Why are GHGs being emitted? It is not because of the lack of evidence about the sources of GHGs, increasing emission levels, or their harmful impact. For 250 years, fossil fuels have propelled industrialisation with their high energy density. The technology to extract, store, transport and distribute fossil fuels is strongly entrenched.
The backbone of modern economies such as transportation, manufacturing of steel, pig iron, ammonia, cement, plastic, rubber and other chemicals are dependent on use of fossil fuel as feedstock or fuel. Widespread government subsidies ($5.2 trillion in 2017 according to the IMF) continue to support fossil fuels. With such massive inertia in our energy system, how can transformative change be achieved?
Over the past few years, improvements in technology like wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries have expanded the share of renewable energy in modern energy grids. More renewable energy can help make industrial processes less carbon intensive. Increased penetration of electrical vehicles can help decarbonize transportation if energy is supplied by renewable sources.
De-coupling of GDP and energy consumption and efficiency in energy use can mitigate GHG emissions, but such options are limited to mostly developed countries. Carbon dioxide capture and storage technology need much more research for scaling. Conservation and expanded forest cover, sustainable agriculture, solid waste management, water conservation, managing of forest fire, etc. are other measures, but each has its own social and political challenges. Overall these structural constraints limit immediate ‘transition’ of the global energy system to a less carbon-intensive one.
While the US and other developed western countries share the responsibility of highest cumulative emission historically, China and India have become first and third largest annual emitters of GHGs respectively. Those two countries and developed countries must make strong national commitments to curb emission.
Other developing countries must also begin transitioning to a greener future, with technology, knowledge and financial support from developed countries and investors for mitigation and adaptation committed under the Paris Agreement. Marginal and low-income families will need social support so that they can stay resilient in face of more climate-induced disasters. Just transition and climate justice must be part of conversations for economists and financiers.
The kind of climate action needed for the decarbonisation of the global energy system must begin today. Governments making strict commitments to allocate a percent of the annual GDP for transiting to clean energy and supportive adaptation actions can be good starting points.
At the same time, private investors with resources that overshadow government’s allocation must contribute to the decarbonisation process while industries expedite transition to clean energy uses. At international level, GHG reduction compliance must be monitored carefully with periodic assessments.
Ajaya Dixit is Senior Advisor of Kathmandu-based ISET Nepal.
Monirul Q Mirza is an Adjunct Professor at University of Toronto Scarborough and an IPCC author.