Will the global energy crisis put climate change initiatives on a back burner?

The recent spike in the prices of fossil fuels – crude oil, natural gas and coal are impacting the price of various commodities such as food, electricity bills etc. due to the increase in fuel costs for manufacturing companies which is indirectly affecting the average citizenry of a nation. Almost a year ago, the prices of crude oil had turned negative, which were considered historically to be at all time low. The demand had suddenly been spiked down due to government induced lockdowns in various parts of the world. One of the most polluted cities like Delhi witnessed a clear blue sky after several decades. Various explanations were on offer that the earth was suddenly healing itself. Air Quality Indexes had improved across the world. Now, in 2021 with increasing rate of vaccinations and the global economy opening gradually, the world is witnessing another crisis. This time the crisis is related with the ever ridiculed, dirty, polluting fossil fuels. Each country is vying to get their hands on the supplies of coal, crude oil, natural gas (in any order) to run their industries, provide electricity, heating homes etc. The radical transition towards supposedly cleaner sources of energy – wind, solar, EV etc. seem to be in a disarray.

Europe considered the beacon for climate change initiatives is turning towards coal to meet its power requirements. The coal fired thermal power plants are being restarted to meet the energy demands of Europe which had been discarded and was considered a sin to be depending on coal for meeting energy requirements. The major reason is the exponential rise in the price of natural gas which is almost 4 times higher compared to prices at the start of year 2021 and is one of the primary sources of energy in major European countries for heating systems in homes and offices. The charade of carbon credits has already been dumped since it has majorly hit the first world nations. This shouldn’t be surprising since countries such as Norway which boast about their high HDI’s, advocate for climate change, funding climate change initiatives, etc. depends heavily on oil and natural gas exports, thereby selling it to other countries and boasting about being clean domestically. When rich countries aren’t caring for climate change, why should third world countries – India, Nigeria, Vietnam, Brazil etc. bear the brunt for climate change initiatives, when their per capita income and emissions are far lower than the developed countries. The self-interest of developed nations is clearly in play now.

Even though the cost of coal has also risen drastically, it is much cheaper than crude oil and natural gas in the present circumstances. While the former US president was wrong in denying climate change and opting out of Paris climate change agreement, the current crisis and the roundabout turn is providing impetus to the former President’s argument (albeit indirectly). The over reliance on EV vehicles, solar energy, wind energy considered to be the panacea for climate change are being promoted without even considering whether the manufacturing process involved, or the disposal of such equipment’s are climate friendly. The energy required to charge a battery for a vehicle, inadvertently comes from a coal or gas-based power plants. Hence, turning the entire clean energy back to square one.

The only saving grace at the moment is with regards to the unexpected rebound of global economy after easing of lockdowns globally, which caught energy planners of various countries by surprise, thereby justifying the use of coal now. Such events eventually legitimize the use of coal and its various constituents for countries such as India, Indonesia, China etc. which primarily rely on coal to meet their energy needs. Coal and its constituents are found in abundance in India, even when they are of low calorific value in comparison to global peers. Therefore, about 25% of Indian power plants meet their energy needs through coal sourced from Australia, South Africa and Indonesia. The use of Selective (Non) Catalytic Reaction (reducing NOx), super critical boilers (less fuel consumption) etc. are being employed to reduce pollution in coal fired power plants. The furnaces in glass, steel, cement industries which are biggest carbon emitter, key industrial units of a country, they aren’t designed to run on green energy systems. The radical shift toward green energy might entail a similar situation in these regions as is being exhibited in Europe currently.

Nuclear energy which is the net zero emission emitting energy source must be incorporated to achieve climate change goals. The net safety parameters can be increased to prevent fallouts in nuclear energy-based power plants. But an unplanned green energy transformation which is underway is seriously harming the environment rather than helping it. A judicious mix of fossil fuels and green energy is the need of the hour which might be suitable for meeting needs of citizens in developed as well as emerging economies. Such unplanned changes might bring about disruptions for which the average population might not even be equipped for. The complete ban on fertilizer and compulsory use of organic farming in Sri Lanka has created food shortage in the country and is a grim reminder of what the future might entail for energy sector if such drastic measures are introduced for the same. Countries like India have already gone out of their way in reducing their emission intensity of its GDP by 33-35% by 2030 under the Paris agreement of 2016. If countries like USA, UK, Canada, and Europe having combined population same as India reduces their emissions even by nominal percentages, the developing nations will not bear the brunt of employing expensive green energy sources to reduce their carbon emissions. Otherwise, as Masks, Work from home became the new normal in the COVID-19 era, power outages, shutting down of factories, loss of employment etc. could be the new normal in the future if unplanned energy shifts are undertaken worldwide. The responsibility lies majorly with the developed countries to put aside virtue-signaling on fossil fuels and look for scientific, evidence-based methods for transition towards green energy if climate change is given its due significance.

Divyanshu Singh
Divyanshu Singh
Geopolitics enthusiast, pursuing Masters in Diplomacy, Law and Business from Jindal School of International Affairs.Former student of B.Tech in Electronics and Communications Engineering from Jaypee Institute of Information Technology, Noida.