Climate change and heatwaves
More than 1,200 people in Pakistan have died as a result of a deadly heatwave that has engulfed the eastern part of Pakistan, with Sindh being the worst hit. Loss of innocent lives to heat is not unheard of in South Asia. This year in India more than 2,600 lives were lost as a result of the world’s fifth deadliest heatwave.
Heatwaves, are thus not just a national problem, but a regional problem for South Asia. There is a recurrence of abnormally high temperatures, all because of high carbon emission; and the resultant climate change in South Asia.
However, politicians in this region fail to identify the causes of climate change, taking shelter under the umbrella of global warming for their poor environmental policies. The minister of earth science of India, and subsequently after a few weeks the minister of water and power in Pakistan, both put the blame squarely on global warming, without identifying that greenhouse gas emissions are a cause of global warming. Climate scientists all around the world now agree that climate change is not an esoteric term but a manmade phenomenon, caused by human activities.
As part of this manmade climate change, India is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, owing largely to its dependence on coal-fired power generation. Blaming ‘climate change’ without accepting responsibility for the causes of climate change has led to inaction by policymakers, as well as a lack of direction. One of the biggest policy actions that should come out of the heatwaves of 2015, and the loss of about 4,000 lives in the region, should be greater action on halting environmental degradation. Merely adapting to the monster of climate change is too passive an action to this grave problem; the solution lies in mitigation.
Understanding the joint challenges that South Asia faces today with increasing vulnerability to climate change will be imperative. The Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2015 shaded South Asia in red alert and under high risk, with Bangladesh (1), India (13) and Pakistan (24) falling in the ‘extreme risk’ categories.
Yet India’s economic growth is coming at the cost of the environment, regardless of the externalities of carbon-intensive energy. India is maintaining an economic growth rate of seven percent, but has a dependence on coal to drive industrial growth. Unfortunately, the environmental impact of coal has been ill-assessed by policies that continue to propagate it. Burning coal leads to the emission of different greenhouse gases, leading to environmental pollution, and subsequently climate change.
In India, installed generation capacity as of March 2015 was 271,722MW, with 61 percent based on coal powered generation. The energy mix of India is primarily dependent on coal (61 percent), followed by hydropower (15 percent), renewables (13 percent), gas (8 percent), nuclear power (2 percent) and diesel (1 percent). Projections from India’s 12th Five-Year Plan show that the percentage of total energy production and consumption of coal will be around 67 percent for the year 2021-22 whereas it will be only three percent in the case of renewables.
One point that must be noted is that the amount of power generation in Gigawatt-hours (GWh) is a more accurate indicator than the amount of installed capacity (in MW) that is added to a country’s energy mix. So even though renewable energy seems to be steadily growing, it is overshadowed by the increase in actual thermal power generation.
In India, for example, the ratio of generated capacity to installed capacity of coal generated power is 5.75; however the same ratio using renewable energy sources is a mere 1.94. The increase in the percentage of coal energy generated power vis-a-vis renewable energy generated power, from the year 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, is 12 Megawatt-hours (MWh) and 3.6 MWh, which is four times less to that of coal, respectively.
Improving the efficiency of thermal power plants is one way to mitigate climate change. The efficiency of coal-fired power generation has been as low as 27 percent for India, as shown by ECOFYS’ report on ‘International Comparison of fossil power efficiency and Co2 intensity 2014’. While China saw a seven percent increase in efficiency between 1990 and 2011, India’s coal technology has seen negligible change. The report states: “India is the most prominent underperformer with fossil efficiency of 27% below the benchmark.”
The majority of power plants currently operational in India are based on sub-critical steam systems, which is the lowest grade technology in coal. This means that the carbon dioxide emissions for coal-power generation in India are very high, with 547g/kWh for Italy to 1,174g/kWh for India on average. This is a difference of more than 100 percent for every unit of electricity generated from coal.
The world is moving towards ultra-super critical and IGCC technologies, and so should South Asia. At 45 percent efficiency, carbon emissions can be as low as 320g/Kwh. The technical details of efficiency are best-suited for research papers and reports. What this op-ed calls for is a regional attention to the mitigation of climate change. A solution to coal-power generation and thermal power generation as a whole is increasing the efficiency of thermal power plants. Increased efficiency translates to lower fuel consumption for every unit of electricity produced, and this result in lower carbon emissions and lower tariffs, which is a win-win for energy security in the region.
Moreover, on a regional level, there is an urgent need for a South Asian Convention on Environmental Impact in a Transboundary Context for Saarc countries, modelling the Espoo Convention of Europe and the Asean Transboundary Agreement on Haze. For South Asia, all countries need to be held accountable for transboundary environmental impacts. The atmosphere has no borders, and transboundary environmental effects are a real concern.
With leadership from UNEP and other international bodies working on climate change, South Asian countries will have to work towards a legal framework for the protection of transboundary atmosphere, and in particular determine suitable tools for transboundary environmental impact assessment (EIA) based on existing legal instruments and customary international law. In order to create a sustainable present and future, a transboundary environmental agreement must be the instrument for environmental cooperation in South Asia.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.