Oil and gas are still an important part of global energy systems, no matter how much one might hope otherwise, but the world needed to switch from them to tackle climate change, a renewable energy official has said.
Gauri Singh, deputy director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), said the two fossil fuels had always been the elephant in the room that no one seemed to want to address.
But speaking to The National to mark Wednesday's International Women’s Day, Ms Singh said she was an optimist and the UAE’s hosting of the Cop28 climate talks in November would allow everyone to “up the ante” on what needs to be done to save the planet.
Women in the renewable sector
Ms Singh, a 30-year veteran of the renewable and sustainability sector, also reflected on the challenges she faced in her native India in the 1970s, the difficulty of juggling career and home as a woman and how she was heartened to see more and more women entering the sector.
In terms of climate change, Ms Singh highlighted a report from Irena that showed in 2022 a record annual investment of $1.3 trillion in "energy transition technology" such as smart grids, charging bays and battery technology — but this was countered by statistics from Africa that showed spending on oil and gas surging. Fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — account for more than 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“We can’t take one step forward and another back, because we don’t have the time,” she said.
“[Cop28] is going to be an energy Cop. And the sooner we face this fact that [most] emissions are man-made and come from energy, then you understand this has to be the most important aspect of how we deal with climate change.”
Ms Singh said mitigation — cutting these warming emissions — needed to be the focus of the climate talks but adaptation was equally important. Adaptation refers to how communities deal with climate change such as using heat-tolerant crops and embracing more efficient irrigation systems. But huge amounts of funding are needed to make this happen.
"We can’t talk about energy transition and not about adaptation," said Ms Singh. “We talk a lot but we have not really walked the talk and I hope this Cop will attract finance and get to some strong implementable action plans that can take us forward.”
Urgent need to adapt
At Cop27 in Egypt last year, one of the few areas of progress was the creation of a “loss and damage” fund to help developing countries deal with climate change. This is separate to financing adaptation. But whoever pays for it was kicked down the road to Cop28. Many delegates at Cop27 expressed frustration that too much focus was placed on loss and damage and not on mitigation. In an interview with The National last week, for example, Germany’s climate envoy Jennifer Morgan said Cop28 had to refocus on mitigation.
“If we don’t mitigate and adapt well, then loss and damage is where we lead ourselves too,” said Ms Singh. “It is a kind of downward spiral.”
Referring to the appointment of Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, Special Envoy for Climate Change and Adnoc chief executive, as president-designate of the talks, Ms Singh said she had known him for a long time and he brings passion to any job.
"That is a strong quality. Even in Adnoc, his role is to focus a lot on getting the process as decarbonised as far as you can go. In that sense he is a great choice."
Turning to female representation in the renewable sector, Ms Singh said she had noticed more and more women feel they can relate to it. The days of energy being associated only with coal mines and distant oil fields had passed and the world of solar panels and wind turbines had become much more familiar, she said. “It is seen as a sunshine sector and the work doesn’t look as conventional energy work has normally looked.”
Ms Singh, born in 1963, grew up in Rajasthan in western India. In her schooldays in the 1970s she recalls a conservative environment but her parents gave equal opportunities to her and brother. However, many peers married early and weren't expected to have careers.
"[It took many] in my peer group to their late 30s and 40s to find time to do the things they enjoy. When I look at our generation, there was a silken boundary that you couldn’t really think of moving beyond but not now.”
Ms Singh said technology had also helped give women opportunities because it allowed people to do things even if they lived in a remote area. Ms Singh, who spent years working in government in India on projects such as developing solar power, alleviating poverty for low-income women and improving the state of rivers, said she was also fortunate to have had managers who looked at quality of work rather than time spent at a desk.
“As my son grew up, then I could focus a lot more on my career."
Reflecting on women’s day, she said it was an important moment to celebrate the contribution of women despite lingering doubts about the message of dedicating merely one day.
“Nevertheless, it is good to be able to celebrate the contribution of women in not just building families and households and taking care of loved ones, but also in the way they are coming out and contributing to society in ways that were not possible even a few decades ago."