Future doesn’t lie in developing coal plants
Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland served as many as three terms as prime minister of Norway. She also served as Director General of the World Health Organisation and also the chair of United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development which is now known as the Brundtland Commission. Of all the definitions of sustainability, the one given by her is the most widely accepted. Recently, she was in India to release her new report “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing”. In conversation with Keshav Chaturvedi, she stresses the need to pursue the clean energy path as it is more sustainable for our environment than the one the world is treading now
Q: The threat of climate change is increasing by the day and yet emerging economies like China and India are persisting with following the age-old model of development that is dominated by high consumption of fossil fuels. How can this be checked and have you seen any willingness among national governments to shun this path?
The most important thing is people are able to do things you want them to do. In Copenhagen we saw a discussion between countries and saw the gap in aspirations, abilities and perceptions was very large. We have tried to reduce it in Mexico and now in Durban. It’s important that the kind of improvement in the dialogue between different types of countries continue and I would not be the one who would put up solutions. Also, I think you need to be inside climate negotiations in a way to ensure what is the best way forward. You will also have to look 50 years ahead. I am saying that’s the safe distance to develop a perspective. So 40-50 years ahead obviously the world is going to weigh these issues somehow more on per capita emissions. However, this concept is not something you can implement in 2012 or 2020 because of the strength of the historic experience. It is a reality that you can’t make every country equal as all of them have different problems, different per capita emissions and very different abilities to bring them down. So when the Kyoto Protocol was initiated, East European countries were economically not as well off as the West European countries. To accommodate these countries, a mechanism was devised wherein they were given some allowances that gave them reprieve and also time to restructure their economy. It was a way to getting them on board and it’s the same kind of compromise you have to do now as the world tries to grapple the threat of climate change together. Coming back to your point, it’s not about the Chinese government or the Indian government;they both know that their future doesn’t lie in developing as many coal plants. So, it’s not then their intentions of any of them to enter into maximum use of fossil fuel. Also, I was listening to the Pakistani minister who told us that extreme weather situations are having negative impact on their national economy. According to their estimates 3 to 5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is lost due to floods and other extreme events. The same is true for India and other neighbouring countries. So obviously it’s not a good idea to just continue the race for more coal-fired plants. I think hopefully by sharing knowledge and helping each other find solutions we can get on a different path way than what we were before.
Q: Why is there so much reluctance among emerging economies to shift from coal when they know it is not going to be sustainable in the long run?
I don’t know if there is reluctance but if you say there is, then I would be surprised. In the year 2011, 84 per cent of electricity generation in India was done with the help of coal. That means by increasing solar what they are doing is avoiding the percentage from going to 85-86 per cent or more, but not opening the gap wider which they should.
Q: Is there any international effort by the developed countries to convince emerging economies and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to not follow the same learning curve that developed countries followed, and create a fund to support renewable energy initiatives in these countries?
Well, this is all part of the whole discussion about the clean development mechanism. With this framework, another major issue is the rules of that game. Where do those resources go? Because the fear is it may not go to the right places or to right initiative. Another problem is the difficulty in deciding the criteria for the creation and distribution of the funds. So, I think we have a challenge there.
Q: There is a new tussle being witnessed among developed and developing countries on the sharing of green or clean energy technologies. While the developed countries want remunerations for developing those technologies, the developing countries want them at a very low cost. How can these divergent aspirations be met?
Well, I think we will have to find ways to make public funding part of the integration process so that it can inspire the investors from the developed countries who have the technology to come forward and invest as a part of their risk would be covered by public funding. This is the thinking that is being developed in the sustainable energy for all initiatives and it’s in our report. Financing mechanism that helps or combines private investment with some public funding can be a way forward as it would be helpful in bringing investment much quickly.
Q: In your experience, while dealing with governments around the world, have you witnessed any willingness towards this concept?
I don’t know if I can give a general answer to this, but I can speak for Norway. The country is involved in giving aid to Indonesia and Brazil to save their rainforest. Now this is an example of industrialised country money going into sustainable development patterns in developing countries. This happens in different circumstances and I know that Norwegian aid money has gone into projects in many African countries where there is water development for electricity. Norway tries to take into account the money we send is used in a technically, socially, and environmentally sound manner. India has a higher per capita income than the poorest African countries; so they are in another category. We are not formally a development partner with India because India cut down on number of donors some years ago; so we don’t have a development cooperation in kind of principle way. We don’t do REDD+ thing in India as has been the case with Brazil and Indonesia but on energy we are building up cooperation. We are trying to make public money more efficient. Lowering the level of subsidy by using market forces, having entrepreneurs bid for the lowest share of subsidies so that you can use the same amount of public money to attract a larger pool of private investment. That kind of innovative financing is being advocated. We are also trying to figure out ways and means to use public funding in order to inspire a certain types of right technologies to enter the market. The forest financing and energy financing is kind of payment on results, payment on delivery, like in Brazil and Indonesia; private entrepreneurs here will have to finance their own project won during the auction, take some risks and when the grid is installed and electricity is generated, they would be paid what has been agreed upon in the auction system. So, it’s a different way of binding up some public money for the good, but also making private sector responsible for the project and financing.
Q: Between renewable energy and energy efficiency, which one has bigger potential to bring down carbon footprints in the next 10 years?
I don’t know but I know that both are important; some of the complexities of energy efficiency issues which are linked to buildings, which are already there, make it complicated and expansive. Although there are large chunks of energies to be saved, maybe it can take longer time than renewable energy. But I don’t have the background statistics to have a reasonable assessment of which will be more effective in next 10 years. What I know is both of them are very important.
Q: This year in Davos, a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers said that China, which has huge reserves of rare earth, has put restrictions on its exports, making industries in other countries vulnerable. How does the world deal with this monopolistic action?
Think about the oil sector where some countries came together and to conserve their interest, they raised the prices of oil. It’s an example from our own recent history that countries can do these things and they can also collaborate across borders for a better tomorrow. In this case, if China has made a decision it’s a problem for others. There are no simple solutions to an emerging sector, but I am hopeful mutually beneficial solutions will emerge.