Can Sri Lanka be a zero emissions economy? The view from Down Under…

An interview with Dr. Stephen Bygrave who is the CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions visiting Sri Lanka to speak at the forum on Combating Climate Change in Sri Lanka.

Dr. Stephen Bygrave is the CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions, an Australian NGO which promotes new innovations for a low carbon economy. Visiting Sri Lanka to speak at the forum on Combating Climate Change in Sri Lanka, he spoke to Lindha Langa about his work and Sri Lanka’s prospects for a renewable energy future…

What are the main climate change challenges for Sri Lanka?

I think like in many countries climate change is impacting the energy system, planning system, agriculture system, water security, and creating more extreme weathers like floods and droughts. All of these events present challenges to Sri Lanka. We also need to reduce emissions quickly to stop further increases in temperatures that results in more extreme weather events.

Dr Stephen Bygrave
Dr Stephen Bygrave

Your specialty is renewable energy, does Sri Lanka have a potential for this? And if so where should we invest?

I think Sri Lanka has enormous potential for solar power, wind power, and micro, mini as well as large hydropower projects. The biggest challenge for Sri Lanka and even other countries is not relying on coal and diesel for energy. This is because you have to import all of those resources – this costs money and those costs are going to increase. And as the world moves to reducing emissions, we won’t be burning coal because it won’t be possible due to the impacts on the climate.

Sri Lanka is very well positioned to use renewable energy sources. We had the Sustainable Energy Authority in Sri Lanka announce that it is possible to go to 100% renewable energy. The government has a target of 20% renewables by 2020. That does not include ‘large hydro’, so if you include ‘large hydro’ Sri Lanka should be able to get to above 50% of renewable energy by 2020.

When you mention larger-hydropower projects. These have often attracted criticism for the effects they have on rivers and communities. How can we deal with that?

Well I’d go with more micro-hydro or mini-hydropower projects which are much smaller, as well as wind and solar power projects. And more efficient use of bio gas and bio mas. This is with the use of small scale bio gas digesters which you can burn the gas for electricity. Many villagers are doing this in India and it is also possible to do this in Sri Lanka.

What are your views on the upcoming COP21 (UN Climate Change Conference) in Paris? Are you optimistic about it? What do you hope to get out of it?

Well COP21 is extremely important – because it’s an opportunity to set a new international agreement on climate change. And we’ve seen the failures that occurred in Copenhagen and there’s been quite slow movements in developing an effective climate change agreement.

However, I am a little bit worried about the COP21 because by now we should’ve heard about the main targets being set by individual countries to limit warming to 2°C. This was what world leaders agreed on at COP20 in Lima last year. But almost all of statements that have been coming in from governments around the world so far mean that we are heading for 3°C warming by the end of the century. This is deeply worrying because 2°C is already high. The World Bank has said warming of between 2°C – 4°C will destabilize our institutions and our social frameworks across the world. So we need to be more ambitious, collectively, to ensure that we reduce emissions at 2°C or far below that. In fact, my organization, Beyond Zero Emissions, we believe 2°C is too high and we should be targeting 0°C warming.

Do you not see any positive outcomes for the COP?

I’m hoping to see something positive but I am worried. The positive signs are that we have both USA and China, the two world’s biggest emitters, announcing ambitious targets already. So, we need other countries to also play their part and follow the lead of USA and China.

Your organization looks at practical solutions. What are your on-going projects in moving towards a zero emissions economy?

We are working with Byron Bay which is Australia’s first town to commit to go to zero emissions by 2025. We are hoping that will be an example for other small cities. We also have the city of Adelaide in South Australia who has also announced a target of zero emissions. We have other countries and other cities around the world also moving towards zero emissions. So, there is increasingly more momentum in this area. This is also showing international negotiators that communities are serious, they want effective action on climate change and in the absence of an international agreement they will just get on and do it anyway.

The forum on ‘Combating Climate Change in Sri Lanka’ was held at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce on September 17, 2015.


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