currently, India, the world’s third‐largest energy-consuming country, meets 80% of the energy demand consuming coal, oil, and solid biomass. Although India’s current energy use and emissions are less than half the world average on a per capita basis, its growing industry, urbanisation, and transport sector will need more energy from fossil fuels further pushing the CO2 emissions by 50% in 2040. Despite these challenges, the task for India to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2070 is not impossible but will be arduous and challenging.

If India meets the target set for the generation of energy from renewable sources at 500 GW by 2030 and reduces carbon emission by one billion tonne between now and 2030, it would be on right track to achieve the net zero by 2070. It would also be advisable not to rely much on energy generation using hydrogen and hydropower as both harm environment. While more than 90% of the hydrogen produced globally requires the processing of natural gas, coal, or oil (all fossil fuels) contributing to GHG emissions, the setting up of large hydropower plants, mega-dams/reservoirs have so many harmful environmental effects and are far from green.

With time, the drowned vegetation decomposes and the natural process of decaying plants drowned releases methane, a greenhouse gas, thus defeating the very purpose. As per data of CEA, in terms of GWh of energy, the thermal power plants contributed 79%, hydropower 9.8% while renewable sources added only 9.2% in 2018-19. Accordingly, there is a need to work out a plan using appropriate technology for generating capacity addition keeping in view environmental concerns without compromising developmental needs. Sharing technology with the small developing countries to help them find low-cost remedial measures for climate action will help India win friends and influence countries.

Climate change is a global problem and has to be tackled collectively. Besides climate change issue, India faces various other environmental challenges resulting from increasing population, urbanisation, and industrialisation like water quality of our rivers, loss of aquatic life, contamination of groundwater, soil degradation, shrinking forests, and last but not the least the air pollution in cities due to particulate matter 2.5. It has not only reduced the ecological quality, but also causes major disease, health issues, and impact on livelihood. India needs to catch up with developed nations concerning the environmental quality enjoyed by them.

The Union and state governments have enacted several laws to ensure protection to the environment. However, the implementation of laws leaves much to be desired for lack of political and social will. According to IQAir, a Switzerland-based climate group, there are three cities from India on the list of 10 cities with the worst air quality indices with Delhi topping the list. Another study confirms that nearly 60% of all districts in the country have issues related to either availability of groundwater, or quality of groundwater, or both, while about 70% of surface water resources in India are polluted and unfit for consumption mainly due to discharge of untreated or partially treated sewage from cities/towns and industrial effluents.

The Ganga and Yamuna are considered the two most polluted rivers in the world even after 35 years since the first initiative to clean the Ganga was launched. Our track record in tackling river or air pollution have been far from satisfactory and thus, our bold and ambitious target for achieving net-zero carbon emission by 2070 is likely to be treated with scepticism unless affirmative measures are undertaken and tangible positive results are seen in terms of improvement in quality of air and surface water across the country in the coming years. Let us hope that India surprises the world again by rolling out a definite plan and regulatory framework to accomplish the bold target it has set for itself.

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Krishna Kumar Sinha is an industrial policy and FDI expert based in New Delhi. His last assignment was as an industrial adviser in the department of industrial policy and promotion, DIPP, currently known as DPIIT, under the ministry of commerce and industry of the government of India.

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