India can be ‘global superpower’ in fighting climate change: Guterres

New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday asked India to end its reliance on polluting, financially volatile and costly fossil fuels and invest in clean, economically resilient solar power.

Addressing TERI’s Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture virtually from New York due to Covid-19 restrictions, the UN chief asked all G20 countries, including India, to invest in a clean, green transition.

“Today, as we endure the twin crises of Covid-19 and climate change, this effort has never been more important.

“Worldwide, the pandemic has exposed systemic fragilities and inequalities that threaten the basis of sustainable development. A rapidly heating world threatens even more disruption and exposes even further our world’s deep and damaging imbalances.

“Today’s young climate activists understand this. They understand climate justice. They know that the countries most affected by climate change have done the least to contribute to it,” he said in his lecture titled ‘The rise of renewables: Shining a light on a sustainable future’.

“As we look to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, we must commit to doing better. That means transforming our economic, energy and health systems — to save lives, create stable, inclusive economies and stave off the existential threat of climate change. I want to talk to you today about how to bring that vision to life — and about India’s role in that vital effort,” said the UN Secretary-General.

He said that India has all the ingredients for exerting the leadership at home and abroad envisioned by Darbari Seth, who co-founded TERI.

“The drivers are poverty alleviation and universal energy access — two of India’s top priorities. Scaling up clean energy, particularly solar, is the recipe for solving both, he said.

Investments in renewable energy, clean transport and energy efficiency during the recovery from the pandemic could extend electricity access to 270 million people worldwide — fully a third of the people that currently lack it.

These same investments could help create nine million jobs annually over the next three years. Investments in renewable energy generate three times more jobs than investments in polluting fossil fuels. With the Covid-19 pandemic threatening to push many people back into poverty, such job creation is an opportunity that can’t be missed.

Praising India, he said it is already pushing ahead in this direction.

Since 2015, the number of people working in renewable energy in India has increased five-fold.

Last year, the country’s spending on solar energy surpassed spending on coal-fired power generation for the first time.

India has also made significant progress towards universal access to electricity. Yet despite an access rate of 95 per cent, 64 million Indians are still without access today. There is still work to do, and opportunities to be grasped. Clean energy and closing the energy access gap are good business. They are the ticket to growth and prosperity, he said.

Yet, in India, subsidies for fossil fuels are still some seven times more than subsidies for clean energy. Continued support for fossil fuels in so many places around the world is deeply troubling.

“I have asked all G20 countries, including India, to invest in a clean, green transition as they recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. This means ending fossil fuel subsidies, placing a price on carbon pollution and committing to no new coal after 2020,” said Guterres.

“In their domestic stimulus and investment plans in response to Covid-19, countries such as the South Korea, the UK, and Germany, as well as the European Union, are speeding up the decarbonisation of their economies.

“They are shifting from unsustainable fossil fuels to clean and efficient renewables, and investing in energy storage solutions, such as green hydrogen. And it is not just developed economies stepping up,” the UN Secretary-General said.

“Many in the developing world are leading by example — countries such as Nigeria, which has recently reformed its fossil fuel subsidy framework. While I am encouraged by these positive signals, I am also increasingly concerned about several negative trends,” he said.

Recent research on G20 recovery packages shows that twice as much recovery money has been spent on fossil fuels as clean energy.

“In some cases, we are seeing countries doubling down on domestic coal and opening up coal auctions. This strategy will only lead to further economic contraction and damaging health consequences,” Guterres warned.

“We have never had more evidence that pollution from fossil fuels and coal emissions severely damages human health and leads to much higher healthcare system costs. Outdoor air pollution, largely driven by high-emitting energy and transport sources, leads to damaging pulmonary diseases — asthma, pneumonia and lung cancer,” he said.

Quoting scientific studies, he said this year researchers in the US concluded that people living in regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from Covid-19.

If fossil fuel emissions were eliminated, overall life expectancy could rise by more than 20 months, avoiding 5.5 million deaths per year worldwide. Investing in fossil fuels means more deaths and illness and rising healthcare costs. It is, simply put, a human disaster and bad economics, he said.

“Not least, because the cost of renewables has fallen so much that it is already cheaper to build new renewable energy capacity than to continue operating 39 per cent of the world’s existing coal capacity. This share of uncompetitive coal plants will rapidly increase to 60 per cent in 2022. In India, 50 per cent of coal will be uncompetitive in 2022, reaching 85 per cent by 2025,” Guterres said.

This is why the world’s largest investors are increasingly abandoning coal, he added. Urging all countries, especially the G20 countries, to commit to carbon neutrality before 2050 and to submit — well before COP26 — more ambitious nationally determined contributions, Guterres asked India to be at the helm of the ambitious leadership.

Applauding India’s decision to take forward the International Solar Alliance in the form of One Sun, One World, One Grid, he said he was inspired by the Indian government’s decision to raise its target of renewable energy capacity from the initial 2015 goal of 175 gigawatts to 500 gigawatts by 2030.

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