Can we speed up the global shift towards renewable energy?
Shock announcements from two highly unlikely sources indicate that our post-pandemic world could finally accelerate away from coal as a primary source of power generation (it currently supplies 40% of global consumption, breaking down unevenly to just 8% in Bangladesh but over 75% in India).
One unexpected declaration came from the Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday. He told the United Nations General Assembly that his country “will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.”
That pledge represents an immense course correction from the world’s largest producer of coal, and the pre-eminent patron of coal-fired power plants in other countries. According to the New York Times, China has funded 21 in Indonesia alone, another 13 in Vietnam, seven in Pakistan, and more in South Africa, Ukraine, Turkey, and Russia.
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, immediately hailed Xi’s pledge (as well as the separate promise by US President Joe Biden to dramatically increase international climate finance) by reiterating “the global phase out of coal is the single most important step to keep the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement within reach.”
Guterres is referring to the legally binding international treaty on climate change that was signed by almost 200 countries in 2015 (it was ratified by India and Bangladesh and every other country in South Asia) that aims to limit global warming via “economic and social transformation based on the best available science.”
The next global meeting “to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement” is the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. After Xi made his commitment in New York, the conference head Alok Sharma (he is also the Conservative MP for Reading West in the UK and Boris Johnson’s secretary of state for business, energy, and industrial strategy) tweeted: “It is clear the writing is on the wall for coal power. At #COP26, we must consign coal to history.”
Less than 24 hours after China rearranged the global coal scenario, the controversial Indian billionaire Gautam Adani did the same for India in an astonishing address to the JP Morgan India Investment Summit.
Adani is the second richest man in Asia, closely tracking Mukesh Ambani (both men and their conglomerates are perceived to hold favour with the current Indian government). He is also one of the largest coal miners in India, with ambitions to scale up in both Indonesia and Australia, and the largest thermal power producer in the country.
On Tuesday, the 59-year-old unveiled impressively bullish plans for renewable energy as well, including investing $20 billion over the coming decade. He said: “Over 75% of Adani’s capital expenditure until 2025 [will be] in green technologies. Today, we are already the world’s largest solar power player when we account for our generating, under construction, and contracted projects. This puts us well on track to be the world’s largest renewable power generating company by 2030.”
It should be noted that Adani has an extensive history of breaking his own commitments. As the Australian activists opposing his Carmichael open pit coal-mining project in Queensland have documented at length, he has breached its environmental approval conditions at least seven times, been found guilty of “providing false and misleading information” to the government, breached his pollution license by 800%, and was caught out massively exaggerating potential job and revenue benefits in court statements.
Nonetheless, much of what Adani said this week rung with truth clear as a bell. He started by acknowledging that “as if the pandemic were not enough, yet another challenge looms ahead of us and India will have to play a major balancing role. If the crisis in 2001 was the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and in 2007 the bursting of the housing bubble, and if in 2020 the crisis was the pandemic, we now have to collectively confront and manage the crisis of climate change.”
Here, about the sustained pressure from the richest countries to reduce emissions, he pointed out that “the economic and industrial might of the West sits on a carpet of carbon soot several centuries deep. A hundred years ago, today’s climate reformers were burning over 800 million tonnes of coal -- that is more coal than what India produces today.”
In this regard, he said: “From pre-industrial times until now, India accounts for only 3% of the extra carbon in the atmosphere and will eventually end up consuming less than 8% of the entire remaining carbon budget.”
Adani said: “In my country, more than a quarter-billion households and millions of small businesses that generate jobs rely on the availability of cheaply produced electricity. To switch off that power source without an economical alternative in place would put hundreds of millions of people on an accelerated path to darkness.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.