Event summary by Larissa Nzikeu
This week’s event focused on India’s energy transition, with esteemed guest speakers Amitabh Kant and Professor Navroz. K Dubash leading the conversation. Mr Kant is CEO of the National Institute for Transforming India, whilst Professor Dubash is a leading figure at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, India.
Mr Kant began the conversation brimming with positivity and optimism at India’s progress in achieving its sustainability goals. Indeed, he pointed out that India is one of the few G20 countries on track to meet its Paris Agreements climate ambitions—such as achieving 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022. Mr Kant detailed the many achievements made throughout the course of India’s energy transition, highlighting, for example, that innovative and cutting-edge technology such as battery storage, ethanol blending, and solar pumps have already been implemented to promote energy efficiency schemes that facilitate India’s decarbonisation agenda.
Much progress has also been made at the fiscal and policy level to aid India's energy transition to renewables. For example, Mr Kant outlined India’s successful implementation of energy efficiency policies that promote green business models. This includes the aspirational goal of launching a mission to produce hydrogen fuel from green power sources. Also, a future 60-billion-dollar investment is set to be made to help the country transition to a gas-based economy, wherein such infrastructure as re-gasification terminals become the norm.
However, India’s energy transition is not perfect. Mr Kant discussed the challenges ahead, for example, in replacing the monopoly of state-run carbon-intensive power generation a more efficient and competitive distribution system which provides choice to consumers to opt for green services. Elaborating upon such challenges, Professor Dubash added that India’s energy transition is a rather complex and ‘multi-stranded process’. For instance, he argued that opting for sustainable models of development may cause a rise in carbon emissions in India - due in part to rising energy demands.
Professor Dubash noted that a just transition was critical, to minimise the social disruption caused by the shift from coal power shares of energy generation to renewables. In particular, he argued that substitutes will be needed to replace large revenues traditionally gained from fossil fuels in order to maintain India’s financial health. Likewise, the switch to renewables is likely to impact millions of Indian livelihoods heavily dependent on coal industries. Importantly, Professor Dubash stressed that social inequalities will be greatly exacerbated should the cross-subsidy system of the electricity sector be lost during the transition to solar power.
All is not doom and gloom. Both Professor Dubash and Mr Kant agreed that there is still much cause for optimism for India’s energy transition: it has great renewable energy capacity. However, the socio-economic strategies put in place to aid this transition must be kept under a watchful eye.
By Isabella Rathleff
China has, for the better part of the 21st Century, been a major subject of international climate-related scrutiny. Its industrial sector has, in the space of a couple of decades, experienced exponential growth, paired with the urbanisation and industrialisation of areas outside larger urban centres like Beijing and Shanghai. The result has been twofold: firstly, the country’s rapid pursuit and achievement of a significant degree of economic development, enabled by the advancement of various successful global industries; and secondly--perhaps more important than the first, particularly in a global context--is the effect this development has had on carbon emissions, both domestic and international.
In many ways, China has become the victim of its own ambition—its pursuit of economic development and influence has given it a powerful position in the global economy, but this position puts it squarely in the spotlight of global scrutiny with regard to, among other things, its contribution to climate change. Because large-scale industrialisation has taken place in China much later than in other major contributors to climate change—notably the US, the UK, and much of Western Europe—it consequently faces the difficult question of how to grow economically in a way that ensures an adequate standard of living for its large population but is also environmentally friendly.
The China Dialogue, in its assessment of Dr. Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li’s book China Goes Green, addresses the progress that the country has already made on this front, at least in terms of its international climate reputation. Over the past decade, the attitude of the Chinese government and officials towards addressing the climatic consequences of its recent economic triumphs has undergone a dramatic shift. In 2009, China was accused of “wrecking” the Copenhagen climate talks, earning itself widespread disdain as other countries attempted, to different degrees, to confront climate change. More recently, though, when the US withdrew from the Paris Accord in 2016, China did not follow suit as had been expected, and was resultantly heralded as an international leader on climate. And, in September of 2020, President Xi Jinping issued a statement setting out a list of climate goals, including to achieve peak carbon emissions by 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. However, conflicting opinions exist as to whether or not these goals—particularly the first, given its apparently direct conflict with the current state of industrial growth in China—are achievable.
When considered in a positive light, it can be easy to find examples of success with regard to China’s environmental performance. Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPEA) in Beijing points out that in 168 Chinese cities, the average concentration of airborne particulate pollution has fallen by around 1/3 since 2015. This, and other examples, demonstrate dramatic and extensive change in areas the government has shown itself to be particularly concerned with, such as air quality. This success has also been partially thanks to the work of increasing numbers of ENGOs (including the IPEA itself) which encourage large companies to address their carbon and pollution footprints.
Nonetheless, Bill McKibben argues in the National Geographic that the 2030 peak carbon goal is essentially unattainable, even if the government’s full action plan is put in place. He also argues that the 2060 neutrality goal would require significant changes to the proposed plan in order to be achieved. The fact of the matter is, China’s industrial, and, critically, consumer revolutions have really only just begun, and the process of further development and industrialisation presents an enormous challenge to the progress of climate-related efforts. China’s international growth, while on the one hand providing a wealth of resources for expensive carbon emissions reductions, is also an inhibiting factor which may ultimately prevent the country from reaching its ambitious goals within the timeframes set.
In their book, China Goes Green, Dr. Judith Shapiro & Yifei Li discuss the fact that the measures being implemented on a local level are authoritative, unhelpful and thus will ultimately be unsuccessful, a sentiment echoed by the World Economic Forum and the China Dialogue.
Ma Jun, in a recent Oxford Climate Society lecture, gave the example of recently introduced Shanghai recycling regulations which, since 2020 have compelled the city’s residents to recycle their waste in various appropriate bins at certain set ‘waste disposal’ hours. Compliance failures, including failing to dispose of recycling at the prescribed hour, can result in various social and economic punishments, such as damage to the non-complying citizen’s social credit score.
Dr. Shapiro argued that while the measure itself may seem, theoretically, to be helpful in terms of the waste-reduction goals which are part of the country’s emissions targets, the actual positive effects of the measure are limited by popular disdain for them. The policy was imposed without any public communication or opportunity for dialogue, and has been implemented with very little education on either how to recycle properly or why it matters in the context of combating climate change.
This “authoritarian environmentalism”, argue Shapiro and Yifei in the book, promotes a negative attitude of disdain and resentment towards environmental policies and, on the whole, serves to reduce public sympathy for environmental efforts. Perversely, this creates a barrier to the government’s goals for combatting climate change which, in many ways, can only be achieved if they are successfully adopted at the local level. As such, it is critical that the Chinese government takes into account the needs and views of local communities when implementing environmental regulations—particularly as there is relatively strong local support for environmental protection. What is needed, say Shapiro and Yifei, is a greater degree of sympathy for individuals’ livelihoods and patterns of behaviour, and, ultimately, collaboration between government and community.
It is difficult to present a straightforwardly hopeful summary of China’s efforts against climate change. On one hand, great progress has already been made, and many of the individual aims set out by the government in 2020 are on track to being achieved, at least in part. On the other, though, it is clear that collaborative action is required from the government in order to sustain and further public cooperation with environmentalist efforts. If drastic changes both to the extent of the measures being introduced and to the attitude with which the government introduces them are made, China could make rapid progress towards its goal of carbon neutrality.
By Bridget Stuart
It is a fact that we need to limit the increase in global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as soon as possible, but certainly before 2050. When I say ‘we’, I mean the governments of the world, and in particular the governments of wealthy countries in the Global North, who have particular responsibility for both causing the problem, and therefore for solving it. Unfortunately, it is already too late to prevent dangerous climate change, and it is unlikely the 1.5 degrees target will be achieved. Therefore, the more pertinent question asked by the climate scientist Kevin Anderson is how long we have between dangerous climate change and extremely dangerous climate change .
COVID-19 has created a mean 7% decline in CO2 emissions, as well as a decline in other toxic air pollutants from the transport and industrial sectors . Unfortunately, it appears that this decline will only be temporary, and that emissions will rebound as the economy does. For example, China’s emissions have already rebounded past their 2019 levels . However, this need not be the case if countries work to ‘build back better’ and create a just transition to a low-carbon, green economy.
This is where the ‘green recovery’ comes in. In their recovery packages responding to the pandemic-induced economic crisis, many governments have included ‘green recovery’ measures. Such measures include investments, grants and loans for projects directed at improving green transport, clean energy, the circular economy, and research & development. Other initiatives focus on creating green jobs, and the conservation of ecosystems. The OECD estimates the overall funds directed towards 'green recovery' programmes currently total USD312 billion, with the focus being predominantly directed towards the energy and transport sectors. For example, Boris Johnson has promised a £12billion government investment, with a potential private sector of three times that amount, projected to create 250,000 green jobs .
However, the announced green recovery packages remain insufficient. It has been estimated that an investment of USD6.3 trillion will be needed annually until 2030, a figure far beyond what has currently been promised . This, coupled with widespread lack of ambition in implementation and the active rolling back of existing environmental regulations to bolster the failing fossil-fuel industry in some countries, the outlook is far from promising. Therefore, it is important that countries’ progress is monitored to ensure accountability and that they actually implement the pledges they have made.
It is important that countries who are able to do so set strong examples and show a concerted effort to tackle climate change. The USA re-joining the Paris Agreement under the Biden administration and its renewed presence at COP26 next year could be a real symbol of change. If the USA invest enough money in R&D innovation projects, this could herald a new suite of green technology advances.
To leverage real sustained green change in the long-term, we need to invest in a workable Green New Deal (GND) within G20 economies. As individuals, we must be sure to use our electoral power to vote in the governments and policies which have a sincere focus on a GND. Fortunately, Biden’s election in the US does shine out as a beacon of hope in this respect.
It is also important to highlight that the green recovery will look very different depending on the country. For countries in the Global South, the focus will be primarily on alleviating poverty and suffering through sustainable methods. However, international economic assistance may be necessary for green initiatives to be feasible. In light of the inequality of historical emissions’ and colonial legacies, international acts of climate justice must be woven into the cloth of the green recovery. For example, Biden’s proposed ‘Green Marshall Plan’ or the UK’s £64 million package to support Colombia to combat deforestation and build back a cleaner economy in the wake of the pandemic, could be good places to start.
Overall, we need to speed-up a rapid, yet just transition to a low-emissions, green economy. COVID-19 has been and continues to be a great threat to humankind and has required unprecedented collective action to fight it. Miraculously, through a period of extreme suffering, it seems as if the world may have overcome it. However, climate change represents a threat on an incomparable order of magnitude. It is here, and we can no longer discount or ignore it. In this immediate post-COVID era, there is a unique opportunity not just for a recovery but for a transformation towards a green, inclusive and socially just future.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.