Excuse Me, Mr. U.N. Secretary General
| 8 Mar 2021
By Akshay Jaitly | 8 Mar 2021
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres raised the climate change stakes this week when he called for the cancellation of all coal-fired power projects around the world. He said “Today, I am calling on all governments, private companies and local authorities to take three steps,” “First, cancel all global coal projects in the pipeline and end the deadly addiction to coal. Second, end the international financing of coal plants and … third, jump-start a global effort to finally organise a just transition [for coal industry workers.” An admirable sentiment, but one that is at best rather naive and certainly fails to acknowledge the well-documented historical inequities related to climate change.
Emissions History Matters
India took a strong and principled position at the Paris climate negotiations. We acknowledged all countries’ responsibility to mitigate climate change, while at the same time arguing for differentiated responsibilities between richer and poorer ones. One of the main planks of India’s (and other developing nations’) argument was that a consideration of historical greenhouse gas emissions and responsibility for climate change was essential to placing future responsibilities and burdens for mitigation, adaptation, and support.
Nothing new here – this was of course one of the basic premises of the Climate Change Convention signed in Rio in 1992 but the original principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and the way in which that has been interpreted by different countries remained an area of debate and disagreement. The principle of differentiated responsibilities was ultimately acknowledged in the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Broadly speaking, while both developed and developing countries must limit their emissions such that global temperatures rise no more than 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspiration of 1.5 degrees, finance is to be provided to developing countries to help them cut their future emissions paths and cope with the consequences of extreme weather.
While this last part of the deal – climate finance – was ultimately put into the non-legally binding “decision text”, it was hoped that this would contribute to encouraging flows of money and technology from the developed world to the developing world for climate change-related actions.
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If Guterres glibly wishes that all countries, including developing ones, forgo coal-based plants entirely, he must at the same time propose new and enhanced mechanisms to ensure that such money and technology flow to developing countries in far larger measure than we have been able to achieve since Paris 2015.
It’s Not Just About Emissions History
Common but differentiated responsibilities, however, isn’t just about looking at the past, which shows that India has accounted for just 3% of global emissions since the industrial revolution, compared with 27% for the U.S. India’s Prime Minister made this point strongly in Paris by saying “We hope advanced nations will assume ambitious targets and pursue them sincerely. It is not just a question of historical responsibility. They also have the most room to make the cuts and make the strongest impact.”
In other words, current energy use patterns also matter.
For example, China, with only a few hundred million more people than India, accounts for about 28% of annual global emissions, vs. India’s 6%. An Indian consumes just over 1,000 units of electricity a year vs. an American’s 13,000 units. Even projecting into the future, India’s per capita emissions in 2030 are expected to be 4 to 5 tons, less than the current global average of 6.6 tons and far less than the expected figure of 12 tons in 2030 for the U.S. and China.
Some Interesting Uses For Energy In Developed Countries
To paraphrase the U.N. Secretary-General, the “deadly addiction” is more to using large amounts of energy, rather than specifically to coal-based energy. This is a question of lifestyle and the choices that face citizens, corporates, and governments in the developed world as they look to their responsibilities to mitigate climate change. We know that in the developed world, cities are brighter, homes are warmer, and that citizens use a dizzying array of power-hungry gadgets in their daily lives. And Bitcoin, largely a plaything of the developed world, apparently consumes more energy than Argentina.
Here though are some rather obscure examples of energy use in the developed world that might shock the 300 million or so Indians who do not currently have any access to electricity.
Skiing in the desert. Ski Dubai – you might well have been there and enjoyed its pleasures. Think about it – it’s often more than 40ºC outside, and the snow is maintained at -16ºC, with the air at below 1ºC. Depending on the quality of its insulation, Ski Dubai uses between 525 and 915 Megawatt-hours (MWh) annually. Its electricity is generated primarily from natural gas so its annual energy use has been calculated to result in about 500 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
Outdoor air-conditioning. In neighbouring Doha, Qatar, they take on the elements more directly. In the shopping complex at Doha’s Katara Cultural Village, there is outdoor air conditioning in the centre’s main plaza. In 2015, outdoor air conditioning was installed in the fan area of the Aspire Track Zone football stadium, as a trial for using similar technology at the 2019 athletics World Championships and the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar. While the inventors of the technology being used claim that energy use is 47% of the energy used in conventional air-conditioning systems, mathematically that’s still infinitely more energy than if they didn’t have outdoor air-conditioning at all.
Undersoil heating for sports pitches. This is common in Europe and North America and indeed, is compulsory in many football leagues, with fines imposed if matches have to be called off as a result of snow or frost on a pitch. This is so common and has been around for so long that it is singularly unremarkable in many countries. Undersoil heating involves installing pipes underneath the playing surface and pumping hot water through them. This water is heated in electric or gas boilers. Lots of fossil fuels, lots of emissions. As a football fan, I want to watch games on quality pitches through the season but perhaps it is time to think of sourcing energy for this purpose only from renewable sources?
Japanese Electric Toilets. Who doesn’t enjoy the feeling of a nice warm toilet seat, especially in winter, with seat covers that go up and down as you enter the bathroom and warm, gentle jets of water to clean you post-activity? Sounds pretty harmless? Not really. These toilets are always plugged in and switched on and are now found in 68% of Japanese homes, accounting for about 4% of total household energy consumption.
They apparently use more power than dishwashers or clothes dryers.
These toilets are so comfortable, that people are reportedly spending more time on them than they did on the bog-standard non-electric toilets.
Even the Economist, not always a champion of global equity, acknowledges that about 10% of the global population produces about half of the world’s emissions. Guterres must therefore consider addressing himself more specifically to the populations of rich countries whose emissions per capita dwarf those of citizens of the smaller, poorer nations most likely to suffer soon from climate change. So, as we are asked to examine a coal-free path to growth, Americans, Japanese, Europeans, and the Dubai skiers may also need to re-examine their lifestyles just a little bit.
Akshay Jaitly is President – 262 Advisors; and co-founder of Trilegal. He tweets @AkshayJaitly2
The article first appeared in the Bloomberg Quint
Disclaimer: Views expressed in the blog are the author's own