India’s high GHG emission a consequence of over-exploitation of natural resources

Power Policy Analyst Shankar Sharma’s letter to Dr Rajiv Kumar,  Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog, New Delhi, with copy to Prakash Javadekar, MoEF&CC; Dr Harshvardhan, Union Minister for Health & Family Welfare; Dr Jitendra Singh, MoS, PMO; and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the subject, “Is India a top performer on climate mitigation? Ground realities”:

Greetings from Sagar, Western Ghats, Karnataka.

At the outset I would like to thank your team (through Sri. Saloni Goel, Specialist Climate Change) for responding to my earlier email of 2 Dec. 2020 addressed to Dr. Jitendra Singh, PMO, and with a Cc to you. 

Whereas the information provided in the email of Sri. Saloni Goel has already been in the public domain for a number of years, what should be of concern to all of us is the fact that the ground reality as far as the consequences of various actions/ omissions associated with Climate Change in India need our serious introspection.  In this context, it is also critical for our country to rationally consider whether there is a scope to be elated because of a recent media report that India has been ranked as one in top 10 performers on climate change index by a private study.

It is worthwhile to objectively consider some of the ground realities.

  • whereas the forest & tree cover in the country is only about 21% of the total land area as against the national forest policy target of 33%, our forest and trees are being annihilated routinely in the name of ‘development’ projects;
  • thousands of hectares of rich original forest lands, even within the legally protected and ecologically sensitive forest lands such as Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks are being routinely diverted to non-forestry purposes every year, whereas these tropical forests are established as the most effective and least costly options in combating Climate Change;
  • one media report says: “For the country as a whole, the loss of primary forest in the last five years was more than 120,000 ha, which is nearly 36% more than such losses seen between 2009 and 2013.”  This is in stark contrast to what IPCC says. IPCC says in its IV Assessment Report: “Emissions from deforestation are very significant – they are estimated to represent more than 18% of global emissions”; “Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”;
  • over 500 projects in India’s protected areas and eco-sensitive zones were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife between June 2014 and May 2018.  Kerala crisis during recent monsoon seasons arose due to the destruction of ecologically sensitive zones in Western Ghats; climate change can trigger more devastating floods in India as per one UK charity;
  • “Air pollution contributed to the death of 16.7 lakh people in India in 2019, with over a lakh of them less than a month old (a new global study by a US-based NGO has revealed).  According to the State of Global Air, 2020, a report on global exposure to air pollution, released by Health Effects Institute (HEI) recently, air pollution is the biggest health risk in India.   Air pollution at crisis level in north India – says NITI Aayog; rising air pollution will impact rainfall patterns in India as per an UN report. Similarly the pollution /contamination of water and soil are of no less concern;
  • how ready is India to face the implications of climate change? Not much. The temperatures in India could rise by 4.4°C by 2100, says a govt. report. The Ministry of Earth Sciences has come up with a report, which is quite alarming. Average temperature in India is projected to rise 4.4 Degree Celsius, frequency of heat waves would be three to four times, intensity of tropical cyclones to increase substantially  and sea level is to rise by 30 cm by the end of the century with reference to the level of each parameter that existed two three decades ago;
  • some of the key implications projected by Draft National Energy Policy of 2017, which is not finalised yet are:  (a) share of non-fossil fuel based capacity in electricity by 2040: 57% -66%; (b) Per capita energy demand: 503 kgoe/capita in 2012 to 1,055-1,184 kgoe/capita in 2040;  (c) Energy related Emissions per capita: 1.2 tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent/capita in 2012 to 2.7-3.5 tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent/capita in 2040; (d) CAGR of electricity supply : 5.5% between 2012-2040; (e) CAGR of primary energy supply (Ambitious scenario): 3.6% between 2012-2040; (f) overall Import dependence (including non-commercial energy): 31% in 2012 to 36%-55% in 2040;
  • these projections have not been modified even towards the end of 2020, which may indicate that all those projections are still considered valid. In such a scenario it can be equated to a falsehood to state that our country is doing great with regards to Climate Change;
  • whereas the only positive policy initiative, which can be treated as a credible claim is the announcement on 450 GW of renewable power capacity by 2030, even this has not been made part of any official policy document, and adequate relevant details such as timelines, yearly targets, financial outlays, where, how and how much etc. are not known;
  • at the same time a large number of conventional technology power plants, such as coal and dam based hydel power plants, are being planned /implemented with the prospect that the total GHG emissions of the country by 2040/50 can be 2-3 times more than that now; few months ago about 40 additional coal mines were opened for public auction, and about 170,000 hectares of thick and natural Hasdeo Arand forest lands in Chattisgarh was thrown open for coal mining.
  • in view of the fact that there is continuous increase in the number of automobiles on the road, and in view of that fact that there are direct /indirect encouragements for tourism as a revenue earning industry, there will be enormous increase in demand for fossil fuels. There is no official policy document (such as a diligently prepared national energy policy) to address all these concerns;
  • there has been no official recognition, as yet, that the total GHG emissions of the country by 2040/50 must be much less than what it is now; and no target for such reduction in absolute volume of GHGs has been announced; the projection that the energy related emissions per capita would increase from 1.2 tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent/capita in 2012 to 2.7-3.5 tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent/capita in 2040 should provide a correct picture of India’s contribution to global GHG emissions, because the population of the country may reach about 1.5 billion by 2040;
  • no target date, as yet, has been identified for peak coal consumption in the country or when the last coal power plant will be decommissioned; the country has not even acknowledged so far that there is a need for it to plan for net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, as is the IPCC recommendation;
  • whereas the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) was released more than 10 years ago, such a plan which should have been treated as evolving and hence dynamic, has not been reviewed to correctly reflect the past performance and changed circumstances.

Keeping all these issues in objective consideration, it seems to be a hollow claim that the govt. is committed to climate action; and that India is a top performer on Climate Change front. There are huge gaps between the tall claims and the ground realities.  

May I draw your kind attention also to another article from AFP, as in the link below, on the topic of the future energy scenario for India with the special emphasis on Climate Change?  The article says: “… Natural gas, which emits less CO2 than oil, and especially coal, is likely to see moderate growth over the medium term, especially from China and India where it could be used to replace coal power stations.”  

-There are very many major questions needing adequate clarification in this regard. Where would India get all that amount of natural gas from to replace coal power capacity?   Media reports say that India has 82.8% import dependence for crude oil and 45.3% for natural gas/LNG. Even if it is feasible to import all the natural gas required to replace coal power capacity, what happens to its Aatma Nirbhar Bharat aim?  What will be the total volume of such natural gas?  Since the usage of natural gas is clearly linked to GHG emissions, even though they are said to be less than that of coal and oil, what will be the total GHG emissions at the national level from the energy sector under such a scenario?  Since the GHG associated with natural gas is largely Methane, which is said to be about 80 times more potential than CO2, how will it really assist in the global fight against Climate Change?

All such issues should have been diligently discussed in a national energy policy, but highly deplorably we have no such policy.   All that we have is empty rhetoric from the ministers, and unsubstantiated and vague statements on the energy sector from our ministers and bureaucrats.

To add to such confusion there have also been few recent media reports which give a wrong picture of our country’s performance in Climate Change mitigation.

News articles (India’s leadership on solar, industry transition reason to believe climate goals can be achieved: UN, India in top 10 performers on climate change index and India a top performer on climate mitigation but more needs to be done: Report) pose the risk of not only giving a false sense of achievement to our ministers and bureaucrats, but also lead them towards a vastly harmful complacency. Whereas such performance indexes in the context of Climate Change may rank India high only on the basis of few statements in international arena, there are no discernible action plans to substantiate the same in practice, and the pollution /contamination of air, water and soil, as evidenced by the fast dwindling biodiversity and deteriorating community health scenario, should indicate that the country as a whole is doing badly in taking all feasible steps to combat Climate Change; certainly not to adequately protect its own communities. 

India’s NDC declaration to UNFCCC says that it intends to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 level. Even if this is achievable, what is important to note is that by 2030 the total GHG emissions of the country can still be quite high as compared to what it was in 2005, because the total GDP itself would have gone up many times by that time. On the same count, the total GHG emissions of the country by 2050 could be vastly higher because of the vastly increased GDP of the country due to the high GDP growth rate paradigm of the successive governments. So it is hard to imagine how India can meet its international obligation on Climate Change in a business as usual scenario.

In this context, the preamble to the draft ‘National Resource Efficiency Policy’ (NREP), 2019 says, among others:  “Driven by rapid economic and population growth, the demand for natural resources, especially materials have grown manifold over the last few decades. In the endeavor for economic growth, natural resources have been largely indiscriminately exploited, adversely impacting the environment and biodiversity. Further, cross linkages between resource use, climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss has been scientifically well established.  Meeting the demand for products and services, of rising population with increased aspirations has led to mostly indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and would further lead to increased pressure on resources resulting in environmental degradation, thereby raising sustainability concerns.   

“India, as one of the fastest growing economies with GDP at 2.6 trillion USD, has increased its material consumption to six times, from 1.18 billion tonnes in 1970 to 7 billion tonnes in 2015; however this economic growth has been coupled with inherent cost on natural environment. The material consumption is projected to more than double by 2030, in order to provide for increasing population, rapid urbanization and growing aspirations. The projected pace of economic development is going to put pressure on already stressed and limited resources and may lead to serious resource depletion and environment degradation affecting the economy, livelihoods and the quality of life. Further, material use is also closely associated with the problem of increasing wastes, which when suitably processed could deliver valuable secondary resources.  

Our policy on export of food items such as rice and sugar, and other raw materials and commodities must also be carefully reviewed from the perspective of the associated impacts on our land, water, energy, wastes management etc. For example, the massive surplus of sugar in the country and encouragement for the export of the same should be carefully reviewed from the perspective of massive quantities of water needed, agricultural land diversion from food production, energy needed, wastes etc.

All these factors should establish beyond any doubt that our country with a large and growing population with limited natural resource base must take a different developmental paradigm with unwavering focus on people’s sustainable welfare measures and ably supported by responsible and efficient usage of the available resources within the country.

Even if India is to take the stand that it has much less obligations to reduce its total GHG emissions because of the historical fact of low per capita emissions, a high level of its total GHG emissions by 2040/50 should be still unacceptable, because high GHG emissions will be a consequence of the over exploitation of our natural resources, which in turn will push the vulnerable sections of our society to destitution.

Such a scenario cannot be a good way to govern a large and diverse country with an aspiration to acquire the UNSC membership. 

Can the people of our country earnestly hope that urgent and adequate attention to these critical issues will be accorded by NITI Aayog, and suitable recommendations will be made soon to the govt. so as to put in place all the policies/ action plans by 2030, and achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2050?

In this larger context it has become overdue to objectively review the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), and finalise a diligently prepared national energy policy. It goes without saying that these policies cannot meet the requirements of our communities unless the concerned CSOs and individuals are effectively involved in the associated deliberations.


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