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100% renewal energy dependent scenario will need 'diversion' of vast forest, farm land

By Shankar Sharma*

It is not the concept of capitalism (as has been warned about by a recently  leaked IPCC report) alone, which should be a matter of great concern to the poor and vulnerable people across the globe. The real concerns are the associated high GDP growth rate oriented economic policies, which are leading to over exploitation of our natural resources, and extreme exploitation of the the poor and vulnerable people.
Whereas, most sections of the global society, including ours in India, seem to be busy debating whether REs can meet all our energy/electricity needs satisfactorily at a very low cost to us individually, and how soon and smooth we can achieve the energy transition etc. few sections of the Global South, such as the miners of rare earth metals in Africa, as discussed in an article on Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), are facing extreme health issues and exploitation.
As the demand for lot more renewable energy and energy storage batteries grow exponentially (as is expected to happen as we approach the net-zero carbon goal), the demand for such rare earth materials will also grow exponentially, and the associated over exploitation of miners also will increase.
It is also logical to expect that within a few decades these rare earth materials also will run out, and the ever growing demand for RE will also face serious hurdles (may be similar to the kinds of issues we are facing now) with the continued over exploitation of natural resources.
The larger message should become clear. We cannot go on with our ever increasing demand for energy, even if the technology allows for 100% transition to RE based global economy; whether by 2050 or 2070. We cannot afford to ignore the limits in nature to meet the greed of humans; whatever may be the energy technologies we adopt.
Even if we assume that the political willingness across the world will allow the possibility of moving over to 100% renewable energy (RE) based scenario by 2060/70, it may not suffice. The enormous number of solar PV modules, wind turbines, batteries, bio-energy units, geo-thermal units, hydropower units, computers, control systems, communication systems, protection systems, energy meters, associated transmission and distribution systems etc. required for such a scenario in a business as usual approach up to 2060/70, will be so much overwhelming that we may end up being the losers anyway.
Because, the total energy required by 2060/70 at the global level would have reached such an impossibly high levels, if we continue with the energy demand growth rate as it is now (which may mean a CAGR of 3 to 5% between now and 2070).
Even if the global energy demand growth rate between now and 2070 is assumed to grow only @ 1% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), the total energy demand would have increased by about 150% as compared to that of the demand today. Even to meet this much energy demand the global economy has to manufacture enormous number of appliances/ gadgets/ machineries (to generate and distribute commercial forms of energy such as solar power, wind energy, bioenergy, hydel power etc.).
Such a vast economic activity alone at the global scale will require the mining and processing of large quantities of the ores of iron, copper, aluminium etc. as well as many kinds of rare earth minerals, which in turn will require large amounts of energy, most of which may have to come from conventional technology energy sources such as coal power technology until we reach about 70-80% energy transition.
Hence by 2060/70, the total CO2 emissions (or the total GHG emissions) would have gone much beyond 450 PPM as against the desired level of 350 PPM. And the CO2, which would have been accumulating in the atmosphere during this period, will last for hundreds of years. The ability of various natural elements to control the temperature rise would have been severely curtailed.
Many of the natural process, such as glacier melting and ocean acidification, would have become irreversible. The forests and vegetation cover would have to come down considerably to accommodate the associated mining activities and construction of infrastructure, and the pollution/contamination may exceed all limits.
Renewal energy will require mining and processing of large quantities of ores of iron, copper, aluminium etc. as well as many kinds of rare earth minerals
It is well known that a MW equivalent of RE capacity will generate less than half of annual energy as compared to that of the same MW capacity of a conventional technology power plant, but will require more land area. Hence, a 100% RE dependent scenario will also need diversion of vastly more forest and agricultural land than otherwise. This fact cannot be ignored either in our discussions on energy transition.
We also cannot forget the potential of a scenario, wherein such enormous demand for energy even in a 100% RE scenario, may push the advocacy for nuclear and large dam based hydro power capacities.
Hence, what is urgently needed is for the civil society to have an unwavering focus to demand sustainable harnessing of our natural resources which will be feasible only through long term measures such as very high levels of energy efficiency, effective demand side management, and imaginatively implemented energy conservation in all segments of the energy sector.
The initial stages of energy transition, as it is now, is the best opportunity for the global society to carefully review our priorities in moving towards a sustainable life style, and to take all possible measures to meet our needs within nature's limit. The transition to RE based economy cannot succeed without a conscious control on the energy demand at every level of the global society. Unfortunately, there has never been a mention of containing the run-away energy demand at the global level discussions on human development index and climate change.
The abuse of the concept of 'capitalism' through the obsession with high GDP growth rate oriented economic policies cannot be our pathway. A discussion paper, as attached, can provide food for though in this context.
But can we expect our economists, bureaucrats and politicians to realize and act suitably on this harsh reality of sustainable development?
There is a critical need for global civil society to participate effectively in all the associated discussions, and to persuade the bureaucrats and political leaders to consider various such issues from the perspective of a holistic welfare of all section of the society, and adopt suitable policies/practices, instead of focusing only on net-zero carbon target.
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*Power & Climate Policy Analyst, Vijayanagar 1st stage, Sagara, Karnataka

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