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Renewables revolution: Lowest rungs of societal ladder should be of primary focus

Shankar Sharma, Power & Climate Policy Analyst, writes to Mr. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General, United Nations, on the topic “The need of the hour: A renewables revolution”:
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This has reference to an opinion piece, “The need of the hour: A renewables revolution”, carried under your name in Indian media.
I congratulate you for the relentless and highly credible advocacy on Climate Change, and for urging the global societies to move away from the over dependence on fossil fuels. While it is entirely true that the future of humanity is intricately linked to how the renewable energy sources (REs) are effectively used in our lives, there are also some critical factors which are not being discussed in the mainstream media, but which will have an effective bearing on how we use them.
Please permit me to elaborate a bit in this regard.
1. Most of the articles on the analysis of Climate Change (especially those emanating from the industrialised world) can be said to be guilty of focusing only on one issue i.e energy. They all seem to focus only on different technologies to meet the insatiable global demand for energy. A holistic and systemic approach to the phenomenon of Climate Change should reveal that this phenomenon has many other components to worry about as well, in addition to fossil fuel-based energy systems. It is not just the transformation of energy scenario alone, which is required. We need an entirely different paradigm to the way we view the nature around us: such as true health of critical elements of nature- forests, rivers, air, soil, biodiversity etc.
2. Even if we assume that the political willingness across the world will allow the possibility of moving over to 100% renewable energy (RE) based scenarios by 2050/60, it may not suffice. The enormous number of solar PV modules, wind turbines, batteries, bio-energy units, geo-thermal units, hydropower units, computers, control systems, communication systems, protection systems, energy meters, associated transmission and distribution systems etc. required for such a scenario, with a business-as-usual approach up to 2050/60, will be so much overwhelming that we may end up being the losers anyway. Because, the total energy required by 2050/60 at the global level would have reached such high levels, if we continue with the energy demand growth rate as it is now (which may mean a CAGR of 3 to 5% between now and 2050). The need for natural resources to manufacture and deploy all these elements of the energy sector by 2050/60 can be so high that we may simply run out of them; the fossil fuel energy required in the processes such as mining, purification, processing, transporting etc. to reach even 100% RE scenario, can be unimaginatively high; and the pollution/ contamination/ wastages associated can become unmanageable.
3. Even if the global energy demand growth rate between now and 2050 is assumed to grow only @ 1% CAGR, the total energy demand can increase by about 100% as compared to that of the demand today. Even to meet this much energy demand the global economy has to manufacture an enormous number of appliances/ gadgets/ machineries (to generate and distribute commercial forms of energy such as solar power, wind energy, bioenergy, hydel power etc.). Such a vast economic activity alone at the global scale will require the mining and processing of large quantities of the ores of iron, copper, aluminium and many kinds of rare earth minerals, which in turn will require large amounts of energy, most of which may have to come from conventional technology energy sources such as coal power technology for many more years from now. Hence by 2050, the total CO2 emissions (or the total GHG emissions) would have gone much beyond 450 PPM as against the desired level of 350 PPM. And the CO2, which would have been accumulating in the atmosphere during this period, will last for many decades. The ability of various natural eco-systems to control the temperature rise would have been severely curtailed by then. Many of the natural processes, such as glacier melting and ocean acidification, would have become irreversible. The forests and vegetation cover would have to come down considerably, and the pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil may have exceeded all limits.
4. Hence, there is a critical need to urgently contain the galloping energy demand at the global level to a level where it can be sustainably met, and which is equitably made available to all sections of the global community. This can be achieved by providing massive focus on: (i) highest levels of efficiency at every stage/ segment of energy production, transformation/ storage, transmission, distribution and utilisation; (ii) optimum levels of demand side management; (iii) imaginative methods of energy conservation.
5. Your article has also stated: "Fossil fuels are the cause of the climate crisis". But in the larger context of Climate Change, it will not be an oversimplification to state that the problem of Climate Change can be summarised as the over-exploitation of our natural resources in meeting the ever increasing demand for "materials" and "energy". Hence, it goes without saying that the holistic approach to satisfactorily address the Climate Change should be to restrict the global demand for materials and energy at a level where they can fully be supported by nature on a sustainable basis. In this context, the term energy should refer to any form of energy; including various forms of renewable energy, and not just fossil fuels. So, a limitless demand for renewable energy also will be unsustainable. Hence, it should also become evidently clear that we cannot achieve the goal of satisfactorily addressing the threats of Climate Change, if we continue with the BAU scenario, which demands ever increasing supplies of energy, which in turn is a clear consequence of a high GDP growth rate paradigm.
6. It is also well known that a MW equivalent of RE generating capacity will generate, on an average, less than half of annual energy as compared to that of the same MW capacity of a conventional technology power plant, but will require a lot more land area for the associated infrastructure. Hence, a 100% RE dependent scenario will also need diversion of vastly more forest and agricultural lands than otherwise. This fact cannot be ignored either.
7. Indefinitely pursued high GDP growth rate scenario, which can be seen as the primary causative factor of Climate Change, will mean the manufacture of products and provision of services at an ever increasing pace leading to: setting up of more factories/ manufacturing facilities; consumption of large quantities of raw materials such as iron, steel, cement, chemicals etc.; increasing an unsustainable demand for natural resources such as land, water, sand, minerals, timber etc.; acute pressure on the Government to divert agricultural/ forest lands; huge demand for various forms of energy (petroleum products, coal, electricity etc.); accelerated urban migration; clamor for more of airports, airlines, hotels, shopping malls, private vehicles, express highways etc. A vast increase in each of these activities, while increasing the total greenhouse gas (GHG, responsible for global warming) emissions, will also add up to reduce the overall ability of natural carbon sinks such as forests and water bodies to absorb GHG emissions. There will also be increased pollution of land, air and water along with huge issues of managing the solid, liquid and gaseous wastes.
8. In this larger context, it is relevant to note that a World Bank report of June 2013, with the title “Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges, Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: What Are the Trade-offs?”, has highlighted how the environment has massively suffered in India consequent to the previous decade of rapid economic growth. Also worthy of notice can be: UN’s Cocoyoc Declaration (Mexico, 1974), and the report “Prosperity without growth? - The transition to a sustainable economy” by the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which was the UK Government's independent adviser on sustainable development.
Hence, may I submit that keeping in an objective consideration very many associated issues, such as the above ones, the global objective for a sustainable future for humankind (SDGs?) should have the primary focus on those economic activities to meet the essential needs of the communities at the lowest rung of our societal ladder - essential needs such as water, food, shelter, health infrastructure, education, employment opportunities et.? All other aspects of the so-called 'human development' can be taken care of automatically with such a paradigm focus. Such a changed developmental paradigm will require unwavering global focus on those economic activities which will not lead to further diversion of forest/ agricultural lands; which will not demand a lot of water, materials and energy; which will not lead to pollution of land, air and water; and which will lead to sustainable harnessing of our natural resources, while providing large number of job opportunities.
May I request the Secretariat of the UN and all other agencies of the UN to provide adequate focus on such an approach in all their advocacies and actions?
I am an electrical engineer, and a power sector professional with over 4 decades of experience in India, New Zealand and Australia. It will be my pleasure to be of any modest service in providing suitable clarification to the UN in this regard.

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