23 November 2017 11:44:23 IST

There is an urgency to save the planet

But, as was evident in Bonn, we're only taking baby steps in combating climate change

On November 17, in the beautiful German city of Bonn, curtains fell on yet another round of climate talks . The course and the pace of the talks are a source of major disappointment for developing countries, but we will come back to that later.

If you fly a thousand miles north-west from Bonn, you will be on the North Sea. If your plane is flying low enough on a clear day, your eye will meet an interesting spectacle in the sea, not far from the coast of Northern Scotland — a floating wind farm.

In the sea

Winds blow fast over the seas and because the water surface is flat, wind farms produce more electricity — for technical reasons, wind turbines like fast winds and flat surfaces.

The farther into the sea you go, the better it is. But the problem is, how do you put up a wind farm in such deep waters? Nearer the shores, where waters are not so deep, you don’t mind the extra costs and stand the windmills on foundations built on the sea bed.

About 10 years back, two Swedish engineers saw a buoy bobbing in the waters and thought, “Why not build a buoy big enough to carry a wind turbine on its head?”. They set the ball rolling and the result is what you might see off the Scotland coast.

Welcome to the Hywind project, the world’s first commercial floating wind farm.

The cost aspect

The 30 MW wind farm has just been commissioned there. Each of the five machines stand on a 78-metre underwater ballast and are anchored with three mooring lines. ‘Floating wind turbines’ is a great idea. If you don’t like the place or if the wind blows better elsewhere, you can tow it to wherever you want. Being in the sea, they can afford to be very, very big — future machines could be even 10 MW or bigger.

However, nothing is easy. These machines cost — hold your breath — ₹57.3 crore a MW. In comparison, those on land in India cost ₹6.5 crore a MW.

Tech flow

But then, costs will come down if and when large-scale deployments happen and economies of scale kick-in. Over time, technology will improve. The ecosystem (such as ships and barges for putting up the machines) will develop and costs will be tamed. That will take time, but it will happen.

What is important is, it is a technical reality today and potentially commercially feasible.

The Hywind project is just an example of emerging technologies in the renewable energy sector. These need to be rapidly rolled out across the world. For that, finance and technology need to flow freely across the world.

And that takes us back to Bonn.

What happened in Bonn?

The COP23, or the 23rd Conference of Parties took place here.

These are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or the UNFCCC, which was conceived in an Earth Summit that was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 and formally set up two years later.

The parties comprise practically all countries of the world. They have met many times, and congregated for the 23rd time earlier this month, in Bonn.

The 21st time, they had gathered in Paris in December 2015, and the meeting gave birth to the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement

As you may remember, the highlight of the Paris Agreement was the formal acceptance by every country to do something in order to prevent our planet from getting hotter by 2 degrees Celsius, over the average temperatures that prevailed in the mid-19th century, by the year 2100.

Complicated? Let’s break it down for you.

How much hotter should the earth not become?

Two degrees.

Hotter than what?

Hotter than the average temperatures that existed around 1850s.

Why that period?

Because that is when industrialisation began and mankind started to emit greenhouse gases.

By when should we ensure that it doesn’t get hotter by 2 degrees?

By 2100.

The weak agreement

In Paris, all countries agreed to the ‘2 degrees target’ and an ‘ambition’ to further lower to 1.5 degrees. To achieve this, each country had mentioned what it would do and these pledges are known, in climate talk parlance, as ‘nationally determined contributions’, or NDCs. The idea was to let countries declare on their own what they would do, rather than thrust something on them from above — which was the approach taken earlier, that resulted in the failed COP15 of Copenhagen, in 2009.

As has been repeatedly pointed out in these columns, the Paris Agreement is pretty loose. For example, it says the developed countries ‘shall provide funds to the developing countries’. The ‘shall provide’ sounds nice and fair, but the problem is, the Agreement doesn’t specify how much. So, while it has been hailed as epochal, path-breaking, what have you, in reality, it is close to rubbish. Many experts have said so.

Nevertheless, the governments began the process of framing rules to implement the Paris Agreement. The aim is to come up with a ‘Rulebook’ by COP24, which will happen in Poland next year. The two-week-long discussions in Bonn were for framing the rules.

Rules? What rules?

You would expect the rules to bring specificity to the Paris Agreement, like how much money should flow to the developing countries, and to the ‘least developed countries’ who usually bear the brunt of vagaries of climate change.

Unfortunately, this did not happen. They talked about new alliances, such as for phasing out coal plants and putting up green buildings; they talked about the need for talking about agriculture, about setting right the gender bias in climate activities; they also spoke about how indigenous people — the adivasis — should have a say in climate talks.

The developing countries, led by India, rather foolishly, jumped on the rich countries to get them to state in black and white what they would do to fight climate change before 2020, the year the Paris Agreement would come into force.

After a week of negotiations, the developed countries said they would report their progress in the ‘pre-2020’ period and also provide some visibility about how much money might be flowing across to the developing world.

Absent in substance was the commitment from the rich countries — who became rich by mucking up the earth and are hence liable to pay up now — about funding climate-change combat activities, and transfer of technology.

Without money and technology, things like floating wind projects will be out of reach of the developing countries, and unless everybody is on-board, a rapid roll out of clean energy projects will not be possible.

The end is nigh

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently brought out a report in which it said that even if all the countries do exactly what they promised to do in Paris, the earth would get hotter by 3 degrees by 2100 — a full degree higher than the target. This may sound small, but it is not. A 3 degree hotter earth means disaster for all of us.

Homo Sapiens have been around for 6 million years, while other two-legged Homo species have been around for 200 million years. But a scorching earth would wipe out the entire human race in less than 200 years flat.

There is urgency to save the planet. All countries need to run. However, as is evident in Bonn, they are only taking baby steps.