Is the corporate world finally waking up to the crying reality of climate change?

The world is at a crucial crossroads. The battle is not won as yet. At such a critical juncture in the history of mankind, Mauritius must choose its camp

By Mrinal Roy

The 50th edition of the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) held from 21- 24 January 2020 raised hopes that after decades of prevarication and denial, the corporate world was finally waking up to the crying reality of the potent risks and dire fallouts of an impending climate change catastrophe on our planet, the global economy and on mankind. For the first time, environmental concerns dominated the top five long-term global risks for business leaders, investors and policy-makers surveyed in the WEF’s annual report released last week.

The 750 respondents to the WEF’s 2020 Global Risks Perception Survey ‘ranked extreme weather events, climate action failure, natural disasters, biodiversity loss and human-made environmental disasters the top five most likely risks for the global economy this year – ahead of data fraud, cyber attacks, water crisis, global governance failure and assets bubbles.’ The global economy’s capacity to respond potently to climate risks was thus considered a top priority of the World Economic Forum

The success of the Davos forum stems from its particular format which assembles some 3000 business and political leaders from across the world. It thus enables world leaders and key CEOs to exchange views and engage discussions directly on the major challenges facing the world.

Climate change was therefore a key theme at Davos. During the past year there was growing awareness in the world that the devastating damage caused by climate change, global warming and the related extreme weather conditions are not only a jolting reality but must be urgently addressed to prevent irreversible consequences on planet Earth and the future of the young. There was an urgent need for political and societal cohesion and an unswerving determination to tackle the climate crisis.

Ending the use of coal and fossil fuels

Thus, in a joint statement issued at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP25) held in December 2019 in Spain, 631 institutional investors managing more than $37 trillion in assets urged governments to step up efforts to tackle the global climate crisis and keep average global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. To this end and in line with the investor code adopted by them, they urged governments to phase out thermal coal power, put a meaningful price on carbon pollution and end subsidies for fossil fuels. A growing number of businesses and investors have therefore committed to more ambitious climate action and the decarburization of their operations and investments. Investors are moving their assets out of coal and fossil fuels.

Highly polluting coal and fossil fuels are the main source of massive carbon emissions in the world and the main culprits of the dire fallouts of climate change on planet Earth and mankind. Scientists say that unchecked global carbon emissions hit an all-time high in 2019, after the previous record achieved in 2018. Thus, emissions from industrial activities and the burning of coal and fossil fuels belched an estimated 36.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or more than 85% of some 43.1 billion tonnes of total carbon emissions from all human activities, including agriculture and land use.

In order to maximize our chances of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we must imperatively halve global emissions by 2030 and reach Net-Zero by 2050. This means governments, business, investors and civil society must work together to rapidly transform our economy into a greener and more sustainable one by the end of the decade.

At Davos, President Macron therefore pledged to shut down all coal-fired power stations by 2021 and ‘make France a model in the fight against climate change’. Across the European Union, the economic tide is already turning against coal power as they are losing money and are being pushed out of business as a result of rapidly falling prices of renewable energy and stricter air pollution laws.

At the start of a new decade, a real transition away from fossil fuels is therefore beginning to gather momentum. In an open letter published in the Guardian earlier this month, Greta Thunberg and 21 other young climate activists demanded all companies, banks, institutions and governments attending the 2020 Davos summit to “immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction, immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies and immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels.’

There cannot be any half measures regarding ending the use of highly polluting coal and other fossil fuels if we are to keep average global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and save the planet from an impending climate change disaster.

At Davos, Microsoft announced its plan to go ‘carbon negative’ by 2030 whereas BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager with $7 trillion in assets undertook to divest from fossil fuels and adopt an investment strategy which minimizes its carbon footprint. Asset managers are already starting to shun fossil fuels.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres summed it up aptly: “We will be destroyed by climate change, not the planet. Humankind has declared a war on nature and nature is striking back in a very violent way. We imperatively need to change course.’

Scientists present at Davos warned that we are close to several ‘tipping points’ which could accelerate global warming even more. One of these is the melting of the ice caps in the Arctic and the Antarctic. An ice-free Arctic would spell disaster for the whole world. Since the 1970s we have lost 75% of the volume of the Arctic summer sea ice. These changes are evidenced by video footage summing up decades of data and scientific measurements.

In contrast, Mauritius seems to be trapped in a time warp. While the world is resolutely ending the use of highly polluting coal and phasing out the use of fossil fuels, the Mauritian government seems to shy away from promptly ending the use of coal as the main source of electricity production in the country.

Alibi or fig leaf for coal

The Government Programme 2020-2024 released last week thus lacks a clear and coherent energy policy. There is no intent to urgently end the use of highly polluting coal and phase out the use of fossil fuels to produce electricity in the country. It is full of motherhood statements to mask the stark reality that some 40.2 % or the lion’s share of electricity production stems from the burning of highly polluting coal and that another chunk of 39% of electricity is produced from other fossil fuels whereas only 14% of electricity is produced in line with a falling sugar cane production from a dwindling volume of bagasse. Bagasse or the new found mantra biomass cannot be an alibi or a fig leaf to mask the continued massive use of highly polluting coal in ring fenced and lucrative ventures of Independent Power Producers.

It is a known scientific fact across the world that coal is about one and a half times more polluting than gasoline and that natural gas is a cleaner substitute for highly polluting coal. Burning natural gas, for instance, produces nearly half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy compared with coal. Natural gas is thus considered by many to be a “bridge fuel” that can help nations lower their carbon emissions while they transit from fossil fuels to renewable and carbon-neutral forms of energy. The electricity producing natural gas plants must however implement measures to limit methane leakage.

Why is Mauritius therefore shying away from the use of natural gas to produce electricity instead of continuing our dependence on highly polluting coal? Why are the national targets for developing the use of renewable energy to reach 35% in 2025 and 40% in 2030 so timid? As a small island developing state (SIDS) Mauritius is particularly vulnerable to the adverse fallouts of climate change as evidenced by coastal erosion, the rise in sea water temperatures and levels, the bleaching of corals and extreme weather events.

If we want to have a credible voice to defend the cause of SIDS, we must lead by example. We cannot continue our high dependence on highly polluting coal and fossil fuels for the production of our electricity when the world is moving more and more towards ending the use of coal and phasing out the use of fossil fuels to produce electricity.

Choosing our camp

The corporate world and world governments are more and more coming to terms with the crying reality that they can no longer bury their heads in the sand and be in denial of the damaging impact of climate change on planet Earth and the future of our children and the young. The world leaders and all those who continue to be in denial despite the mounting and overwhelming scientific evidence or are driven by greed are undermining the future of our planet and the lives of future generations.

The world is at a crucial crossroads. The battle is not won as yet. At such a critical juncture in the history of mankind, Mauritius must choose its camp. Will the country pander to the interests of a few and be in cahoots with those prospering on coal and fossil fuels or will the government adopt potent and coherent policies to help the enlightened caucus of world nations save the planet for our children and future generations?

* Published in print edition on 31 January 2020

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