Can India’s Climate Change Blueprint Work? What’s In It?

This is part-2 of a series on India’s climate change plan. If you missed part 1, see yesterday’s post.

India is the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter – after China, the US and the European Union – but, so far, it has resisted attempts to limit its energy use, asking developed nations, which it largely blames for the greenhouse gases, to fix the problem themselves.

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So, in that sense, yes, India’s recent Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) for 2030 was indeed “path-breaking.”

Development + Emissions Cuts

Economists, as well as industry analysts, are trying to figure out how the country will juggle development of its infrastructure and industry, especially in the light of the ‘Make In India’ campaign, and keeping pollution levels down.

The INDC mentioned some big-ticket infrastructure projects such as the dedicated rail freight corridor to shift away from road transportation. Researchers such as Navroz Dubash, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, has dubbed this section as “somewhat vague.” But in the same breath, analysts and environmental groups have welcomed it because it brings a climate perspective to a huge portion of the economy, including energy, transportation, water, forests, agriculture.

Unlike countries such as China and the US, the Indian plan does not commit to an absolute reduction or peak level for carbon emissions, acknowledging, tacitly, that India’s pollution will continue to grow, although maybe at a slower pace.

Is Industrialization Possible Without Coal-Fired Power?

On another front, analysts have found India’s continued commitment to expanding coal power capacity quite perplexing. In the submitted plan, coal continues to dominate India’s power generation.

Reacting to this, Greenpeace was quoted in a Bloomberg report that expansion of coal power would hamper India’s development prospects by worsening the problems of air quality and water scarcity as well as contribute to the destruction of forests and the displacement of communities.

Clearly, there seems to be some measure of conflict between India’s energy use and its desire to keep the climate clean. In the past, India has often mentioned its growth plans — providing electricity to over 50% of Indians, the construction of roads and infrastructure, all of which will require energy-intensive processes like steel and automobile production, as well as natural resource mining. India is the fastest-growing region of the world, most of it powered by fossil fuels.

Reconciling Growth and Green

A research paper drawn up by the Brookings Institution, earlier in the year, articulates this well. It asks: how can India thread the needle between climate disaster and premature economic stagnation?

Though the challenge was great, it said, India will be an important enough partner at the upcoming climate talks to articulate a set of red and green lines. India, said the institute, would find it difficult to accede to any deal that would make its ongoing industrialization “the first industrial revolution in history to be nipped in the bud by international restrictions.”

There are others like former climate adviser to the UN climate secretariat, Mukul Sanwal, who predicted that by 2030, India was likely to use less coal than China and the US. People are discounting hydro-electric power in India, slated to be a big area of development.

Others, like Arunabha Ghosh, founder of the Council for Energy Environment and Water, have pointed out that the government was already spending on combating the adverse effects of climate change through its renewables program. Given India’s 300 million-plus people lacking access to electricity and the many development challenges industrialization poses, committing to more emissions cuts in the absence of support could risk its development imperatives.

For now, at least, the Indian government seems to be making all the popular choices. It recently announced an increased renewable energy target of 175 gigawatts by 2021-22, from the earlier predicted 38 GW. Of this, 100 GW was planned from solar, 60 GW from wind, 10 GW from biomass energy and 5 GW from hydro-electric. If these targets were realized, renewable energy was expected to contribute about 20% of electricity generation by 2021-22.

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The targets have been revised because India wanted to get more electricity from renewable energy, said Ashvini Kumar, Managing Director of Renewable Energy Corporation of India.

The author, Sohrab Darabshaw, contributes an Indian perspective on industrial metals markets to MetalMiner.

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