Beyond Fossil Fuels: A Just and Equitable Path to a Sustainable Future

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For the past three decades, the discourse on climate change and global warming has taken center stage on the world’s discursive platform. Ever since the 2015 Paris Agreement, limiting global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average global temperature has been a central tenet of this discourse. The global average temperature is rapidly approaching this critical threshold.

Fossil fuels, deeply entrenched in the global economy, are the primary culprits behind 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90% of carbon dioxide emissions, making them the principal contributors to global warming. At present, approximately 80% of the energy consumed in the world is derived from fossil fuels. In 2022, oil accounted for 30% of the global energy sources, coal constituted 27%, and gas made up 23% of the overall energy mix.

A recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) illustrates a worrisome scenario: even if all the countries fully implement their current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), global greenhouse gas emissions will only decrease by 2% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels. This meager reduction falls far short of what is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

Therefore, phasing out or at least drastically reducing our global reliance on fossil fuels is essential to avoid exceeding the crucial 1.5-degree Celsius global warming threshold. This threshold signifies a tipping point beyond which climate change becomes increasingly catastrophic, with intensifying extreme weather, rising sea levels, and widespread ecological disruption. The global scientific community unanimously emphasizes the need for a 43% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and a 60% reduction by 2035, compared to 2019 levels, to give us a fighting chance at reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 – the target that offers the best hope of keeping the planet on a sustainable path.

The consequences of exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius are nothing short of catastrophic. Even at current warming levels of 1.2 degrees Celsius, the global repercussions are already alarming. In India alone, 2023 witnessed a brutal cycle of heatwaves, droughts, and floods, causing widespread crop failures, water shortages, and infrastructure damage, as reported by the Center for Science and Environment. These extreme weather events are a stark reminder of the escalating climate crisis and the urgent need for action.

Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 is not just a strategic necessity but also a moral imperative. We owe it to future generations to act now and avert the worst impacts of climate change. This is not just about protecting our environment; it is about safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of millions.

Time is running out. As we inch closer to the critical 1.5-degree Celsius warming threshold, the need for a global transition from fossil fuels to renewable green energy sources becomes increasingly urgent. Embracing renewable energy sources unlocks a wealth of benefits such as less emissions, green jobs, cleaner air to breathe, and better health. Envision a world fueled by the sun, wind, and water, where future generations inherit a planet that is green, healthy, and prosperous with improved ecosystems. This is not an elusive dream, but a future within reach.

The reduction and eventual phasing-out of fossil fuels must go hand in hand with a rapid shift to renewable energy sources. This shift should align with the Mitigation and Adaptation strategies outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. This comprehensive approach is crucial for addressing the urgent challenges posed by climate change and ensuring a sustainable and resilient future for our planet.

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming (Mitigation) and helping nations and ecosystems adjust to its impacts (Adaptation) are two sides of the same coin, both crucial to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. While Mitigation aims to reduce the heat, Adaptation equips us to live with it.

Therefore, among the various topics deliberated at the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP 28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), two specific issues took center stage. First was the question of phasing out the use of fossil fuels. Second was the question of providing financial assistance to vulnerable countries to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change and to build resilience against climate impacts.

Despite widespread expectations for a commitment to phase out fossil fuels among the signatories to UNFCCC, COP28 in Dubai did not yield such an agreement. Instead, the agreement was centered on a commitment to “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” The agreement states that ‘unabated coal’ will be phased down, and the abated coal whose emissions are captured at the source will continue to remain in use. Despite its undersides, this agreement is a call to reign in the unbridled consumption of fossil fuels, marking the commencement of the end of global dependence on fossil fuels. It holds historic importance as the first climate agreement calling for such a transition.

During the summit, more than 100 countries, including the United States, the European Union, and many developing nations, advocated for the gradual phase-out of the usage of fossil fuels. Conversely, notable oil-and-gas-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia insisted that the summit’s emphasis should be on reducing emissions rather than on the phasing out of fossil fuels.

Paris Agreement 2015
Paris Agreement 2015

Since India depends on its major reservoir of fossil fuel, coal, for generating 70% of the country’s electricity, it insisted that it had no choice but to continue relying on coal for electricity generation in the foreseeable future, despite rapidly expanding its renewable energy sources. In fact, during COP 26, India emphasized the concept of phasing down the reliance on coal instead of phasing out. Throughout COP 28, India advocated for the gradual reduction of all fossil fuels to accelerate climate action.

Striking a common ground between these conflicting stances was essential in making substantial headway toward addressing climate change effectively. Therefore, the summit did not advocate for the phasing out of the global reliance on fossil fuels but for a transition away from them. This aligns with India’s stance, which promotes a multifaceted transition through the principle of circular economy – sustainable production, mindful consumption, judicious recycling, and lifestyle adjustments – paving the way for a more environmentally responsible economy. In any case, there is no doubt that to combat climate change, the world must be willing to address the major source of greenhouse gases: fossil fuel energy production.

The envisaged transition away from fossil fuels necessitates a shift towards renewable energy sources. During the summit, participating countries agreed to triple their use of renewable energy sources and double their energy efficiency by 2030 from the 2022 levels.

Climate financing, involving financial investments to address challenges related to climate change and promote sustainable, low-carbon development, plays a crucial role in achieving global climate objectives. An essential component of climate financing is the Loss and Damage Fund (LDF), established in a 2013 agreement at COP 19 in Warsaw. This fund is designed to provide financial and technical assistance to developing countries bearing the brunt of climate change. Due to insufficient financial pledges from developed nations, disputes over eligibility criteria, and logistical challenges, the fund faced obstacles in its implementation. Nevertheless, during COP 28, significant progress was made as the LDF was activated, with member nations collectively pledging over $700 million, even though this amount is just a drop in the ocean.

 

Save The Planet

The highly anticipated Global Stocktake report during COP 28 downplayed the significance of the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR), a fundamental tenet of the Paris Agreement. CBDR recognizes that developed countries, historically the largest emitters, bear a greater responsibility in reducing emissions and providing financial and technological assistance to developing countries. The critical issue of transferring funds and technology to aid developing countries in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change hinges on CBDR. The downplaying of CBDR not only exposes developing countries to increased vulnerability but also compels them to shoulder an inequitable burden of climate action without the requisite resources.

In accordance with the agreement established during COP 15 in Copenhagen, developed countries committed to contributing $100 billion annually by 2020 and beyond for climate-related initiatives, including Mitigation and Adaptation projects in developing countries. However, they fell short of reaching the pledged annual target. The cumulative amount provided by developed countries to date ranges approximately between $70 and $80 billion.

 

Temperature Rising

Starved of adequate financial support from developed countries, developing countries find themselves crippled in their fight against climate change. Not only are their Mitigation and Adaptation programs hampered, but their essential transition to renewable energy remains stalled, casting long ominous shadows of global consequences.  

As we grapple with the complex realities of a ‘just, orderly, and equitable transition,’ I hope that beyond rhetoric, concrete action will be taken in terms of phasing down fossil fuels, investing in renewable energy, and climate financing. At present, this remains the only path to a sustainable future for all on Earth, our common home.

All Images Courtesy: Google Images

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