Climate change is no longer an abstract and remote concept. Unseasonal rains, debilitating drought, excessive floods, devastating cyclones and storms are warning signals to humankind.
When a similar phenomenon surfaced nearly three decades ago, the global community cobbled a cohesive and co-ordinated response. Three scientists working independently linked the `hole in the ozone layer' to CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) from refrigeration, air-conditioning, sprays, and foams. They said that the resultant ultraviolet radiation could lead to increase in skin cancer. As many as 150 countries came together to sign and ratify the Montreal Protocol, which effectively caps and arrests CFC release into the atmosphere. The ozone hole over the Antarctic (which had already shrunk by 20 per cent by 2004) is expected to return to its original form in 50 years.
The response of the world community to global warming has been disappointing. The Kyoto Protocol is, at best, a feeble mechanism to combat climate change. All it asks of the developed world is a modest reduction in six key greenhouse gases by 5 per cent below 1990 levels by the year 2012. According to scientists, even if the current Kyoto targets are met, global temperatures will rise at least by a few degrees with the attendant devastating consequences for vulnerable communities living along the coasts. This is not only because big polluters such as the United States and Australia have resolutely remained outside the Kyoto mechanism continuing to add substantially to the global carbon burden. Large and rapidly developing countries such as Brazil, China, and India are adding their own considerable trail of carbon to what Australian climatologist Tim Flannery calls the aerial ocean, accelerating global warming.
Energy is the driver of the global economy. Humankind has become overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuel consumption not just for development but for its very survival. Towns and cities require commercial energy not only to run their factories, cars, trains, buses, planes, and ships, but also to pump water to their high-rise offices and homes. Multi-trillion-dollar global businesses have been built around fossil fuels and industries that consume them. Millions of jobs depend on the production and consumption of commercial energy. In rural areas too, energy is critical to irrigate fields and light up rural homes, and, indeed, to the food security.
Globalization and Climate
Globalization and its attendant reliance on mobility of goods and persons has now become ineluctably entrenched and created an interdependent world. Satellite television that bombards images of how the other half lives has raised aspirations that are difficult to contain. We now live in a world that will have to sink or swim together.
For billions of people who live in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, gaining access to a modicum of commercial energy is indeed the key to survival with human dignity. Yet they are faced with the dilemma of environment versus development.
Mitigating climate change and achieving stabilization of greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations will require deep reductions in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. This is possible only if developing countries have unrestricted access to clean energy technologies.
While, on the one hand, the forces of globalization have dismantled trade barriers between nations, they have also erected new barriers in the form of intellectual property rights and patents, which effectively block developing countries' access to clean energy technologies. Emissions from today's developed world is the main culprit behind rising global temperatures but richer nations of the world do not consider it their duty to make available clean technologies to the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America to enable them move to a cleaner growth path.
Developed countries possess considerable clean energy technologies that are commercially viable. A handful of multinationals — Areva, Westinghouse, and GE — hold the key to contemporary nuclear reactor technologies. A Canadian company has commercialized a turbine that generates electricity from ocean currents — one of the largest untapped renewable energy resource in the world with an estimated potential of 450,000 megawatts.
Of all clean energy technologies, those that burn coal in a clean manner are the ones most relevant to developing countries such as India, China and many in Africa endowed with relatively abundant quantities of this fuel, which, unfortunately, has also the highest carbon content among fossil fuels. Coal-fuelled electricity generation accounts for half of all carbon emissions in the world. In India, for instance, it accounts for over two thirds of all its electricity generation capacity. In conventional coal-fuelled plants, the fuel is burnt inefficiently so much so that less than a third of its energy content gets converted into electricity. By increasing the efficiency of coal use and simultaneously sequestering carbon from coal, India and China can transit to a clean growth trajectory.
Multinationals have a range of commercially tested technologies that can help burn coal more efficiently and sequester carbon safely but developing countries struggling to resolve the tension between development and environment can’t access or afford them. Developing countries must lobby to access these technologies.
By Dr. Ravinder Rena
Eritrean Institute of Technology
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