A female narwhal surfaces in an open area surrounded by sea ice in western Greenland, March 2012. Photo: Kristin Laidre/Handout via Reuters/Files
The environment is still not an idea whose time has come, notwithstanding the shock value of the latest climate assessment, of nations failing to adhere to their climate commitments. This report and many others preceding it – including one ground-breaking review of biodiversity by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – have pointed to Earth’s deteriorating health. Unfortunately, the environment still does not take precedence over many other, more pressing issues that humankind feels that it needs to ‘solve’ first – including, say, buying a car, building a house, etc.
The answer to such thinking is likely rooted in the keenness with which people feel the problems located closer home, especially in urbana. Deforestation in the Amazons – far from home, fire in Siberia – further away, Climate Change in the Artic – ahh, new shipping routes will open and closer home, floods in Konkan – Goa vacation needs to be shelved, landslides in Himachal – thank god, we were not there. Nothing seems to distress the stoic human soul as long as it does not affect us personally, down to the household level. For everything else, there is someone else to blame.
And the blame game is still on, even though COVID almost succeeded in catalyzing what Greta Thunberg could not shame us into doing. Reduce our energy usage temporarily till we could shrug off Covid’s impact and return to our usual normal life.
84% of the worlds energy is still powered by fossil fuels and the rate of growth of energy consumption keeps on increasing each year. Simply put or rather what should be apparent to the thickest skull is the fact that inspite of all the agreements various governments sign, carbon dioxide emissions keep on increasing year after year. China leads the pack having revived as early as May 2020 and burning more than 50% of the world’s coal in 2020, by which time the rest of the world was hunkering down from the effects of Covid. And as apparent as any data could afford to be, it is clear that global carbon dioxide emissions have grown by 50% since the world came together to sign the Kyoto protocol.
India is not far behind. It is estimated that we will soon become the world’s third largest energy consumer after China and United States with India likely to claim a quarter of the global energy demand between 2019-2040 which will be the highest for any country. And this is not because we are adopting renewable energy sluggishly, on the contrary we are ahead of the competition in installing solar and wind plants at a fiery pace. But our demand for fossil fuels overshadows all supply and with an estimated five-fold increase in per capita car ownership adding approximately 300 million vehicles besides galloping industrial development, India is poised to devour the global energy supply base.
And much of how the kid-glove treatment of ‘economic development’ is the norm in India can be gauged by the daily reportage. The slump in industrial development caused due to Covid was regarded as a temporary roadblock and detailed indices now point to the recovery in energy demand and how increasing consumption will boost economic recovery. The increase in power consumption in the first week of August is attributed to improved economic activities.
As we rejoice the upturn in economic activities, simple warning signs such as the sudden increase in energy demand in July 2021 in the state of Punjab as a result of a now-totally unpredictable monsoon led to an unsustainable demand for electricity with India’s overall peak power demand rising to 200570 in July, an increase of over 17% over the previous year. As fears of civic unrest grew, industries had to be shut down as energy was diverted for water guzzling crops grown in these dry regions of India. The fear is that this sort of power demand may not be anywhere near the peak, expected to arise in the future.
With improving quality of living, air conditioners in India along with other energy guzzling equipment’s are expected to rapidly populate houses across the nation. And much of this energy is likely to be provided by everyone’s favourite devil’s advocate – coal. Yet for all the derision coal faces, mining for coal provides a boxful of wealth to state governments (estimated to be over Rs. 10000 crores each year) ensuring that demand for coal will likely not falter, inspite of the many dire predictions that several experts routinely advocate. If coal were a living being, it would say, ‘where is the alternative, my friend’.
The optimism of the fossil fuel sector belies the assertions that governments appear to posture at periodic intervals. With India’s biggest oil refiner Indian Oil Corporation embarking on a 13 billion expansion and international giants steadily gaining a footprint in the fossil fuel sector, India’s anticipated demand explosion can only be served by an ever-expanding oil and coal sector. And while the world empathically speaks of “Net Zero”, a sustained fossil fuel dependency is but a simple correlation between the aspirations of a billion strong country and the need to provide energy to all or most of them, a classic case of ‘never the twain shall meet’.
It takes one back to the eternal question perplexing this generation. Why are we not changing in spite of acknowledging that Earth is warming. Even the latest assessment report by Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change scared readers momentarily on August 7, when it was released, but rapidly receded from public view. The apathy towards our deteriorating planet makes it a difficult proposition to imagine a better future.
While biodiversity degradation was a universal blind spot for years and rarely acknowledged by common citizenry, climate change fares worse as Amitav Ghosh succinctly points out, “Climate change is like death: no one likes to talk about it”. And Indians who breathe in poisonous air each day in an increasingly ecologically barren land that is highly prone to climate change and a spectacularly variable monsoon, choose to talk less about these issues.
This unified silence around Earth’s health and climate is deafening, notwithstanding the current prevailing interest. For the answer that still blows in the wind is that most of us are using as much energy as is feasible whilst not just doing enough at an individual level to temper our habits. And at an international level, the call for reparations by nations before reducing emissions is akin to self-harm that no right-thinking sentient being can bring upon himself or herself. As Abhijit Dutta, an environmentalist puts it starkly, “This catch 22 has few options, we are doomed if we guzzle fuel and full of drudgery if we abstain from the pleasures of life. Faced with this choice, most behave like ostriches and choose to let the future generation pontificate about the world they inherit”.
Yet in a bleak world, the best-case scenario still continues to strive towards a phased downsizing of dependence upon non-renewable sources of energy while pushing for low cost, easy to install, decentralized renewable energy plants. At a policy level, climate reparations must go hand-in-hand with adoption of climate friendly technologies and not follow the prevalent scenario of rapid fossil fuel-based development followed by reducing emissions at a later stage. Small steps of adopting sustainability as a way of life still holds the key in achieving the greater good.
Kunal Sharma works with the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.