In their journey to Net Zero, India, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Singapore and South Africa are each charting a different pathway based on each country’s unique economic, geographical and national imperatives.
- An overview by Niranjan Nadkarni, CEO, TÜV SÜD South Asia, South East Asia, Middle East and Africa Region (ASMEA)
On December 12, 2015, 196 nations signed the Paris Accord on climate change. This was a landmark in humanity’s battle against the crisis because, for the first time, all countries (barring a handful) went beyond platitudes and signed a legally binding agreement on the issue.
The Paris Agreement resulted from the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). During the negotiations that preceded the accord, it was clear that the signatory nations were at different stages of economic and technological development. They would also have dissimilar imperatives and need varying time and incentives to meet the stated climate action goals of limiting the global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and further pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The level of complexity involved in meeting these targets becomes clear from the experiences, opportunities and challenges faced by the sixteen countries that fall under the region that I lead for TÜV SÜD. If we look at just four of these countries - Singapore, India, Saudi Arabia and South Africa – it is clear that all of them are in different stages of economic, social and political development. Each country, based on its resources is walking a thin rope of ambition, progress and survival. Some doing it better than others due to sheer size and means, and others are awakening to the need for radical change. On the whole, though, it is progress in the right direction.
While this article is an overview of the situation in these four countries, in subsequent country focused articles, we take a deep dive into each of them;
India: Green revolution
India is the world’s most populous nation. It supports around 17.5% of the global population despite accounting for only 2.4% of the world’s surface area.
The situation facing the nation is thus doubly challenging. It has to grow its economy rapidly to meet the aspirations of its millions of people, yet do it sustainably. Successive Indian governments have been able to manage this tightrope walk remarkably well.
The Indian economy has been one of the fastest-growing for the last decade. According to Indian government data, GDP grew from about USD 1.69 trillion in 2012 to about USD 3.75 trillion in 2022 and is expected to surpass USD 6.3 trillion by 2030.1
Even before the signing of the Paris Accord, India had declared a voluntary goal of reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20–25% over 2005 levels by 2020.2 A slew of policy measures announced helped reduce the emission intensity of its GDP by 12% between 2005 and 2010. At COP-21 in Paris in 2015, India committed to a 40% share of power generation from non-fossil fuel sources. This has already been achieved ahead of the 2030 timeline.3
Since the Paris Accord, the move to renewable energy has accelerated, and today 40% of its installed capacity comes from non-fossil fuels. At the Glasgow Conference of Parties in November 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed India to achieving a Net-Zero target by 2070. As a pathway to achieving this long-term goal, he also set four short-term targets:
By all accounts, India is well on its way to achieving these targets.
Saudi Arabia: Beyond oil
Saudi Arabia's move towards sustainability is a unique case study for many different reasons.
The nation is the largest exporter of oil in the world. Oil production, processing and export are the primary economic activities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). A global move away from fossil fuels would therefore threaten its very economic existence.
Despite this, KSA is committed to achieving Net Zero by 2060. This is a gargantuan task. Despite being ranked 41st in the world by population and 20th by economic activity, KSA consumed more oil in 2020 than any country outside the United States, China and India. On a per capita basis, Saudi Arabia emits more CO2 than the United States – 17 metric tons a year versus 14 in the US.5
To achieve its Net Zero goal, the government relies on a three-pronged strategy. The first is to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on Oil and Gas. Under its ambitious Vision 2030 unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, KSA seeks to use its vast oil wealth for long-term investments in other economic sectors ranging from mining, industrials, financial services, high technology and tourism.6
The government also seeks to leverage KSA's geographical position at the crossroads of trade routes between Asia, Europe and Africa and transform the country into a major trade and logistics hub by constructing ports, railways, roads and airports.
By both these measures, KSA hopes to boost the share of non-oil exports from 16% to 50%, the Vision 2030 document stipulates.7
The second pillar of KSA's Net-Zero strategy is reducing its dependence on oil in its energy needs by both demand-side and supply-side measures. These are reforms revoking fuel and utility subsidies, driving efficiency gains and technology switching. On the supply side, the transformation seeks to replace oil from the kingdom’s electricity generation sector with renewable energy sources.8
The third pillar is carbon capture. Desalination plants, refineries, petrochemical plants and other emitters in the kingdom's industrial zones would see their emissions captured, compressed and piped to underground storage, perhaps in depleting oilfields or vast aquifers below the western half of the Arabian Peninsula. Longer term, carbon capture would facilitate replacing natural gas with low-emission fuels based on hydrogen, including ammonia and methanol.9
KSA’s move to Net Zero by 2060 is undoubtedly challenging, given its almost economic total dependence on Oil and Gas and the radical structural economic transformation it entails. It remains to be seen if the momentum behind this push can be maintained.
Singapore: Sustainable Singapore
Singapore presents another facet of how different countries face sustainability challenges.
This nation-state is among the most economically developed nations in the world, ranked sixth on a GDP per capita basis (second on a purchasing power basis). Despite this prosperity, Singapore has its own set of challenges in reducing its emissions intensity.
It is a low-lying island state of 716 km². This area has to accommodate housing and commercial centres, power plants, reservoirs, air/seaports, and industries. At about 7,500 people per sq. km, Singapore has one of the highest population densities in the world.
This urban density, limited land area, relatively flat land, low wind speeds and lack of geothermal resources present serious difficulties in pursuing alternative energy options such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind or geothermal power. Harnessing solar energy in a significant way is also a challenge due to competing uses for limited land. As a result of this, Singapore is dependent on fossil fuels for its energy requirements.10
Despite these constraints, the country is doing its best to reduce emissions. It is committed to reducing emissions to around 60 MtCO2e in 2030 after peaking earlier and achieving Net Zero emissions by 2050.11
One of its early decisions towards this was to move from fuel oil to natural gas, a much cleaner fuel for energy generation. Almost 90% of Singapore’s electricity is generated using natural gas.
As a demand-side measure to control emissions and encourage efficiency, in 2019, it was the first country in Southeast Asia to impose a carbon tax. This is applied to direct emissions from facilities producing 25 ktCO2e or more GHG emissions in a year without exemption. This covers 80% of Singapore's carbon emissions, provides an economy-wide price signal to incentivise emissions reductions, supports other mitigation measures, and facilitates the transition to a low-carbon economy.12
Singapore is also taking steps to make public and shared transport and active mobility the preferred mode of travel. It seeks to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles, promote the adoption of cleaner alternatives, such as electric vehicles, and enhance the environmental friendliness of its transport infrastructure.
In February 2021, it launched the Singapore Green Plan 2030, which seeks to galvanise a whole-of-nation movement and advance its national agenda on sustainable development.13
Spearheaded by five ministries – the Ministries of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE), Trade and Industry (MTI), Transport (MOT), National Development (MND), and Education (MOE) – the Green Plan charts ambitious and concrete targets for the rest of this decade.
Given the country's efficient administration and track record of achieving stretch targets, there is little doubt that Singapore will accomplish these goals.
South Africa: A Just Transition
South Africa's transition to a Net-Zero economy presents another interesting facet of various nations' challenges.
It is the second-largest economy in Africa and the 39th-largest in the world. Despite this, according to the World Bank, 55% of South Africa’s population lives in poverty and 25% experience food poverty.15
It is the world’s largest producer of minerals like platinum, chromium, and manganese, the second-largest producer of titanium, the third-largest of vanadium and 11th largest producer of gold. Among its other large mineral productions are iron ore, uranium, cobalt, phosphate and coal. While the share of mining in the GDP has declined as the tertiary sector gained traction, it still contributes to about 60% of the country’s exports. The resource extraction process is energy intensive and contributes significantly to South Africa’s carbon emissions.
South Africa’s economy and energy system is one of the most coal-dependent in the world and features a large stock of high-carbon infrastructure, particularly in the energy sector.
South Africa has been severely impacted by climate change. According to its submissions under the Paris Agreement, since 1990, the national average temperature has increased more than twice that of global temperature increases, which is already resulting in more frequent droughts and extreme weather events.16 This was dramatically highlighted by the Cape Town water crisis of 2017, when the city almost ran out of water.17
The country’s government is acutely aware of this and has committed to ambitious emission control goals. In its Nationally Defined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Accord (updated in 2021), the country has committed to a fixed target for greenhouse gas emissions levels of 398-510 MtCO2e by 2025 and 350-420 MtCO2e by 2030, compared to 398 and 614 Mt CO2e between 2025 and 2030 as communicated in the first NDC.18
The Just Energy Transition Partnership is important in this context as South Africa’s journey to Net Zero is likely to be difficult and can only happen if it receives adequate support from developed nations and multilateral agencies.
Since signing the Paris Accord, the country has made several legislative and policy changes to curtail emissions, including imposing a Carbon Tax Act in 2019.
It has drawn up detailed strategies to meet its Net Zero target. According to its updated NDC submission, the government aims to focus in the 2020s primarily on decarbonising the electricity sector. In the 2030s, it aims for a deeper transition in the electricity sector, coupled with a shift in the transport sector towards low-emission vehicles, while the 2040s and beyond will be characterised by the decarbonisation of the hard-to-mitigate sectors.19
While South Africa's government is committed to achieving its Net Zero targets, what is also clear from its NDC submission updates is that the country will require significant support to achieve its goal. This is in terms of technology, capacity building and about USD 8 billion per year in climate finance by 2030.20
The governments of each of these four countries – completely different, not just in terms of geography, resources and the possible impact of climate change – but also in terms of economic development and governance systems are committed to meeting their climate action goals. We at TÜV SÜD understand this since we are assisting stakeholders in several critical areas.
Undoubtedly, climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity today. If we do not take immediate action, we are bound to suffer. But as the preceding paragraphs illustrate, the pathways to Net Zero for each nation will be different depending on their unique economic, geographical and national imperatives. Nations must determine what works for them best and in what time frames. International cooperation and support in terms of technology and financing have to be based on these criteria.
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