Human-induced climate change is a reality—already happening. If emissions of greenhouse gases are not reduced drastically in the next couple of decades, the situation will get significantly worse by century's end. What's needed is a set of changes in the global energy economy so that it is based on non-polluting resources instead of, primarily, on fossil fuels. As with most things, though, the devil is in the details.
The details are quite complicated where climate change is concerned. Each country must devise an energy-transition strategy that is both appropriate to its national circumstances and consistent with global emissions goals.
After years of disappointing climate commitments from nations around the world, lately some positive momentum has been evident. Ahead of the major international climate conference scheduled to begin in Paris in November, about three-quarters of the world's nations have submitted plans—known as intended nationally determined contributions—describing how they will, over time, manage a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. But so far these plans, taken together, would only reduce the trajectory of global temperature increase to about 3 degrees Celsius above pre–Industrial Revolution temperatures—well above the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees. In Paris, it's hoped that nations will commit to reductions greater than they've already promised. But if the conference fails to deliver aggregate reductions that would limit warming to 2 degrees, the idea is that national targets would be "ratcheted up" in the future at five-year intervals.
Low emissions as a co-benefit. If the world is to achieve a successful clean-energy transition, nations must significantly alter their outlooks toward technological approaches to climate change. Technological options for a clean-energy future mustn't be seen as burdens or costs—rather, they are opportunities for nations to deliver a better, cleaner, and more efficient future to their citizens.
My own country, Bangladesh, is highly vulnerable to climate change. With its flat topography, propensity to flooding, and dependence on the annual monsoon, Bangladesh has much to fear from stronger cyclones, increased drought, encroaching salinity, and the like. Complicating matters is that Bangladesh's 170 million people, more than 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, inhabit a country of about 130,000 square kilometers, giving Bangladesh one of the world's highest population densities.
But though Bangladesh is a poor country—and is responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—it is making major strides in providing solar energy to its people. Well in excess of 3 million solar home systems have already been installed, and an additional 70,000 are coming on line each month. This makes Bangladesh's program for solar home systems the fastest-growing in the world.
Solar power isn't expanding in Bangladesh primarily for mitigation purposes—though that is a welcome co-benefit. Rather, Bangladesh is investing intensively in solar home systems in order to satisfy demand for household electricity, even for the poorest households. Thus the most popular systems are relatively small—sufficient to power some light bulbs, a radio, and a television. For customers, the main attractions are enabling children to do homework after dark and dispensing with dirty kerosene lamps. In fact, customers often purchase solar home systems using loans that are cheaper to repay than kerosene is to buy.
This is possible in part because of a public-private partnership. A company called Infrastructure Development Company Limited provides low-cost loans to private franchisees around the country, who then provide customers with solar home systems (usually bought on credit) and service after the sale. The government and the private sector are now exploring ways to provide larger photovoltaic systems that could provide energy for pumping irrigation water and for other commercial and industrial uses. The bottom line is that solar energy has become a major part of the energy mix in Bangladesh, and though fossil-fuel power generation is still required, dependence on fossil fuels will diminish over time.
Such transitions from fossil fuels to clean-energy technologies must become the norm in every country—rich and poor alike—if climate change is to be tackled successfully. Circumstances will differ from nation to nation, as will the technologies that countries choose to invest in. But the most successful countries will be those that make the quickest transition to the post–fossil fuel era.