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The Renewable Paradox: The Neglected Suffering from Climate Change

In 2021, the world emitted 36.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, a six percent increase compared with 2020. The abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere leads to serious problems: tropical storms, wildfires, rising sea levels, and droughts— all a part of the same issue: climate change. The United Nations and other international agencies aim to reach “net zero emission by 2050”. To achieve this ambition, the government promotes the transition to green energy, encourages businesses to invest in it, and subsidizes innovations in renewable energy. However, the major controversy is that only developed countries with advanced technology and a sufficient budget can invest in renewable energy. In the Paris Agreement, investment in renewable energy is a critical aspect of reaching “net zero by 2050”. Consequently, countries all place high importance on investing in and producing renewable energies. In China, the government “places a priority on investing in renewable energy”. The NEA (China’s National Energy Administration) and NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission) also plan to spend “more than $260 billion” to promote renewable innovation and generate “13 million jobs in the sector by 2030.”

Nevertheless, investment in renewable energy should not be our only focus. Regardless of who leads the way in investing in renewable energy, this does not help today’s victims of climate change. Throughout 2022, more than 20 detrimental natural disasters occurred among poor developing countries: East Africa experienced droughts that “killed more than 200” and “put millions at risk of starvation”. Floods in Nigeria killed at least 612. According to Carbon Brief, the root cause of majority natural disasters is climate change. These tragedies are just the tip of the iceberg. The world always emphasizes the importance of transitioning to renewable energy, while the need to adapt and protect ourselves against the current, irreversible (in the short term future at least) impacts of climate change go unaddressed.

It’s not easy being green

The renewable energy industry is developing at a rapid pace. McKinsey estimates that by 2035, renewables will provide 60 percent of the world’s electricity. The World Economic Forum claims that “The transition to clean energy is expected to generate 10.3 million net new jobs globally by 2030, and that will offset the 2.7 million jobs lost in the fossil fuel sector”. The future of renewable energy seems bright, but in the shadows, the path to achieving it is filled with obstacles.

Figure 1, BP’s 2020 Energy Outlook

This illustration of energy consumption in the last 25 years (Figure 1) shows two factors of

note: one, renewable energy is growing faster than any other source of energy, but two, the fraction of energy provided by renewals is not increasing at the same pace. The reason for this apparent paradox is that growth in renewables is far outpaced by growth in energy use globally, so in reality, the growth of renewables does not come hand in hand with much reduction in the use of fossil fuels in real terms. Coal, oil, and natural gas contribute more to the absolute growth of energy than renewables. Therefore, any reduction in the effects of climate change is unlikely to happen any time soon. We still need at least a few decades to achieve net zero emissions through renewable energy.

Increased spending on renewable energy innovation does not immediately help those suffering from the effects of climate change. In order to reduce the impact on people’s lives, then, we need to focus more on adaptation to the current reality. Governments and world organizations need to balance current plans, devoting more time to feasible immediate relief methods, and prioritizing methods to lift people out of danger and torment now, not just in a few decades’ time.

The neglected

Around the world, nations are suffering both from subtle and stark effects of climate change. Developed countries, like the United States, Germany, and Japan, combat climate change by establishing strong infrastructure. In contrast, on the other side of the world; the victims of climate change are vulnerable and regularly exposed to dangerous situations. Over the past 30 years, the number of people living in areas at high risk from rising sea levels has increased from 160 million to 260 million, 90 percent of whom are from poor developing countries and small island states. The World Economic Forum predicted the severity of rising sea levels in Bangladesh, stating that “17 percent of the country will be submerged by the rise in sea level by 2050, and 20 million people living there will lose their homes”. The effects of climate change are projected to be particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where most of the global poor currently live because, due to greater reliance on low-quality infrastructure, dependence on agriculture for income, and high ownership of easily damaged assets, those living in poverty are extremely vulnerable to climate-related natural disasters. Africa has a severe infrastructure deficit. Figure 2 shows that 69 percent of the African region lacks access to electricity, which is a crucial telecommunication platform in natural disasters. As a result, approximately one billion people are unable to receive alert messages before natural disasters, one billion people are unable to seek help during disasters, and eventually one billion people may die homeless and in despair.

Image 2 McKinsey

In 2021, sub-Saharan Africa experienced 429 natural disasters, with over one thousand deaths due to insufficient natural disaster resilient infrastructure. The McKinsey report (Figure 3) shows that although the potential funds for investment are there, skills and The Renewable Paradox: The neglected suffering from climate changebusiness plans are insufficient. The McKinsey report reveals the paradox of African infrastructure: enough funds, but weak feasibility, delays in approval and licensing. To resolve this, we need investment not just of money but of human resources and skills to ensure that the budget available can find its way into funding real practical projects.

image 3, McKinsey

Reaching a Resolution

Investment in renewable energy will certainly help the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and is essential in the long-term mission of transitioning to a greener world. However, it is just that: long term. It will do nothing to help all those in developing countries battered by climate changed induced natural disasters today. In addressing climate change, we must address not only prevention, but also adaptation. Infrastructure is vital. Developing countries need the assistance of the world to improve their infrastructure, not only though financial support but also with human resources and skills. Without this, global climate change conferences, agreements, protests and plans will help the victims of the future, while leaving today’s victims stranded and helpless.

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