A systemic approach to minimise the impacts of Climate Change

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Photo by woodleywonderworks

Climate Change, as a global phenomenon, has come to be known as one of the most critical issues facing the humanity today, if not the most critical issue.  Many individuals, academic and  research institutions, including the global institutions such as IPCCC, WHO, UNEP etc., have tried to address this issue from different perspectives.

One such recent analysis has come to the conclusion that:

“Instead of the roughly 1,100 megawatts of carbon-free energy per day likely needed (to be added) to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 ˚C, as the 2003 Science paper by Caldeira and his colleagues found, we are adding around 151 megawatts (of carbon free energy capacity per day). That’s only enough to power roughly 125,000 homes. At that rate, substantially transforming the energy system would take, not the next three decades, but nearly the next four centuries.”

Most of such analysis on Climate Change (especially those emanating from 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 demand for energy. A holistic and systemic approach to the phenomenon of Climate Change should reveal that the scenario is not as simple as these articles seem to make out.

The phenomenon of Climate Change 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.

Even if we assume that the political willingness across the world will allow the possibility of moving over to 100% renewable energy (RE) based scenario by 2040/50, 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 2040/50 will be so much overwhelming that we may end up being the losers anyway.  Because, the total energy required by 2040/50 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).

In this context, the projected energy scenario in the case of India can be a good example for discussion. The national energy policy draft (by NITI Aayog, India) has projected that India’s (i) energy related Emissions per capita may increase from 1.2 tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent/capita in 2012 to 2.7-3.5 tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent/capita in 2040; (ii) Per capita electricity consumption may go up from 887 kWh in 2012 to 2,911-2,924 kWh in 2040; (iii) CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of electricity supply may be 5.5% between 2012-2040.  Most countries from the developing world are likely to have similar growth trajectory, because of which the total energy demand at the global level can be massive by 2040/50.

Even if the global energy demand growth rate between now and 2050 is assumed to grow only @ 1% CAGR, the total energy demand would have increased by about 100% as compared to that of the demand today. Even to meet this much energy demand the global economy has to manufacture 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. 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 hundreds of years. The ability of various natural elements to control the temperature rise would have been severely curtailed. Many of the natural process, such as glacier melting and ocean acidification, would have become irreversible.  The forests and vegetation cover will have to come down considerably, and the pollution/contamination may exceed all limits.

It is well known that a MW equivalent of RE capacity will generate less than half of annual energy as compared to that of the same MW capacity of a conventional technology power plant, but will require more land area.  Hence a 100% RE dependent scenario will also need diversion of vastly more forest and agricultural land than otherwise.  This fact cannot be ignored either.

Hence, in order to visualise a 100% RE scenario as a major step in addressing the Climate Change threat, the global community will also need very many other enabling scenarios.

On a closer examination, all these issues can be intricately linked to the high GDP growth rate paradigm practiced by the governments around the world.  Can we even consider moving away from such an obsession and move over to a sustainable and inclusive growth paradigm?


A sustained high GDP growth rate will mean the manufacture of products and provision of services at an unprecedented 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, 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; clamour for more of airports, airlines, hotels, shopping malls, private vehicles, express highways etc. 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 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. The corollary of all these issues is that the overall health of the humanity will go down drastically.

The multiplication of the size of global economy by 2040/50 would basically mean the multiplication of the demand for materials and energy; increase by several factors the production of wastes, contamination/pollution of air, water and soil; and corresponding increase in number of un-natural deaths, illnesses, accidents etc.

Whereas the nuclear power technology is being wrongly advocated by vested interests as a credible solution for the Climate Change, the associated radiation issues can only worsen the situation.  For countries like Bangladesh and many in African continent, which have so far a low energy carbon foot print, power generation capacity addition through coal and nuclear power plants can bring massive social, environmental and health problems.

Hence, the transformation of energy systems to renewable energy based system alone should not be our focus. The real issues must be: (a) how much minimum energy demand can we manage with in order to eradicate the poverty at the global levels; (b) how best to distribute this much energy in the most equitable way possible; (iii) how to produce this much of energy without adding to total GHG emissions from the energy sector; (d) and how to minimise the pollution/contamination/depletion of our natural resources in this process.

Even, this extraordinary approach may not be good enough.  In a business as usual scenario, by 2050 the forest/vegetation wealth may get degraded to a point of no return; the pollution and contamination of the air, water and soil may become unbearable because of the human activities such as transportation, manufacturing, entertainment, military operations, construction etc. Many other human activities, which were not needed by our ancestors or till recently, would have come to be deemed as essential by 2050. For example the huge demand for electronic, computer and communication devises. All these activities, which will need lot of energy, materials, water etc., and which will also produce waste/contaminants, will continue to drag us down the path of ecological disaster, even if 100% RE scenario is feasible by 2050.

The phenomenon of Global Warming can be basically associated with the vastly accelerated depletion/degradation of various elements of the nature; which is also known as the transgression of Planetary Boundaries.  So, in order to address this phenomenon, various activities of the humankind contributing to the accelerated depletion of the nature have to be thoroughly reviewed to ensure they become sustainable.

Hence, can we say that the humanity has a critical imperative to undertake urgently effective measures to minimise the consumption of water, materials (including even the forest based materials such as wood) and energy to a very low level starting from this moment? Only such an approach seems to be the lasting solution. This requires a paradigm shift in our lifestyle. Can we muster enough conviction and determination to move towards a vastly simpler lifestyle where we will be happy to share the locally available natural resources much more equitably than it is now; can this be as effective as our ancestors did?

Can we minimise the air travel, travel for pleasure etc.; can we minimise the movement of people and materials between provinces/regions/countries, and even within the countries; can we minimise the production of military wares, machines and ammunitions; can we reverse the trend of forest diversion and embark on massive afforestation to reverse the growing presence  of CO2 in the atmosphere; can we stop diverting the agricultural lands, and embark on more of agroforestry; can we minimise the pollution/ contamination/ interference in the rivers and fresh water bodies as well as oceans; can we move over to a sustainable scenario of food production and consumption etc?

If large economies like China, India, Brazil, and other developing countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines etc. adopt policies to grow their economies at high CAGR rates, can the global warming be satisfactorily addressed by transforming to 100% RE scenario alone?

How many of our on-going/projected problems due to Climate Change are likely to be addressed satisfactorily by 100% RE scenario alone?

How many of our political leaders and bureaucrats can be expected to have even a semblance of thinking on these lines?

What are our chances to avert the ecological disasters associated with the Climate Change without such paradigm shift to our lifestyle?

As a recent posting in The Guardian has said: “one reason we are failing to do what is necessary (for addressing the Climate Change) is because nature is still seen as “nice to have”, rather than essential in sustaining our health, wealth and security.  Many companies, economists and governments regard environmental destruction as a regrettable but inevitable consequence of economic growth – the “price of progress”. If we don’t change this mind-set, then there will be little prospect for the revolution in ideas that is needed to avoid a mass extinction event and disastrous climatic changes.”

This World Environment day requires every one of us to undertake serious introspection on these lines, instead of satisfying ourselves by just planting few tree samples here and there, while the natural elements such as forests and rivers are continued to be devastated everywhere.

Shankar Sharma, Power Policy Analyst, Mysore

[email protected]


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