India’s climate conundrum

Teaser Image Caption
Bhatti cenotaphs or windmills from BHEL and Suzlon, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (Prime Minister’s Bright Scheme), intended to provide free cooking-gas connections to poor families, in May 2016, he has kept the scheme on the front burner by advertising it in almost all his speeches in the run-up to the just-concluded 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Now that he is back in the saddle with an even bigger mandate than last time, political pundits trying to make sense of his phenomenal back-to-back triumph at the hustings suspect that the promise of a free cooking-gas connection, along with a toilet and pucca house, may have earned him the crucial blessings of poor women franchisees, who turned out in larger numbers than ever before.

Till last count, the government claims the scheme had reached about 70 million beneficiaries. The target is 80 million by 2020. But elections are not a time of truth-telling. It is a time of rhetoric and grandstanding, of bluster and bravado, tactics used by all political parties to maximise their chances of a win. So while the official numbers are true, an impressive rise of about 45 per cent between 2014 and 2018, the scheme has its share of discrepancies, as pointed out in various media reports. For instance, the fact that over 12 million beneficiaries did not go for a refill; or that the connection is not totally free—every beneficiary has to pay Rs 1600 from their pocket if they want to avail of the scheme; in case they can’t, the government can loan them the amount; or that, according to a survey done by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), over 85 per cent of the Ujjwala beneficiaries in the four states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan are still cooking on chulhas or earthen stoves.

And yet, despite these and other shortcomings of his first shot at governing the nation, people resoundingly voted him back to power. But that’s a separate story unravelling, which will keep social and political scientists busy for a while.

In his election rallies, Modi sold the Ujjwala scheme primarily as a tool of social and economic empowerment. But in almost equal measure, he also championed it as clean energy that would take care of the toxic air that blights the bodies of about 800 million (about 61 per cent)Indians, especially women, and among them especially Dalits and tribals, who still cook on firewood and dung-cakes.

The Indian government plans to bring that number down to about 40 per cent by 2030. However, even then, according to the latest projections by the International Energy Outlook, 580 million people (in 2030 India’s population is projected to be 1.5 billion) will still be cooking on solid fuels like firewood, and breathing dirty air.

The enormous health benefits of over 800 million Indians switching over to a cleaner cooking alternative like gas are self-evident. There is another, even if relatively modest, environmental payoff. Cooking on solid fuels releases methane and CO2, both potent greenhouse gases. Recent research suggests burning firewood could be responsible for as much as 2 per cent of global CO2 emissions. In fact, according to recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, substituting solid fuels with cleaner alternatives could help reduce global warming by about a tenth of a degree, to say nothing of saving more than 10 million lives worldwide by 2050.

Green domestic product?

For a developing country like India, providing cleaner cooking technologies is part of a much bigger challenge: Securing a decent standard of living for a billion plus people while at the same time keeping its carbon footprint within reasonable limits. As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2030, India is committed to evolve into a low-carbon economy. As part of its Paris pledge, by 2030 it intends to bring down its emissions per unit of GDP by 33-35 per cent below 2005 levels. It plans to do that in two ways. One, ensure that at least 40 per cent of its electricity comes from sources other than fossil fuels; and two, create new forests that would absorb 2.5–3 giga tonnes of CO2.

Curiously, while India is committed to fighting climate change, as an issue it was conspicuously missing in the recent general elections. Even though extreme and unpredictable weather events like floods and droughts are already throwing people’s lives into disarray, to connect them to global warming caused by some, if not all, humans demands a leap of imagination. Tell a farmer that the methane from his waterlogged paddy fields is making the planet warmer, and you would only invite ridicule.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that climate change is now a clear and present danger that threatens the future of all life on this planet. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last October warned that humanity has only 12 years to prevent the planet getting hotter by 1.5 degree Celsius beyond which a climate catastrophe is imminent. Recent global protests such as the Extinction Rebellion and mass school strikes inspired by a 16-year-old Swedish girl called Greta Thunberg are clarion calls to act now and quickly, or else...

India’s fate is intimately entwined with that of a warming planet. Even though its per capita emissions are still half of global average, it is nonetheless the world’s third largest contributor of greenhouse gases. And going by scientific forecasts, it is likely to be one of the worst victims of climate change. According to a 2018 World Bank study, unabated climate change could rob the country $1.2 trillion worth of GDP by 2050.

So while no one warmed up to climate change this elections, the two principal national political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, saw it fit to include climate change for the first time in their respective manifestos. The BJP promised to turn renewable energy into a popular movement, while the Congress promised to “place India at the forefront of the battle against global warming and for the protection of the environment.”

India’s commitment to a low-carbon future means there is an abiding tension between its economic ambitions and its well-entrenched fossil-fuel economy. This raises very prickly and urgent dilemma about how to juggle the available energy options – solar, wind, biomass, together with the controversial nuclear, coal, and hydro – to power one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

For some, the spectre of climate change also represents a unique opportunity to rethink and reimagine the nature and scope of India’s economic development. Evidently, however, that is too radical for any political party to even think about, let alone put into policy. The truth is that all governments seem committed to the dogma of high economic growth as the rising tide that will lift all boats. In this worldview, there is little room for alternative futures that, to quote from the 1987 Brundtland report, “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

However, even the limited but urgent task of moving towards a low-carbon economy calls for not just robust political will but also gumption, foresight, and a sense of proportion and justice. Arguably, the toughest challenge before the Indian government is how to gradually wean the economy off dirty coal, the main accused in the crimes against climate and air quality, but which also happens to be the main driver of India’s economy, without being unjust to the millions of people whose lives depend on it.

How it arranges its energy bouquet is further complicated by geopolitics. For example, even if natural gas is a good low-carbon substitute for coal, it remains costlier than coal as there is no pipeline as yet for relaying it to India from distant sources like Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Proposed pipelines from Iran to India and from Turkmenistan to India have been on the back burner for a long time because both would have to pass through Pakistan with whom India has had frosty relations for over a decade now. There is now a proposal to build an undersea pipeline from Iran, but that may take years.

Likewise, India is eager to expand nuclear energy, which is hampered by unresolved questions of civil liability, disposal of spent fuel, and safety risks. Hydropower, though in the doldrums for long, is being sought to be resurrected in the guise of a renewable. In fact, this March the Indian union cabinet approved big hydro as renewable. That said, large dams are an increasingly costly and time-consuming option, not to mention their well-documented impact on the environment. No surprise, neither nuclear power nor dams figure prominently in India’s Paris pledge schema –unless of course, as some observers suspect, they are brought in through the backdoor.

Sunny days

With 300 days of sunny days and a long coastline, and with natural gas, nuclear and hydro mired in controversies, solar and wind are being cheered as the poster twins of India’s low-carbon future. But what has made solar and wind darlings of the Modi government is their plummeting costs – since 2014, solar has fallen by almost two-thirds and onshore wind by half, thanks largely to the steep drop in the cost of photovoltaics.

As solar and wind became competitive, the government made them the cornerstone of its low-carbon future. In 2015, it set for itself a greatly enhanced target of 175 GW from renewables by 2022 (100 for solar and 60 for wind, 10 for biomass, and 5 for small hydro). The government claims that it might even reach that target by early next year. According to official estimates, as of now about 35 GW of solar has been either installed or commissioned – it was a mere 2,600 MW in 2014. Installed onshore, wind stood around 36 GW, triple of what it was a decade ago.

The government reckons that the country’s solar and wind energy potential that can be commercially exploited is around 750 GW and 300 GW respectively. According to non-profit Climate Policy Initiative, India could marshal as much as 390 GW of wind and solar into the grid by 2030.

There is much to be said in favour of solar and wind, and not just from a climate perspective. If you discount the carbon emitted in the making of solar and wind assemblies, the energy produced is practically zero-carbon. Besides, it can be fed into existing grids; if not, it can be developed into a decentralised microgrid or an ensemble of microgrids serving energy needs of small rural and urban communities, which can directly own and run such entities, instead of the state or a corporation.

Take Simpa Networks, for instance. The company installs PV modules on a small down payment, after which the customer uses it like a pre-paid mobile. But with an important difference – each payment goes towards paying the total cost of the equipment. Once the cost is recovered, the customer can run the module as her own. So far, they claim to have served 256,125 people, generated 4,498.635 kWh or clean power, and displaced 4,080,262 tons of CO2.

Microgrids are widely viewed as the true heir of the outdated centralised macrogrids. Analysts say the new off-grid systems could significantly cut down costs of infrastructure, transmission, and operation and maintenance that so bedevil the existing electricity architecture.

Blowing hot and cold

However, one of the biggest constraints of solar and wind is that you can tap them only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. As storing this energy is still prohibitively expensive, there is no solar power after sundown (wind you can still tap), which is when the demand peaks. Until storage becomes commercially viable, solar and wind will be confined to low-wattage uses like domestic lighting, which, incidentally, is a huge step-up considering over 200 million Indians still do not have access to electricity.

Problems of storage aside, many observers believe the government policy on renewables has been rather wishy-washy. For instance, it could have made microgrids the centrepiece of its electricity-for-all Saubhagya scheme. Instead, it chose to extend the national grid as wide as possible. As Ramnath Vaidyanathan of Wish Energy told, a portal on renewable energy, under this scheme “utilities are encouraged to take the grid to the last mile, while at the same time, there is a push for decentralised distributed generation and microgrids for village electrification. If a project developer invests in a microgrid to provide electricity to a community disconnected from the grid, what happens when the larger grid eventually reaches that community?” So, even as the PM claimed “100 per cent village electrification” on the eve of 2019 (officially, a village is deemed electrified if at least 10 per cent of its public infrastructure such as schools and hospitals have power), in reality 31 million homes were still in the dark.

While the initial hype plus policy incentives did create the necessary momentum for solar and wind, media reports suggest the market has lapsed into suspended animation. For various reasons, but primarily, experts argue, because of government’s obsession with keeping tariffs low. Many feel the current INR 2.44/kWhr, for both wind and solar, is unviable, and that bidders are quoting this figure merely to grab projects.

Sick state power distribution companies (discoms) not paying bills is another dampener. In February this year, about INR 19 billion worth of dues were outstanding to solar alone. Add to all this falling value of rupee, the dents of demonetisation and GST, and perhaps most significantly, the fears over economic recession in the short term, and all one can see is headwinds and dark skies.

Bur perhaps the biggest stumbling block to the expansion of solar and wind projects would be acute paucity of land. Typically, a solar power plant would require about 5 acres of land for every megawatt of power. This means, the government will have to procure about 0.5 million acres of land to install 100 GW of power (about 1.5 times the size of the state of Delhi).

The cynical part is that every government promises far more than it can deliver. Whether it is the toilet scheme (no water to clean the toilets), or gas (no money to pay for refill), or the electricity for all (no money to pay monthly bills). This is the equivalent of the Potemkin effect in modern democracy. Come election time, paper over all the cracks, the flaws, the shortfalls, the failures with a rhetoric amplified through media, and you have good chance of winning.

Having secured a second term, PM Modi’s top priority would be to revive a floundering economy. In particular, he would have to tackle the mounting concern, not to mention expectations, over lack of jobs and the farming crisis. Injecting a shot in the arm of the flagging solar and wind industry could be a key part of the strategy to create more jobs and raise farmers’ incomes.

Coal is dead, long live coal

Meanwhile, despite the name-calling, coal continues to be numero uno. While renewable wattage has grown rapidly in the last five years, it is nowhere near the scale where it would start making a real dent in the fossil fuel, especially coal, economy. Realists reckon that so long energy demand outstrips supply, and so long as battery storage costs remain sky-high, it is sheer fantasy to imagine that solar and wind would replace coal as the chief impetus of the ever-expanding industrial conglomerate.

The 2018 Draft National Energy Policy projects India’s energy demand in 2040 to be 4.5 times of what it was in 2012. But more significantly, coal would still meet about half that demand. That makes eminent sense, for India, committed as it is to rapid industrialisation and modernisation, has no choice but to draw on its ample coal endowments for decades to come – it has neither gas nor oil, which accounts for a huge slice of its import-bill pie.

However, at the same time it needs to make sure that burning coal emits not only less carbon (toward meeting its Paris pledge) but also less toxic emissions that are currently smothering its cities and villages with deadly smog. To do that it needs to modernise and upgrade its antiquated coal-fired power plants. Even so, many believe that the so-called clean coal technologies needed to upgrade coal-fired plants are a cop out on the part of governments around the world to avoid taking climate change head on. Even international financial institutions like the World Bank are now unwilling to fund anything to do with coal.

In fact, the friction between those who want coal to die and those who are agnostic about it has created a curious geopolitics around what was once known as black gold. India’s former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian has denounced the hardline anti-coal position as “carbon imperialism” that condemns millions of wretched poor in the developing world to a life of chronic energy poverty even as rich nations like the US continue to patronise it. Echoing this sentiment, many coal-rich African nations, such as Nigeria and South Africa, have parted ways with World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The fact that Trump is a climate sceptic (at times he gives the impression that climate change might actually be a good thing!) and that he is keen on reviving the American coal-fired power plants has only made the whole debate even more vexed. In line with White House’s position on climate change, last year Trump’s energy secretary Rick Perry said at an energy conference that US “would welcome help lead a global alliance of countries willing to make fossil fuels cleaner rather than abandoning them”.

For many who would rather coal stayed underground, coal’s vice-like grip on India’s economy may be a cause for worry. However, India continues to maintain that rich industrialised world is primarily responsible for the climate crisis and therefore should try to do their bit first, which, truth be told, has been woefully wanting – many of them may not even meet their 2020 targets. India has also argued that poor countries like India cannot decarbonise their economy without financial and technological aid from the rich world – according to one official estimate India needs at least USD 2.3 trillion till 2030.

While India is surely moving away from coal, it won’t be abandoning it in a hurry. In some states of India, it accounts for half their revenues. More worryingly, moving away from coal would also unravel the lives of millions of workers who directly or indirectly depend on the coal economy for their livelihood. Scholars believe governments must put in place policies to ensure what they call “just transition”. So far, one doesn’t detect any buzz about it in policy circles.

Bright and breezy future?

Nevertheless, given coal’s notoriety as the dirtiest fuel, almost every one, barring perhaps apologists of nuclear, would like solar and wind to succeed and expand rapidly. While there has been impressive growth in this sector in the last five years, experts believe it is still not good enough, and that the government’s target of 160 GW of solar and wind combined by 2022 is not ambitious enough. With tariffs plummeting and thereby returns on investments declining, the government will have to come up with more ingenious ways of putting wind back into the sails of solar and wind.

As crucial as it is for solving the climate crisis, many suspect that solar and wind are not moving fast enough to prevent less than 2-degree Celsius warming, let alone 1.5, the new tipping point beyond which, scientists warn, climate catastrophe is very probable. The recent story in the German paper Der Spiegel on the Energiewende, Germany’s much-touted transition to a low-carbon, clean, and affordable energy regime, has, to borrow a market phrase, further dampened the animal spirits of the solar and wind market. The cover story cites several problems with the transition such as lack of enough power, storage, and high costs. It argues the transition is floundering because the parallel energy regimes renewable and fossil fuels were allowed to run together for far too long. The longer the transition, the more expensive it got.

The checkered career of the Energiewende may offer important lessons for India’s energy transition. However, some analysts believe that the climate crisis is a mere symptom of a much deeper and chronic malaise, namely capitalism.

Solar capitalism: A lesser evil?


Solar power reaches into the place electricity will never make it to. Solar panels in Tinginaput, Orissa. A region traversed by power lines where local people have no access to power. Photo by UK Department for International Development

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that solar and wind do become the primary drivers of the world economy. In such a world, according to climate crusader Bill Mckibben, it would be every government’s prime responsibility to churn out solar panels at an industrial scale and on a war footing to keep the economy afloat. Elon Musk’s solar panel outfit called gigafactory2 located in Buffalo, New York is a forerunner of such a world. As David Roberts, who blogs on energy and climate change, writes at the height of US’s energy transition: “The US would have to build around 30 gigafactories a year devoted to solar panels, and another 15 a year for wind turbines. That’s 45 of the biggest factories ever built, every year. That is a mind-boggling pace of building…”

For Saral Sarkar, an Indian-German academic and political activist, “this gigantic effort would simultaneously produce…environmental pollution, resource depletion, and waste that has to be dumped somewhere”. He argues that “the much-hyped ‘renewable energy technologies’ cannot play any role in solving the multifaceted global crisis of today; on the contrary, investing in them is a waste of time, effort, energy and, most important of all, scarce resources.”

Most people might dismiss Sarkar as a hackneyed lefty for whom the capitalist glass is always half empty. That said, it does boggle the mind to imagine an India with 1.7 billion consumers overrun with sun-kissed desires. Enroute to that dystopian utopia, where will the humongous amount of land required to accommodate a gigantic complex of gigafactories and solar parks come from, especially in a country where land is already very scarce, one wonders. This is one elephant in the room that power-hungry heliophiles would rather airbrush from the picture.

As India braces up for its energy transition, conflicts over land are inevitable. In the scramble to achieve its solar target of 100 gigawatts by 2022, the NDA government at the Centre as well as many state governments are already tweaking land use regulations and tenancy laws to free up farm and forest lands for solar projects.

One can watch the preview of this gradually unfolding plot in Neemuch district of Madhya Pradesh where many families of Bhil and Gurjar communities were displaced in 2014 to make way for a solar project spread over 750 acres. According to an August 2017 report in the Frontline magazine, “the project is now complete, but the local population is a dejected lot. As many as 70 people lost their lands to the solar power project, and once self-sufficient communities now face the prospect of abject poverty.”

It’s a Catch 22. On the one hand, climate activists like Bill Mckibben believe a wholesale switch to renewable is our only hope against a very likely climate catastrophe. On the other, there are those for whom capitalism with its dogma of perpetual growth is incompatible with the survival of life on earth. The climate crisis, they argue, is just one, albeit an egregious one, of many excesses of the capitalist system against the natural world. For one, planet-wide plastic pollution readily leaps to the mind. In fact, a recent UN report on loss of biodiversity suggests that it is land-use change – deforestation, mining, dams, overfishing, urbanisation, intensive farming, among others, rather than climate change, which is making ecosystems terminally sick around the world.

Solar and wind may help tide over the climate crisis, but the inconvenient question one may dare ask is whether an economic system based on perpetual growth, even if powered by renewables, may not eventually give rise to a differnet ecological monster. Perhaps it’s a little too late, even naïve, to pose that question when the world is rapidly running out of time. Looked at this way, India has no choice but to grab the sun with both hands.

Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.