Low carbon economy: a reality check

Sunita Narain

As an environmentalist who looks for answers, I am clear that there is a huge amount of buzz about low carbon economy and there is an equal amount of confusion about what this means. Nobody wants to accept that in the current economic model, the technology pathway is constrained. There is just so much any country can do to reduce its emissions, without changing the way it does business or the business of business itself. This is the crisis and challenge of climate change. This is why the world is struggling to find an agreement on an issue, which is both obvious and serious.

India is no different from the rest of the world. In fact it is at the bottom of the development trajectory – it has a long way to go to meet its growth needs and the way ahead will only add to pollution. This is inevitable. It will need the ecological space to increase its emissions.

My colleague Chandra Bhushan has in the report Challenge of the New Balance, looked at precisely this question. The study takes apart six of the most energy intensive sectors, in terms of emission profile today and looks at the technology pathway for the future. These high growth sectors – power, steel, aluminium, cement, paper and fertilizer — add up to 60 per cent of India’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2008-2009.

The study finds answers, which should force careful re-thinking, not just in India, but globally, about how emissions will be cut, really and actually.

It finds that contrary of general perception, many Indian industrial sectors (and companies) operate at global best levels as far as energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions are concerned. The study finds that industry has invested in better and best technologies, because in India energy costs are high. This is not to say that more cannot be done to improve performance. But it also means that India is not the place where the world can look for easy and cheap emission reductions for the future.

India’s cement industry, for instance, has already the lowest emissions in the world because of its use of flyash and slag. It is projected that India’s per capita production of cement will increase fourfold to 630 kg by 2030 – equivalent to what China produces today. But technology leapfrog options are limited – in the business as usual scenario, the study estimates that the only option is to increase the use of flyash and slag, which will reduce its emission intensity by 25 per cent in 2030. The low-carbon option is to install expensive waste heat recovery equipment – still in the experimental and development phase in the world. If this is done, then the sector can improve its performance by cutting another 10 per cent in its energy intensity by 2030.

So where do we go from here? The fact is that until 2020, India’s current ‘commitment’ – 20-25 per cent emission intensity reduction— is easy to meet. This is chicken feed. It is about picking off low-hanging options, which will cost, but not enough not to do. This is the easy part.

The tough part is what begins now for the future. The fact is that in all high-polluting sectors, the technology options for emission reduction stagnate after 2020. There is no real way we can reduce emissions without impacting growth, as we know it, once we cross the current emission-efficiency technology threshold.

The only real option India has is to change the fuel-mix – what we use to drive energy to drive our economy. But even this is theoretical. The options are limited and what exists is very high cost. The study estimates that even with huge investments (currently completely unaffordable in a country with desperate need for cheap energy solutions) in renewable energy, India will still remain dependent on coal. The going will be tough.

The study also tells us that India must reinvent its growth pattern because it is in its interest to do so. It faces serious challenges to get resources – from land, minerals or water – that are needed to drive progress. There are limits to our growth. These limits can work to our advantage, only if we can find ways of working beyond the current model. We will have to find ways of doing much more with less. We will have to find new win-win options – from growing biomass on people’s lands so that they get income and energy. These options can be tried. We can become the laboratory of the world’s development future. But first we must recognize the limits.

But what this study shows is that the world has to seriously rethink and rework its economic model for the future. Under all circumstances today, the options for serious emission reduction are limited in the industrial model we belong to or want to inherit. The world has to look for new ways to cut emissions and pay big time for these. There is no easy picking here. There are win-win options, but only if we consider that in all current options the planet is losing.

This new growth model will need changes in behavior and lifestyle to cut emissions. It will need new drivers to stimulate quick and aggressive technology innovation. Changes to take the world much beyond the known and the ordinary. This change will not come cheap.

This is the most inconvenient of all truths. And this is precisely why the already rich world wants to spin a deal, built not on their commitment to reduce emissions, but on the bribe that we can also continue to emit. This is not good for climate change. It is devastating for us. This is the challenge of the new balance.

September 22, 2011 | Posted in: Uncategorized | Comments Closed

Comments are closed.