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Home / Opinion / Columns /  The carbon exhaust of a conference on climate change

Last Monday, around the time that 72-year-old barefooted Tulsi Gowda was receiving the Padma Shri from President Ram Nath Kovind at Rashtrapati Bhavan, 7,000km away in Glasgow, Scotland, a few thousand members of the global elite were waking up to another day of fine dining and wining and noble statements at the 26th Conference of the Parties (CoP-26) on climate change.

Gowda, who received no formal education, has been working on environment conservation in her native Karnataka for 60 years and has planted tens of thousands of trees, while adding immensely to scientific knowledge of the local plant ecosystem.

If many of the attendees at CoP-26 produced only hot air and signed declarations that are not binding on any party, it could perhaps be acceptable—this is true of most such conferences. But these people actually harmed the environment. They used around 400 private jets, emitting thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide. US President Joe Biden arrived from Rome in Air Force One, escorted by four jets. Combined, on their five-day trip from the US to Europe and back, they emitted an estimated 1 million kg of carbon—around 225 times the world’s per capita carbon emissions in 2020, and 575 times India’s emissions per head.

In Rome, Biden went around in a convoy of 85 vehicles. His own armoured limousine, the Beast, and its decoy version, generate 4 kg of carbon per mile driven—10 times more than normal cars.

Prince Charles called CoP-26 the “last-chance saloon" for the planet. Biden said that he has been taking Charles’ advice on battling climate change. Yet, the British royal family has collectively flown about 880,000km over the last five years, nearly two-and-a- half times the distance between the earth and the moon. Each of their trips emitted many times more carbon than a standard economy-class air journey.

Some leaders like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin did not bother to attend CoP-26. Instead, while the meetings were on in Glasgow, Xi announced plans to build 150 new nuclear reactors in China over the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has done in the last 35 years. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron, who had a few years ago promised to reduce nuclear’s contribution to France’s energy mix to 50% from 75% by 2035, announced that France will now in fact be building new reactors to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, while keeping electricity prices “reasonable".

Whatever be the sincerity of the countries that have signed various agreements at Glasgow tied to certain time-frames, it can be stated with certainty that coal-fired power plants will need to phased out completely over the next three or four decades. The question, of course, is: What form of energy will coal be replaced by? Until there are radical improvements in large-scale battery storage technology, wind and solar power will stay critically dependent on fossil fuel energy as back-up. Natural gas is now emerging as the least polluting and preferred ‘transitional fossil fuel’. If that transition ever fully happens.

It is unlikely that many countries will make the obvious choice of shifting to more nuclear energy. The reasons for this have much to do with emotions, political short-termism and expensive public relations campaigns run by vested interests, including the non-nuclear energy industries.

Last month, commenting on the future of energy, Putin, blunt and hard-headed as usual, said: “Many decisions come at random today based on the current political situation. I believe many participants in this process are taking advantage of people’s fears about climate change to achieve domestic political goals or perhaps to derive certain economic benefits, because low-carbon energy also involves the production of equipment and the creation of infrastructure and much more. It is necessary for the public and public organizations, including environmental organisations, to be aware of these problems and be clear-eyed when making final decisions."

An interesting case is passenger vehicles, which account for 45% of the world’s transport-sector CO2 emissions. The electric vehicles (EV) market is growing every year, but with little attention paid to a few key facts. One, though a running EV does not emit CO2, the power plant on which it relies for its charging does, depending on the fuel used. Two, the EV manufacturing process releases more carbon than cranking out a diesel or petrol car. Three, EVs use batteries made of rare earth elements like lithium, nickel and cobalt, the mining of which is extremely polluting. And lastly, the clean disposal of these batteries, once their life is over, may be a serious problem.

There are no simple solutions. We need big technological breakthroughs—and I am sure they will come—and policies based on data, science and economic prudence rather than shrill alarmism and hot new fads. And we can certainly do without the soundbyte hypocrisy of leaders.

At CoP-26, India refused to be pushed into commitments it might not be able to keep and tight time-frames that could hurt the economy, like banning all further investment in coal or a 30% reduction of methane emissions by 2030. We need to fight climate change urgently, but it needs to be done with professional expertise and keeping in mind local conditions, not in headline-aimed haste. Meanwhile, may Tulsi Gowda inspire millions of young Indians.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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