Hope Against Hope

Restricting Global Warming

Pradip Datta

The earth is getting warmer steadily and rapidly, resulting in climate change. The reason is anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2). This is the opinion of 97% of the climate scientists of the world.

The year 2016 was the hottest since 1880, from which year the temperature of the earth was first recorded. This was the third consecutive record-warm year. Temperature was 0.94 degree Celsius (C) above 20th century average. The Arctic was 4 degrees C warmer in 2016 since 1880. January air temperatures over the northern Barents Sea at approximately 2,500 feet above sea level were more than 5 degrees C above the average for the period of 1981 to 2010. The winter of 2015-16 was the warmest ever recorded in the Arctic satellite data record. Arctic sea ice extent for January 2017 was the lowest in the 38-year satellite record and 1.26 million square kilometers below the January 1981 to 2010 long-term average.

During the last 130 hottest years, 16 hottest years are all from 21st century except one—1998. The recent record average global temperatures are partly fuelled by the natural El Nino effect, but mostly because of human-induced emissions. The rate of increase seems to accelerate. Barely 1 degree C of warming so far has already led to severe heat waves, drought and super storms flared by rising seas.

The CO2 is released in the atmosphere arising from the burning of coal, oil and gas to power the global economy. The 196-nation Paris Agreement, 2016, set a collective goal to cap warming. The targeted temperature limit is 2 degree Celsius. To keep the global warming below 2 degree C, the global economy must be carbon neutral, meaning producing no more CO2 than can be absorbed by oceans and forests by 2050. This scenario presumes that thousands of industrial-scale carbon captures and storage (CCS) facilities will be in operation by 2030. As of today, there is only one or two, with a few dozens, in vinous stages of construction. For the decade from 2005 to 2014, about 44% of CO2 emissions accumulated in the atmosphere, 26% in the ocean, and 30% on land. If the total amount of emission at current rate goes unchecked it would reach the red line of the upper limit of 2 degree C within 30 years.

Global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use were 97,95,000 tonne in 2014 or 3,59,00,000 tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2). This was 0.6% above that of 2013 and 60% above that of 1990. Fossil fuel emissions are accounted for about 91% of total CO2 emissions in 2014 and the detailed breakups are 42% from coal, 33% from oil, gas 19%, cement 6% and gas flaring 1%. The changes in land use pattern are responsible for about 9% of all global CO2 emissions. But these data are not very much accurate.

Accurate annual coal consumption statistics are critical for these calculations. A country's greenhouse gas output is determined by extrapolating data on energy use rather than directly measuring it. China alone emits more than one-fourth of the global CO2 emissions. It has refused to accept international monitoring of its emissions but committed to release their own data in future. The last survey revealed that China's coal-derived energy use was 12 to 14 percent higher than previous estimates for every year since 2005. The deviation for USA is generally less than 1 percent. Like most other developing nations the Chinese government has submitted emissions estimates to the United Nations only twice, for 1994 and 2005. Under the Paris Agreement, the countries like China and India will have to submit estimates every two years so that more correct emission estimate can be obtained. So one can expect more accurate information on emissions of developing countries would be available in near future which may be more revealing. Although the rate of increase in emissions is going down steadily in last few years, total emissions are not decreasing.

In this background the world has decided to go for energy conservation and many other steps were taken to limit green house gas emissions. But to contain climate change, main challenge is to promote renewables. Interestingly renewables' share of global energy consumption has increased five-fold since 2000. Globally 147 Gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity was added in 2015, while renewable heat capacity increased by around 38 Gigawatts-thermal (GWth). In 2016 world solar capacity has increased by 76 GW and total capacity reached to 305 GW. Wind capacity increased by 54.6 GW and total capacity reached 487 GW. Although investment in clean energy fell in 2016, investment in solar and wind has outstripped fossil fuels for the first time in 2016. The capacity increase projection for 2017 by International Energy Portal are 68 GW for wind and 67 GW for solar. The G2O countries collectively; produced 8 percent of their electricity from solar, wind and other green powers in 2015, increased from 4.6 percent in 2010. This does not include hydropower. Rapid expansion of wind power and solar power and electric car gives people some optimism.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), during the past four decades, the cost of solar modules was reduced by 26 percent each time whenever the scale of solar industry was doubled. A new record for the conversion of sunlight into electricity using solar cells has been set. Researchers achieved 44.7% efficiency, which is a major step towards reducing the costs of solar power further (efficiency of wind generator is about 24%). So one can expect, within a few years, higher output of electricity from more efficient solar panels.

According to the World Economic Forum the price from solar and wind is either the same or cheaper than that of newly set up fossil fuel plants in more than 30 countries. This factor provides an opportunity to arrest the climate change into a profitable form of business for energy companies, an attractive investment opportunity with long-term, inflation-protected returns. Ten years ago, generating cost of solar electricity was about $6oo per megawatt hour (MWh) compared to only $100 to generate the same amount of power from coal and natural gas. Today, it only costs around $100 per MWh through solar and $50 through wind. Still worldwide investment is only about 29 percent of the $ 1 trillion goal set in the Paris climate change accord. Investment is not enough to contain global warming.

New investment in clean energy worldwide fell to $287.5 billion in 2016, down from a record high of $348.5 billion in 2015. The primary cause for the drop in investment was economic slowdown in China and Japan. They focused their attention to the better utilization of already installed capacity.

Now, let us have a look into the recent development of renewables in four major countries in the field, namely Germany, USA, China and India.

Germany restricted its push for renewables due to the limitations of its grid. The number of wind turbines has been going up rapidly in the north of the country, with the aim to supply power to engineering hubs in the south. Of late as their grid is at full capacity—the government is compensating wind power providers against their generation loss. In 2016 solar, wind, biomass and hydropower sources produced 34% of net electricity supply, same that of previous year. Despite the decline in nuclear and coal based generation, carbon emissions are still increasing. Coal accounts for over 40 percent of its electricity. They are depending more on gas and renewable sources to replace nuclear power.

Of all new capacity added in 2016,124 MW or 61 5% were from renewables including hydropower in USA. This was the second year in a row in which over 50% of new generating capacity came from renewable energy sources. Wind generating capacity added by 7,865 MW and solar generating capacity grew by 7,748 MW. In 2015, 64.8% came from renewables including hydro and in 2014 it was 49.6%. Each of the non-hydro renewables has grown during the past five years, and their combined capacity is now 10.67%. In 2016, natural-gas-fired power generation surpassed coal-fired generation for the first time, accounting for 34 percent of total electricity generation, compared with coal's 30 percent share. Coal production continues an eight year fall from peak coal production in 2008. Although energy related CO2 emissions declined by 1.7% in 2016, it has been projected to increase by 0.3% in 2017 and 1.4% in 2018.

Carbon dioxide emissions in China fell 0.5 percent in 2015 from the year before. The Chinese coal plan predicts marginal growth in coal consumption, estimating that the amount consumed in 2020 would be 3.5 percent higher over 2015. Still more than half of its installed power capacity will remain coal based by 2020. Greenpeace calculations show annual coal consumption dropped in 2016.

China is the world's largest clean energy market, accounting for nearly a third of the $8348.5 billion global investment in clean energy in 2015. Despite that, renewables without hydropower accounted for only 5 percent share in China's electricity in 2015. China's installed PV capacity rose to 77.42 GW at the end of 2016, with the addition of 34.54 MW alone. Simultaneously it has enhanced wind power capacity to 149 GW. Solar and wind based generations are accounting for 1 and 4 percent of China's total power generation. Still China will invest 836,100 crore into renewable power generation by 2020 under its 13th Five Year Plan. The country aims to boost the mix of non-fossil fuel generated power to 15% by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030 from the present level of 11 percent. Significantly China has suspended 85 under-construction coal power plants. It is committed to limit coal based generation to 1,100 GW. These plants would have taken that figure to 1250 GW. China has built so many coal-fired power plants that it has to turn off its wind turbines occasionally due to bottleneck of its grid which can't always handle both being online. It has been adding solar power installations so fast that it can't make use of as much as 50% of the energy generated in some provinces.

India has a total installed power capacity of 3,06,358 MW as on 31 September 2016, of which thermal (coal, gas and diesel) accounts for 70% while hydro (large hydro projects), renewables (solar, wind, small hydro and biomass etc.) and nuclear power accounts for 14%, 14% and 2% respectively. Renewable capacity overtook that of hydroelectricity in 2016. India added around 4.9 GW of solar capacity in 2016 and cumulative installed capacity crossed the 9 GW, while wind power capacity crossed 27 GW. The government raised its solar energy target five-fold from 20 GW to 100 GW by 2022. The rooftop solar projects and large scale solar projects of the planned enhanced capacity would contribute 40 GW and 60 GW respectively. Moreover, India is reducing its consumption by introducing energy efficient measures. India's target is to replace 7.7 crore bulbs through LED programme by 2019. Now it is selling six lakh bulbs per day. So far 3 crore bulbs have been sold.

Indian power grids are not capable of handling renewable power from various sources simultaneously. Moreover large scale generation will require heavy funding, which can only be achieved with the help of more private investment. But this year's budget is unlikely to attract private investment.

Besides these four countries in the renewable world there are many European, Asian and other countries that have achieved considerable renewable power capacity. These countries also have encouraging future plans. No longer does solar power depend on government subsidies for survival in many countries as its cost is steeply going down. Assuming battery technology continues to improve, BNEF predicts that solar will start to replace some fossil-fuel plants after a decade. Although solar and wind power are racing ahead, carbon emissions will continue at or slightly above current levels for the next three decades. Besides China, no country has advanced towards renewable goals at breakneck speed with enhanced targets. World is advancing towards renewable future steadily but dramatic reduction in carbon emissions is far from reality, rather emissions are increasing.

Electric vehicles (EVs)
In respect of emission reduction from burning oil the world has not achieved much. EVs are almost ready for a marathon run to replace conventional vehicles. Former US President Barak Obama vowed in 2009 to bring out 10 lakh EVs on road in the US by 2015. But one-fourth of the target could be achieved. Presently the number of Electric Vehicles (EVs) of the world is 21 lakh (2016). China is leading the way, its market is surging and Chinese-made models have placed themselves in the top five best-selling models. China had its eye on the global EV market, in addition to harness its own air pollution crisis. China's aim is to surpass the EU and US to become the top EV producer. Europe, the second biggest market, followed by the US. The traditional car manufacturers face a stern challenge from China and from the US EV maker Tesla Inc.

EVs are going to be competitive to conventional vehicles. The revolution is underway and Europe is also well placed to take a leading position. EV sales have now passed 1% of the whole auto market in Europe and China. In 2015, the EV sale in Europe rose to 145,000 which is double that of previous year's sale figure. The capacity ranges of batteries are going up with reduced prices. The annual rate of price drop of batteries is around 20% every year. EU aims to ensure every new or refurbished house in Europe has a charging point. Norway and Netherland aim to phase out all fossl-fuel cars by 2025. Moreover, Hydrogen fuel cell based electric vehicles can also match the performance of regular cars and are set to become increasingly available to consumers.
Till now, dedicated renewable dependent railways have not been introduced whereas other important mode of transport like shipping and airline based renewables are yet to be developed.

Urgent Actions Required
A recent study found that the heavily populated US north-east is expected to get warmed by 3 degree C when the rest of the world would experience rise of a degree C. Now Americans are increasingly convinced that global warming is a reality. Another study revealed that 70 percent of US population is worried and favoured restrictions on the amount of emissions from coal-fired power plants due to climate change and health reasons, even if this meant they had to pay more for their electricity. The scientific communities along with majority of the Americans are extremely worried about Donald Trump's election as the President of USA, which may adversely affect the steps already taken by the US and the world to fight against climate change.

Trump has described climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese. Trump could diminish the provision of concrete and vast evidences those are used by policy-makers and researchers around the world. But it is important that scientists do not lose access to cutting-edge research from NASA, which uses satellite data to monitor the planet and examine solar activity and rising sea levels. Trump has stopped the US Environmental Protection Agency's rigorous scientific work on the US climate change and climate change in general. The leading scientists of the USA and UK have urged to put pressure on Trump to acknowledge and act on climate change. But whatever may be Trump's attitude towards climate change and energy policy, the technological progress and policies of developing nations are two key factors to combat global warming.

Meanwhile, Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative present a scenario that takes into account the latest cost reduction projections for the green technologies, and countries’ pledges to cut.  They found that solar power and electric vehicles are “game changers” that could leave fossil fuels stranded. Polluting fuels could lose 10% of market share to solar power and clean cars within a decade.

Emerging technology, such as printable solar photovoltaic’s which generate electricity, could bring down costs and boost take-up even more than currently predicted. The cost of solar has fallen 85% in seven years, and the report finds panels could supply 23% of global power generation by 2040 and 29% by 2050, entirely phasing coal out and leaving natural gas with just a 1% share. By 2035, electric vehicles could make up 35% of the road transport market, and two-thirds by 2050, when it could displace 25 million barrels of oil per day. Under such a scenario, coal and oil demand could peak in 2020, while the growth in gas demand could be curtailed.
It could also limit global temperature rises to between 2.4 C and 2.7 C above pre-industrial levels. But the report shows that cutting carbon from the power sector and road transport may not be enough to achieve international climate targets, so emissions reductions from other sectors such as heating buildings and heavy industry will also be needed.

According to the researchers at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, even if solar and wind capacity continues to grow at tremendous speed, it will not be fast enough to restrict global warming under two degrees C, the target set down in the 2015 Paris climate treaty. At this stage, these technologies are not really displacing the growth in fossil fuels or conventional transportation. Carbon seeps into the atmosphere, and on that score renewable have—so far—barely made a dent. Global warming is currently on track to heat the planet by 3 to 4 degree C. Politicians support wind, solar and electric vehicles through subsidies, but they are not willing to put carbon tax on fossil fuels. So the Paris goal is probably out of reach.

Averting climate change requires dramatic reductions in emissions. This is lacking. So at this stage there is no hope. Steadily we are going towards no point of return.

Vol. 50, No.3, Jul 23 - 29, 2017