India should be thinking about greenhouse gas removal as an important area of research: Arunabha Ghosh

The increase in emissions in the last decade has been the highest ever, says CEO, Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and member of a High-Level Expert Group constituted by United Nations Secretary General

Updated - April 16, 2022 12:00 pm IST

Published - April 09, 2022 08:08 pm IST

Arunabha Ghosh, founder-CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). Photo: Special Arrangement

Arunabha Ghosh, founder-CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). Photo: Special Arrangement

He spoke to The Hindu about the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), its implications for India and what the Expert Groups strives to achieve. Edited excerpts

What are your observations on the latest IPCC report?

It’s a stark reminder of what we know about the impact of climate change and that the world is on an unsustainable pathway. Compared to the aspirational goal of keeping temperatures below 1.5 C -2 C under the Paris Agreement, the world is on track for a 3.5-4 C pathway (increase in temperature by the end of the century). What is important to remember is that the space for bringing it back to a sustainable pathway is shrinking. Some of the new things that this report says is exposing this disjuncture between the slowing growth rate of emissions and the increase in absolute emissions. The growth rate of emissions has dropped from 2.1% a year (2001-2009) to 1.3% in the last decade. However, the increase in emissions in the last decade has been the highest ever. Another important message from the report is that carbon dioxide removal (from the atmosphere) is almost necessary to stay within the net zero ambitions that the world has set for itself.

You mean that we need technologies that will aid carbon capture?

No, this is different. Carbon capture happens at the source, say a power plant or cement plant (where the emitted carbon dioxide is trapped and usually stored underground). What I mean is actually sucking existing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This includes a spectrum of technologies from forests, which are natural sinks, to things like ‘enhanced weathering’, (that involves using) certain kinds of rocks that can absorb CO2 better; ocean fertilisation (increasing the alkalinity of oceans and thus their ability to absorb carbon dioxide) or it could be mechanical techniques like direct air capture (DAC). These technologies are under development and the governance mechanism for them is missing.

While India has committed to increasing forests, there doesn’t seem to be a conversation on say developing DAC technologies in India? Does this mean India has to fund technology development on these lines?

I’ve advocated for sometime that India should be thinking about greenhouse gas removal as an important area of research. The equations don’t add up otherwise. To get to net–zero (India has committed to a net zero year of 2070) means that you will still have some sources of carbon dioxide that you can’t eliminate and so you need technologies (to remove the CO2). Whether it will be through natural sinks or mechanical processes, is something that requires serious thinking.

The latest report seems to suggest coal plants without carbon capture should no longer be allowed. However India’s policy, while committed to increasing solar and wind, is to build more coal plants. How do we reconcile this?

The IPCC report says that if you don’t have CCS (carbon capture and storage) then coal consumption will have to fall to 67-82% by 2030 globally. At my organisation, we have (forecast scenarios with) CCS and without CCS. Even if we had CCS, we’d need 5,600 gigawatts ( 1gigawatt, or GW, is a billion watts) of solar power to meet our net zero targets (at 2070) and if we didn’t, we’d need about 7,000 GW. India’s trajectory shows that there is continued near–term use of coal in the power sector and industry. However, the question is, how do we use this coal more efficiently, that means burning less coal and emitting less while getting the same amount of energy (as at present). Secondly, we have to experiment with CCS technologies to ensure the plants in operation can abate emissions. Finally, India has to start investing in technologies this decade even if they will reach scale only beyond 2030. This is where ‘green hydrogen’ becomes important because this shows India is seriously considering alternative fuels. India is the second largest steel manufacturer, and making steel requires coal. So, if we can’t think of alternate fuels for steel, or say fertilizer and cement, we run the risks of high emissions, missing out on emerging technologies and not responding to changing market conditions on what products can be permitted. So, India has to invest in global partnerships and co–development of new technologies.

Does the report adequately weigh in on climate justice and equity, or whether developed countries should do more to transfer finance and technology to developing countries. India has raised this issue at multiple platforms.

The IPCC report is telling the world what needs to be done but there is hidden nuance when it says that the ‘investments required are 3–6 times more than what we are getting globally in clean infrastructure.’ But why is this investment not flowing to places where they are required is the larger question. To me it’s not about equity being answered in a yes or no way, but about why do we constantly fail to have an evidence–driven yet just approach towards climate mitigation. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll constantly be in a cycle of rhetoric rather than action.

You are part of an expert group — the only Indian — constituted by the UN Secretary General to set stronger and clearer standards for net–zero emissions pledges by non–State entities — including businesses, investors, cities. What is this group expected to do?

In one word, the purpose of this group is trust. The world of climate action is far more disperse than from 30 years ago when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was formulated. On one hand, you have national governments come out with policies on their climate actions. Sometimes these become international commitments and at other times these are devolved into what could be done by actors who aren’t part of governments — companies, cities etc. We’ve seen that when national governments aren’t as ambitious about what needs to be done, other actors step us. We saw this when the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement, some states continued on their climate action. This all means, that there are various sources of climate action, they could all feed into national commitments, or they could lead by example to inspire states to do more. This means that what these other actors do needs to be credibly defined, credibly monitored, reported and verified. This would create trust in the multilateral process to keep nudging climate action forward.

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