As the international community braces for the next round of negotiations on climate change mitigations at Glasgow (COP26), India has a good case for not committing to ‘net zero’ or carbon neutrality by 2050 that the developed nations are pushing for. Net-zero is not part of the Paris Agreement (COP21 of 2015), which the Glasgow negotiations are meant to finalise and implement. The Paris Agreement had set no such target. Instead, it sought verifiable targets of carbon control measures by individual countries, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC).

Twenty-four “Like-Minded Developing Countries" (LMDC), which include India and China, are opposed to net-zero, and have said it “runs counter to the Paris Agreement and is anti-equity and against climate justice".

It is a no brainer that carbon emissions by developed nations are far higher, and so is their energy consumption, vis-à-vis developing nations and thus, both can’t be put in the same bracket. Energy is essential to growth and development and hence, the LMDC’s call for more carbon space to grow—while developed nations share a higher burden of reducing carbon emission, and incentivise green energy development in developing nations, through technology transfers and investment etc.

The following two graphs provide a comparative picture of where India stands in energy consumption (using electricity as proxy) and carbon emission vis-a-vis select countries. Both graphs use per capita energy consumption and carbon emission levels to account for different population bases.

Image : Graphic by Amit Sharma
Image : Graphic by Amit Sharma

As it is clear in the graphs, India’s electricity consumption is a small fraction of developed nations like the U.S., U.K., and even China. Its carbon emission, too, is far below the global averages and those of the U.S., U.K., and China. The long-term trend shows India’s energy consumption is increasing, and so is carbon emission. Carbon emission globally and in the U.S. and U.K. is declining, but in China, it is increasing.

As for its commitment to the Paris Agreement (COP21), India has already declared in July 2021 that it has achieved its NDC commitment of installing 38.5% of installed capacity from renewables and is sure to achieve its emission reduction target of 33-35% by 2030 (over the 2005 level) since it already has reduced emission by 28%.

All this is, however, no excuse for India to lower its guard. It is a victim of global warming. Untimely and excessive rain and recurring cyclones have killed scores of people and damaged crops and properties in India in recent years.

Development of renewable energy

India has made rapid strides in developing non-fossil fuel-based energy—called “renewable” energy sources—which are non-polluting or less polluting and thus, contribute less to global warming, such as sunlight, wind, water, and biofuel. Its total installed renewable energy capacity (excluding large hydro projects) crossed 100 GW recently, and it is now targeting a capacity of 450 GW by 2030. India stands 4th and 5th in the world in solar and wind energy.

Its power mix in installed capacity presents a healthier picture. As of September 30, 2021, fossil fuel (including coal) accounted for 60.2%; coal alone 51.9%; hydroelectric a 26.1%; solar, wind and other renewable sources (RES) 26.1%. The rest comes from nuclear power (1.7%).

But such statistics are misleading. When it comes to actual power generation, India is very heavily dependent on coal (highly polluting). The difference can be best understood through the following graph which provides the power mix (share) in terms of installed capacity and actual generation. The higher share of coal in generation over installed capacity reflects the higher burden on it. The lower share of solar and wind power in generation over installed capacity is because these plants are weather dependent (availability of sunlight and good wind speed), have a lower plant load factor (PLF) and technology to storage is evolving and improving.

Image : Graphic by Amit Sharma

There is yet another cause of worry.

Growth in the generation of power and its consumption has been falling even before the pandemic hit. Power ministry data reveals that the growth in power generation (including RES) fell from 9.1% in FY12 to 0.95% in FY20. According to Energy Statistics India 2021, the growth in energy consumption (including crude oil) fell from a peak of 7% in FY13 to minus (-) 0.4% in FY20. This reflects a slowing economy.

Image : Graphic by Amit Sharma

Besides, India has been a power surplus country since 2013. The Energy Statistics India 2021 shows the gap between net availability of power (including import) and actual power sold to customers (including export) has been over 2 lakh GWh during FY12-FT20.

Taken together, these two developments—fall of growth in energy generation and consumption and excess capacity—mean India has no immediate compulsion to push for green energy other than tackling the climate crisis. That may slow down future endeavours.

Image : Graphic by Amit Sharma

Expansion of EVs and LPG

Another aspect of the climate crisis is air pollution which kills over a million Indians every year. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study of 2019, air pollution killed 1.67 million people, of which 0.98 million due to ambient particulate matter pollution (from vehicular, industrial, and other sources) and 0.61 million due to household air pollution (from cooking).

Since vehicular pollution (petrol and petroleum products) is a significant contributor to air pollution (and global warming), India has launched an ambitious scheme called Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles II (FAME II) for transitioning to electrical vehicles (EVs). A study released by the Niti Aayog shows that India could realise EV sales of 30% private cars, 70% commercial cars, 40% buses and 80% two and three-wheelers by 2030. It says EVs sold through 2030 could cumulatively save 474 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) worth ₹15 lakh crore and generate net carbon savings of 846 million tons over their operational lifetime.

A major challenge realising this would be setting up infrastructure for charging EVs and the import of lithium-ion batteries for manufacturing EVs—both of which would require heavy investment. Indian EV manufacturers are already facing a tough challenge as global demand and prices for these batteries have gone up significantly. India is completely dependent on imported batteries the production of which is dominated by China. Unless India develops alternatives quickly the transition to EVs would not be economically viable. The import of lithium-ion batteries would impose an additional burden over and above that of crude oil and products, which has gone up by 44% during FY12-FY20 in terms of quantity. Import of natural gas has also gone up by 88% in the same period.

As for household air pollution, the Ujjwala Yojana has rapidly expanded LPG connections to provide a clean alternative. However, large gaps remain in its use. A household survey by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in 2020, ‘State of Clean Cooking Energy Access in India’, which was released in September 2021 says, except for New Delhi, no other state achieved universal access to clean cooking energy. It said LPG penetration was 85%—significantly lower than the government estimate of 97.5% in April 2020.

But having an LPG connection or access doesn’t mean its sustained use. The study found 15% of households used only solid fuels like firewood, agricultural residue, charcoal for cooking, and another 38% of households stacked solid fuels, along with LPG due to high cylinder cost, lack of timely availability and other reasons. Given the low-income levels, only “topmost wealth decile” in rural areas deem LPG affordable, it points out.

Tackling air pollution also calls for other measures. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently revised its air pollution norms—marking PM2.5 concentration of 15 micrograms per cubic metre as safe from 25 earlier, among others. The new norms would make almost the entire country polluted and unsafe throughout the year. A parliamentary standing committee had recently pointed out that “smaller cities and towns that are often neglected and suffer from a lack of quality data on air pollution”.

The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region an Adjoining Areas Act, 2021, notified in August 2021, is limited to Delhi and its neighbouring states. The rest of the countries too require adequate technological and other supports to check air pollution.

The road to green energy and safe air is a long one.

Views expressed are personal.

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