Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 14 April 2013
Last week’s column, on Sri Lanka’s climate change adaptation needs and priorities, elicited some predictable reactions.
Environmentalist friends — with whom I frequently disagree — faulted me for not once mentioning climate mitigation, or actions to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
A couple of activists were also miffed that I didn’t get on their bandwagon of demanding global climate justice for historical emissions from industrialised countries. (Sorry, but that one is full of recycled hot air…)
Some felt that I had kept my analysis too much at the macro level, ignoring micro (or community) level measures. As I see it, the challenge is to keep ‘zooming in’ for detail and ‘zooming out’ for better perspective. Scattered action without a coherent vision is wasted effort.
Yes, reducing emissions is the only way to stabilise the global climate without worsening the problem. But easier said than done: while it’s fashionable to talk about mitigation, few countries walk their talk.
At the UN climate convention’s (UNFCCC) annual conferences – held every November or December – there is much bickering on which countries or sectors should reduce emitting global warming (greenhouse) gases, and by how much. Progress has been slow and painful.
Our share of global warming
Sri Lanka, which signed UNFCCC in 1993, attends these annual talks and consistently upholds the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.
The bottomline: Sri Lanka’s contribution of global greenhouse gases is small, so our ability to mitigate is rather limited. In 2009, our annual per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emission was 0.61 metric tons (or 610 kg) according to national data collated by the UN’s MDG database.
In comparison, the annual per capita value for mainland China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau, which are counted separately) was 5.76 tons and the United States, 17.22 tons. In South Asia, India and the Maldives have higher per capita rates.
With 20.27 million heads counted in March 2012, Sri Lanka has just 0.29% of the world’s total population. So, in absolute number terms too, our contribution to global warming is modest at best. As Professor Sarath Kotagama of the Colombo University once remarked at a climate change workshop, “The world may not even feel that we exist (in global warming terms).”
For data buffs, details are found in the national Greenhouse Gas Inventory the government compiled as part of its second official report to UNFCCC in 2011. The assessment, which covers sectors such as energy, transport, agriculture and industry, used statistics from the year 2000. The first such stock-taking was done in 1994.
The full report has a whole chapter on climate mitigation options for Sri Lanka. It offers a good overview of current policies and strategies, as well as some fresh thinking.
The chapter notes: “Sri Lanka has adopted many policy measures that would result in mitigating emissions. These policy decisions were in fact taken to bring in environmentally friendly concerns among the people and industrialists and to avoid pollution of the country in general.”
In other words, climate friendly policies and actions can yield many benefits — among them, (literally) cleaner air, healthier and more liveable cities and less traffic on our roads.
According to the latest Greenhouse Gas inventory, 65% of Lanka’s aggregate emissions came from the energy sector, followed by 23% from agriculture and 10% from the waste sector.
Sri Lanka imports all its petroleum and coal, burning of which accounts for the largest volume of CO2 emissions. The report breaks this down by use: the lion’s share (47%) comes from the road transport, 23% from thermal power generation, and 14% from industries.
“It is therefore important that the road transport…be given the highest priority in planning out a mitigation strategy,” the report rightly says.
The National Transport Policy, drafted in 2008, includes several elements that could contribute to a reduction of carbon emissions directly or indirectly. One important recommendation is improving mass public transport systems.
With roads and bus terminals already crowded, there isn’t much scope to increase bus services (even though arrangements like dedicated bus lanes can streamline flow). The mitigation review says a far more cost effective and lower emission solution would be to improve the existing railway system — by increasing their frequency and capacity to carry passenger traffic at peak hours.
It adds: “This could be best achieved by electrifying the railway system, which is a far more efficient system as far as emissions are concerned.”
Carbon emissions per passenger km are significantly lower in railways when compared with road transport. Railways can also provide carbon-friendly and cheaper goods transport – another neglected aspect.
In another recommendation, it advocates corporate executives reducing their commuting days by working at home on some days of the week, taking advantage of broadband Internet connectivity.
This is the kind of progressive thinking we need. Our climate activists should applaud such reforms rather than harp on unrealistic (albeit feel-good) ideas like observing car-free days and cycling to work (in this heat and humidity? Count me out!).
The next big emitter of carbon is electricity generation. In 2007, before coal power came online, 60% of electricity was generated by thermal plants burning petroleum (diesel); the balance was from hydro. The National Energy Policy and Strategy (NEPS) of 2006 sought to phase out dependence on oil for electricity generation.
Accordingly, the power utility CEB’s Long Term Generation Expansion Plan (LTGE) Plan envisages coal progressively replacing oil’s share in thermal power generation. This has commenced with 300 MW of coal power being added in 2011 (from problem-ridden Norochcholai).
More coal power is on its way – which will accelerate our carbon emissions in the coming decade. Balancing the economy, environment and public health is not going to be easy…
On its part, CEB is mandated to provide reliable, quality electricity to the entire nation at affordable prices; other considerations are not their priority. As Sri Lanka’s report to UNFCCC candidly notes: “[coal] has been identified as the least-cost option by the electric utility, but this is taking into consideration only the cost of production without including any environment damage cost or human health damage cost” [emphasis added].
What about renewable sources of energy?
Well, Hydro power itself is renewable: in a year of good rainfall (unpredictable these days) 40% of electricity is generated from large and medium sized hydro power plants.
In addition, by late 2010, some 219 MW of smaller scale renewable energy capacity was connected to the national electricity grid (178 MW from mini hydro plants; 11 MW from biomass (dendro) plants; and 30 MW from wind power).
The energy policy, NEPS, envisages a minimum of 10% of electricity supplied to the grid from non-conventional and renewable energy sources by 2015. By end 2007, however, only 3.5% came from such sources. It’s not clear how — or if — this target would be achieved in the next three years.
But there has been some policy progress. In 2009, Sri Lanka introduced net metering, which allows private individuals to produce electricity using renewable sources of energy and “sell” the surplus to the national grid (even though the transaction is in kind, not in cash). A new two-way electricity meter enables this process.
While these and other initiatives try to improve the supply side, energy conservation can help reduce overall demand. Campaigns like the Earth Hour, observed worldwide every March, help focus public attention on this aspect. However, we need practical and affordable solutions, not just activist rhetoric or corporate PR.
As current debates about impending electricity rate hikes show, Lankan consumers are desperate for meaningful ways to contain their bills from rising. No one knowingly wastes electricity.
Greater awareness and promotion of energy efficient appliances and practices certainly help. Duty concessions for CFL and LED bulbs would bring them within reach of more households.
At a systemic level, the utility needs to clean up its act too. The CEB’s power generation, transmission and distribution losses are around 15%. While some system losses are unavoidable when electrons flow over long distances, there is still room for improvement. When accomplished, that can reduce emissions from avoided power generation.