Climate change, food and energy nexus | Sunday Observer

Climate change, food and energy nexus

26 September, 2021

The main focus of this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is Covid and how nations can overcome the contagion through resilience and robust health systems.

Vaccination is very much a part of this strategy and in fact, is the only certain way out of the pandemic.

In his wide-ranging speech to the UNGA, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa focused heavily on Sri Lanka’s successful vaccination drive, which is almost on par with those of many developed countries and also on other ways in which the virus is being battled.

While Covid took centre stage, this year’s UNGA also focused on three other concerns of the international community: climate change, food and energy. All these are interconnected topics that have become crucial for our very survival.

Almost all world leaders who addressed the UNGA, including President Rajapaksa, stressed that the world must tackle the challenges posed by climate change without delay.

The past year has shown that climate events are becoming increasingly intense and frequent, as seen by the floods in Germany and the wildfires in Greece. Here in Sri Lana too, we have witnessed many freak weather events.

Last Friday, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change issued a report on the Nationally Determined Contributions of all Parties to the Paris Agreement saying the world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7-degrees (Celsius) of heating.

According to the report, to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, a 45 percent cut in emissions is needed by 2030 and carbon neutrality by mid-century.

These goals are still achievable, if countries stick to their commitments. The world will face a major catastrophe by 2100 if these goals are not met.

World leaders will have another opportunity to discuss and debate these aims at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November.

Apart from the issue of climate change, the UN included the pertinent topics of food and energy for discussion at two special plenary sessions.

Addressing the session on food, President Rajapaksa stressed that it is essential to transform global food systems to be more sustainable and that all stakeholders should work together in this regard.

Highlighting the interconnected nature of climate change and food, the President said that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in global food systems and that it will only be worsened with climate change.

In this context, Sri Lanka has set an example to the whole world by switching over to organic fertiliser, a step that will avoid adverse health and environmental impacts. It will be healthy for the planet as well.

There is no doubt that many other countries will be keenly watching this program to learn from it.

There will naturally be teething problems as changing the mindset of farmers long accustomed to using chemical fertilisers is difficult and the production of a sufficient quantity of organic fertiliser domestically is challenging.

Hence the President’s appeal for technical assistance and bilateral support in this regard. The ultimate aim of this program is to ensure food security, a critical part of national security.

The other major issue confronting the world is energy. Reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions and promoting sustainable energy solutions are essential to ensure the health of the planet. As noted in the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the threats posed by human-induced climate change to the planet can no longer be ignored.

Ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy is an important goal to pursue globally, as emphasised by President Rajapaksa at the Plenary Session on Energy. He said that sustainable energy development continues to be a high priority for Sri Lanka in line with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Number 7.

All countries including Sri Lanka are now keen to phase out the use of fossil fuels and opt for renewable energy. The country has set an ambitious target for at least 70 percent of the country’s energy requirements to be obtained through renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy by 2030. Many new projects are in the pipeline in this regard. Sri Lanka also plans to stop the registration of fossil-fuel powered vehicles by 2040 and allow only electric or hydrogen powered vehicles, which will anyway be commonplace by that time, in line with most other countries. All these steps will also help Sri Lanka to drastically cut the USD six billion annual petroleum import bill.

In the words of the President “Our aim is to transition away from fossil fuels, promote de-carbonisation, and make Sri Lanka a carbon neutral country by 2050”. This is a goal that can be achieved with the right mindset and right initiatives. For example, Sri Lanka’s commitment not to construct any new coal power plants is reflected in its nationally determined contributions to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

But fossil fuels will not go away in a few years as there is a lot more of it to be extracted. Besides, oil will still be in demand for at least 50 more years especially in sectors such as aviation – it will be several decades before electric or hydrogen power can lift a plane carrying 300-400 passengers off the ground, even though Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) made from synthetic oils are filling the gap slowly.

But countries with oil deposits such as Sri Lanka, estimated to have USD 260 billion worth of oil, must move fast to extract the wells before oil loses its sheen.

It is a short window of opportunity before the world moves entirely to renewable energy, heralding a better future for the planet.