Energy infrastructure needs to be seriously rethought if global warming targets are to be met, research published in the journal Nature reveals in a stark warning.
Last year, a groundbreaking report issued by the UN body on climate change announced that “rapid, [far-reaching] and unprecedented changes” are necessary if the pace of global warming is to be limited to 1.5℃ in the coming decades. A transition away from energy infrastructure reliant on fossil fuels is an integral part of such changes – but continued emissions of carbon dioxide from existing plants and proposals for even more to be built in the coming years could impede much-needed progress.
“Recent decades have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of historically long-lived fossil fuel energy infrastructure,” the paper said. This, it adds, is “particularly associated with rapid economic development and industrialisation of emerging markets such as China and India”, which has been especially pronounced since the turn of the century. Globally, fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure commissioned after 2004 account for 49 percent of the total such infrastructure worldwide. In India, however, such units account for 69 percent of the country’s total.
“This is not to say that fossil fuel plants are not in decline. In the example of coal, the number of plants which have commenced development has fallen worldwide by 84 percent since 2015. Nonetheless, 36,158 coal-burning power plants are under construction in India alone – and even if no fossil fuel-based power plants are ever built again, the world still has a long way to go.”
The paper does go on to note that the rate of such expansion has slowed in India since 2014, with the country’s ratification of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change representing a major step towards the country’s acknowledgment of its responsibilities in the fight against global warming and climate change. However, whether India’s commitments are enough to help the world reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 in order to limit global warming remains to be seen.
The report does note that India accounts for a smaller proportion of “committed” carbon dioxide emissions than China (accounting for 41 percent of the world total). However, the country’s existing and proposed infrastructure is still expected to contribute 57 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide – assuming that existing fossil fuel-burning infrastructure continues to operate and be used as it has in the past and that any proposed infrastructure is built and operates accordingly. In total, existing and proposed fossil fuel-burning energy infrastructure is estimated, or “committed” as the study puts it, to emit 846 Gt of CO2, exceeding the carbon budget (referring to the permissible level of carbon emissions to keep temperatures to 1.5℃ or lower).
This is not to say that fossil fuel plants are not in decline. In the example of coal, the number of plants which have commenced development has fallen worldwide by 84 percent since 2015. Nonetheless, 36,158 coal-burning power plants are under construction in India alone – and even if no fossil fuel-based power plants are ever built again, the world still has a long way to go as the study points out.
“We would have a reasonable chance of achieving the 1.5℃ target with…a global prohibition of all new CO2-emitting devices – including many or most of the already proposed fossil fuel-burning power plants,” the report says. In addition, it adds, “substantial reductions in the historical lifetimes and/or utilisation of already existing industry and electricity infrastructure. Barring such radical changes, the global climate change goals adopted in the Paris Agreement are already in jeopardy.”
“This makes it a matter of necessity that we rethink energy infrastructure. India is increasing its efforts to increase its green energy capacity, which is projected to account for half of its total energy capacity addition by 2030. Yet, by 2050, net-zero emissions will require significant investments.”
For India, the ramifications of climate change will be far-reaching and disastrous. As Health Issues India noted at the time of the UN 1.5℃ report being released, extreme temperature rises will lend themselves to agricultural devastation and groundwater depletion; increasingly severe patterns of inclement weather; and mass displacement owing to natural disasters such as flooding caused by rising sea levels. In a nation reeling from deadly heatwaves, water scarcity, and the submerging of megacities due to extreme rainfall, climate crisis warnings have rarely been any more salient and calls to action never more commanding.
Failing to adhere to this will have even more disastrous consequences. A 3℃ rise would displace as many as 600 million people and cost India 2.8 percent of its gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.
This makes it a matter of necessity that we rethink energy infrastructure. India is increasing its efforts to increase its green energy capacity, which is projected to account for half of its total energy capacity addition by 2030. Yet, by 2050, net-zero emissions will require significant investments.
Politicians in the Rajya Sabha have recently raised concerns over the climate crisis, accusing the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javedakar of prioritising industry over the environment. Javedakar denied the accusations and blamed the developed world for climate woes, but this is not borne out by reality. India’s rapid industrialisation and consequent increases in emissions of greenhouse gases as well as adherence to outdated schemes and policy changes more incremental than transformative are holding the nation back in combating its environmental crisis. Without facing up to the reality of the environmental crisis and acknowledging the fact that it is a long-term issue requiring long-term management, India will continue to feel the heat for years to come to the detriment of its economy and its citizens.
The study, “Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5℃ climate target”, can be accessed here.