Earth Overshoot: decarbonising, detoxing energy mix

Vehicles ply slowly on a road as the weather turns hazy, in New Delhi. PTI

We hit Earth Overshoot Day on August 1 this year. It’s not something to celebrate, but something to mourn as it demonstrates our copious consumption patterns. It’s the day of the year when we run out of our annual “allocated” natural resources and borrow from the resources of future generations. We reached this earlier than ever before in 2018, and for the rest of the year, we live in “ecological debt.” This “debt” is calculated by the Global Footprint Network in collaboration with the World Wide Fund for Nature from United Nations data. Basically, the planet’s population’s annual consumption would require 1.7 times the earth’s natural resources.

Actually speaking, the developing world’s consumption patterns and ecological footprint can help reduce this ecological debt, because if world consumption was like that of, say, India’s, we’d need only 0.7 times the earth’s allocated annual resources, and will not overshoot. The problem with the lifestyle of the ‘Global South’ is the inequity in the distribution of resources, that is, huge proportions of the population live below the poverty line and consume a pathetic fraction of what they need to survive, as well as the over-dependence on cheap but polluting energy sources, that is, the fossil fuel menace.

To preserve our planet’s resources for posterity and to protect the environment, consumption patterns need to change in developed nations and urban populations, as well as among the world’s rich wherever they might be. In addition, to avoid the tipping point of irreversible climate change, we need to consciously decarbonise the economy across the planet.

India and other developing nations have the opportunity to leapfrog to cleaner energy and cleaner and more efficient technologies as they work to bring resources to the below poverty line, rural, tribal and indigenous populations. India’s vast power grid is fuelled by a toxic brew and it’s in our national interest to clean up and move towards clean energy sources. Karnataka, an early adopter and a global leader in renewable energy capacity, can show the rest of the country the path to clean energy adoption.

Karnataka has a 12.3GW renewable energy capacity, including massive solar energy plants, hundreds of turbines generating wind energy, solar-wind hybrid farms and hydro-electric and biomass energy generation, according to the World Economic Forum. Karnataka leads nationally in renewable energy generation and exceeds the installed capacity of European renewable energy specialists and early adopters such as Denmark and the Netherlands (7.8GW and 7.7GW respectively).

A country’s energy mix is “a group of different primary energy sources from which secondary energy for direct use -- usually electricity -- is produced.” In India and across most countries, fossil fuels are the main stay. It’s a toxic energy mix and positive climate action means taking fossil fuels out of the energy mix and opting for clean yet affordable energy sources. A move to decarbonise the economy and a nation’s power sector means significant achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 7 and 13 -- Clean and Affordable Energy Access and Climate Action, respectively.

High-efficiency low-emission tech

India is tackling a major air pollution crisis. Removing coal and thermal power plants as the mainstay of our electricity grid and adopting high-efficiency low-emission (HELE) technologies such as supercritical and ultra-supercritical combustion technologies in the phasing out coal period would drastically help reach India’s climate commitments.

The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) exploration projects, petroleum and coal mining and refining come with massive societal and environmental costs. Civil unrest as well as pollution of land, water and air are toxic by-products of the economy’s thirst for fossil fuels.

As the recent ONGC exploration clearance in the Eastern Ghats and off Ramanathapuram as well as older reports of coal reserves in Odisha and Jharkhand show, accessing it would mean massive deforestation of prime virgin forests as well as interruption of ecologically sensitive zones, biospheres and watershed forests.

Bird sanctuaries and the ecological hotspot of the Gulf of Mannar will be disrupted for the sake of ONGC exploration which, in the end, means adding to “stranded assets” for the state-owned enterprise while devastating the environment, creating ill-will among local populations and investing billions in a project that wouldn’t yield a return if international climate commitments are to be honoured.

As the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment puts it, to limit global warming to below two degrees as promised in the Paris agreement, existing fossil fuel reserves should be kept in the ground and definitely, if extracted, cannot be burnt — which means stranded assets, or the devaluation of resources that took billions to extract and refine. In addition, we cannot afford to lose any more carbon traps such as virgin forest lands. We need to avoid any kind of deforestation to avoid climate calamity, as the flood-drought cycle and the vicious forest fires across the country and the planet give a foretaste of!

Already, fuel prices in India are pinching middle-class pockets, the time is right to innovate for clean fuels and clean power. Electric and hybrid vehicles, jugaad and innovations making petrol and diesel engines of existing vehicles into hybrids or completely electric affordably should be incentivised to address air pollution and climate change.

Decarbonisation should be the development mantra. By making clean energy sources such as small hydel, wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-energy, tidal power and offshore and onshore hybrid renewables, the mainstay of the grid, while promoting off-grid and grid-connected individual solutions such as rooftop solar power as well as rooftop wind energy, we can tackle multiple issues while generating jobs and promoting Indian energy start-ups. This is the much-needed Sustainable Development.

(The writer is a Chennai-based writer and sustainable development consultant)

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Earth Overshoot: decarbonising, detoxing energy mix

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