Hot air

  • Ramped up exploration and use of fossil fuels make a mockery of countries’ climate plans
- Navin Singh Khadka
Hot air

Apr 9, 2015-

Studying the science of climate change needs quite a wide window period; its politics does not. The past few weeks have showcased just how intense an economy-driven political issue it can be.

Climate plans

First came the one-after-another submissions by 34 countries of their voluntary plans to cut carbon emissions in the fight against climate change. Known as the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), in the jargon of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they were supposed to be submitted by March 31, an informal deadline missed by most of the 197 member-countries.

The most talked about was the submission by the US—the second largest greenhouse gas emitter—in which it committed to cut down emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. But barely one day after the US’ climate plan came the report that US President Barack Obama’s administration had approved the restart of drilling in the Alaskan Arctic for oil by Shell. Production from the resource-rich and ecologically super-sensitive area is expected to reach 400,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

The decision to allow Shell back into Alaska will surely hasten other nations to tap their Arctic resources. Several rich countries have been criticised for subsidising fossil fuel companies by tens of billions of dollars to explore new reserves. According to the British think tank, the Overseas Development Institute, and the Washington-based Oil Change International, the US provided companies with $5.2 billion for fossil fuel exploration in 2013; Australia gave $3.5 billion; Russia $2.4 billion; and the UK $1.2 billion.

The world’s total energy demand is predicted to increase by 37 percent over the next 25 years and without new reserves, some warn, it could face a catastrophic shortfall in oil and gas, even as renewables are seen to be quite promising.

Still funding coal

Given all that, Washington reapproving drilling in the Alaskan Arctic did not come as a big surprise. But what did astound many was the news about a global body created to financially help developing countries switch to clean energy and adapt to unavoidable climatic changes. The Guardian reported last week that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) had decided that it could spend its money on coal-fired power plants. It said that the fund’s board meeting had refused an explicit ban on fossil fuel projects.

“It’s like a torture convention that doesn’t forbid torture,” the newspaper quoted one of the meeting attendants, Friends of the Earth campaigner Karen Orenstein, as having said.

The GCF has been promoted as the largest fund to help poor countries fight against climate change and is expected to get $100 billion every year by 2020, when a global climate treaty—scheduled to be signed in Paris in December—comes into force. The fund recently announced that it had selected seven international agencies to channel money, but it also pointed out that only one percent of the committed around $10 billion had been received. It had just made the point, which won it increasing support, when the news broke that it would also be financing power plants that burn coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

Amid mounting criticism against the decision, there are concerns that major economies with coal and other fossil fuels as their primary energy base will now get money from the GCF. If that happens, not only will the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide trap heat and cause climate change but will also cause local and regional air pollution.

The brunt of that double whammy will have to be borne by countries like Nepal—and by extension the entire South Asia region—which not only faces climate change-related risks like floods, landslides, drought, and wildfire but is also troubled by dangerous polluted air, mainly from India.

Toxic air also means that particles like soot and black carbon from fossil fuels that don’t burn completely will accelerate glacial meltdown and reportedly disturb monsoon rainfall patterns in the region. A World Health Organisation study last year declared New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world and there are no significant signs of change yet, although India has announced an ambitious plan to generate 100,000 MW of solar power by 2022.

Meanwhile, India’s coal consumption is set to see a graphic rise, with its production to double to one billion tonnes annually within five years to provide electricity to poor people and ratchet up development works. Figures show India has 118 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants are under construction or have been approved and is commissioning 20 gigawatts of new such plants every year.

What is worrying environmentalists is that even donor countries like Japan are helping India build coal-fired power plants and they could do so through the GCF now. The recent GCF coal-investment exposé also brought to light Japan’s controversial ‘climate financing’ for coal-powered plants in Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh. The Japanese government has said that the projects pollute less than older coal-fired plants. Scientists have said over 80 percent of coal, 50 percent of gas, and 30 percent of oil reserves will have to be left in the ground if the world is to limit temperature rise to two degrees, compared to the pre-industrial age, to avoid dangerous climate change.

Missing the target

Fresh warnings, however, say that the threshold will not be enough to keep climatic changes under control. Small island states and least developed countries that have their blocs in UN climate negotiations have long stood for a 1.5 degree rise target. But the call has fallen on deaf ears and Nepal was criticised for not pushing this enough when it chaired the LDC bloc until last year.

And now with some economies having ramped up exploration and use of fossil fuels—just when others are submitting their climate plans—the two-degree target looks all set to be a miss.

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London

Published: 10-04-2015 08:45

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