Climate Summit in US: A critical time for India in charting out its sustainable future

Letter by Shankar Sharma, Power & Climate Policy Analyst, to Members of the Union Cabinet, Govt. of India, on “Invitation for India for Climate Summit in the US  — the need to target for net zero emissions by 2050”:

May I draw your kind attention to the recent development that India is invited for a Climate Summit in the US in April 2021 to underscore the urgency and the economic benefits of stronger climate action?  This will be another occasion for the Union Cabinet to concern itself over the potential embarrassment India may face in that summit due to its unenviable stand on climate performance at a country level.   

There is also a media report stating: “India is examining setting a target of net zero emissions by 2050, according to media reports, with Bloomberg also reporting that an earlier ambition of 2047, to coincide with 100 years of independence, is being discussed among senior officials in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office”.

A recent Reuters report states among other things: “India is unlikely to bind itself to a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050, government sources told Reuters, despite diplomatic pressure from the United States and Britain to do so to help slow global warming.  But officials have debated the net zero target and whether it was realistic and in line with the country’s development needs, a second source privy to the discussions said. “There have been two schools of thought within the government. One is if you go for zero emissions, you will become a sort of a global icon,” said the second source. “The other is a more pragmatic view. Let’s stick to the commitments we have already made, meet our energy needs. Our energy needs are much higher than many of these countries,” the source said.”   Even the Reuters report has also identified the larger global context for India by saying: “ .. But international pressure is growing in the run-up to an Earth Day summit that Biden is due to host on April 22 for leaders of 40 countries including India and China, followed by a G7 meeting in Britain to which India has been invited and culminating in a global climate conference in Scotland in November.”  It will be a serious mistake to assume that India need not be sensitive to the enormous and ever growing pressure from the international community in these high profile meetings to minimise its total GHG emissions, as has been agreed to by a good number of countries, including the major economies.  

Keeping these and very many other related issues in the proper context of the short term and longer-term welfare of our communities, I would like to state that this is a critical time for India in charting out its sustainable future by diligently considering the urgent need to start moving towards a low carbon OR green economy.     India, being the third largest and still growing polluter of the atmospheric GHG content, has a critical role in the fight against global warming.  It should become evidently clear to our policy makers that without India’s active and effective participation in reducing the global GHG emissions, the global target to achieve the 50% reduction in GHG levels by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels, and to achieve global net-zero level by 2050 will be impossible.  It will not suffice for India to make repeated and rhetoric statements that it wants to be a leader in the fight against global warming. Recently IEA Chief has said: “Governments must provide clear signals to investors around the world that investing in dirty energy will mean a greater risk of losing money. This unmistakable signal needs to be given by policymakers to regulators, investors and others”.     India can ill-afford to ignore the fact that high levels of GHG emissions are a direct consequence of the unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources, and hence, our own communities will be severely impacted, if we continue to refuse to take a rational stand.

It is very unfortunate that even as late as 2021 there are two schools of thought within the government whether to target for net zero emissions by 2050 or not. For those in the government, who have been dithering for years to embrace a green economy pathway without any coherently credible arguments, some of the major the consequences, as listed below, of not earnestly aiming to drastically reduce the GHG emissions at the earliest should become clear at least now, if not all these years earlier.     There have been credible reports from across the world which argue that whereas a low carbon economy or a strong set of climate actions across multiple sectors will provide great benefits to our society in the form of better health scenarios, the same can also generate about 24 million jobs in just 15 years.  Our officials, who appear to be very hesitant to move away from a BAU scenario, can do a great service to our people by diligently considering the consequences of not doing so.  Some of such major consequences are:

  • Besides the enormous international pressure, which India has to face continuously both internationally and domestically, in case it refuses to target for net zero emissions even by 2050, there are very many serious domestic issues for its own people.   In view of the fact that the high levels of GHG emissions are a direct consequence of the unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources, our communities will be severely impacted by the increasing levels of the already highly polluted/ contaminated air, water and soil. The associated risks include; serious health issues due to air and water pollution; water scarcity and more pandemics due to the ever-shrinking wildlife habitats; increasing incidences of local heat island effects; man-animal conflicts etc.  
  • IPCC, UN, UNEP, WHO, World Bank and other global entities have stated time and again that India will be a major victim of Climate Change. Our communities will face ever increasing impacts of Climate Change, such as: droughts, floods, unseasonal & intense rainfall patterns, hurricanes; vastly reduced agricultural production and scarcity of food articles; increased instances of vector borne diseases and pandemics; serious threats of large-scale migration of people both within the country and from across the borders; massive pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil etc.  Can there be any societal welfare perspective for any section of our society with such consequences?

If the arguments from some sections of the bureaucracy against the urgent actions needed to reduce country’s total GHG emissions are w.r.t the lowered GDP growth rate and the lack of access to energy for poorer sections of our society, then the unfounded nature of such arguments should also become clear as in the following facts.   

  • As highlighted in a World Bank report on India of 2013-16 (“Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges, Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: What Are the Trade-offs?”), environmental degradation costs to India in 2013 due to high GDP growth paradigm, including welfare costs and lost labour income due to air pollution, was of about 8.5 % of its economy.  It is evidently clear that such costs per year to our country in the future will be enormous, and may result in even a negative annual GDP growth.  This will be in stark contrast to the aim of achieving a $5 trillion economy by 2024.  Should this be acceptable to our economists and the finance ministry?   The same report has also concluded that: On the other hand, emissions reduction would have a minimal impact on GDP which would be offset by savings through improving community health while substantially reducing carbon emissions.  GDP growth rate will be negligibly reduced by about 0.02 to 0.04% in such a scenario.  However, there will be significant health benefits under such scenarios which will more than compensate for the projected GDP loss. Another important benefit would be a substantial reduction in CO2 as a co-benefit which has a potential of being monetized. Taken together the CO2 reduction and the health benefits will be greater than the loss of GDP in both cases.
  • The Economics of Climate Change’ by Sir Nicholas Stern of the UK govt. was seen as a seminal report on Climate Change economics. It has said: “The benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh costs”.  This Review has estimated that certain scenarios of Global Warming may result in poor countries like India suffering economic costs of about 20 % of its GDP, whereas the mitigation of the same now can be achieved at a cost of about 1% of present GDP.  The Review also indicates that the more we delay in addressing Global Warming the higher we will have to spend in mitigation of the same in future.  Is such a scenario desirable for any reason?
  • The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review”, from the UK govt. in 2019, is another global report of enormous significance to India.  A critical statement in this review was: “The economic benefits of biodiversity had historically been missed from growth models, distorting the value of capital accumulation and leaving crucial conservation programmes chronically underfunded, said the review. With an estimated $4-6 trillion in funding each year going to unsustainable economic activities such as fossil fuel use and damaging farming techniques, governments “exacerbate the problem by paying people more to exploit nature than to protect it”.   Can we, in India, which is already recognised as facing serious crises of scarce natural resources and having a vast & growing population, afford to take the risk of continuously abusing the already threatened natural resources?
  • The draft ‘National Resource Efficiency Policy’ 2019, by MoEF&CC has said: “India, as one of the fastest growing economies with GDP at 2.6 trillion USD, has increased its material consumption to six times between 1970 and 2015; however this economic growth has been coupled with inherent cost on the natural environment. 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 environmental degradation affecting the economy, livelihoods and the quality of life.”  
  • The delay in not even acknowledging the need for a very low net emission regime (or net zero emission regime) in India’s case even by 2050 will make it almost impossible to revert/ contain the disastrous consequences of Climate Change on its communities.  Additionally, as and when in the future years, the country realises the critical need to minimise its GHG emissions, the true overall cost to our society in mitigation of the same could be incalculable. Will the disastrous consequences of such a scenario be acceptable to our society, and should the present generation remain irresponsible and condemn the future generations to such a calamitous scenario?
  • There can also be significant commercial/ trade losses for the country due to sanctions/ punitive measures by other countries such as direct/ indirect carbon tax; ban on import of certain goods from India; refusal of some countries to do business dealings with India; the chances of permanent membership of UNSC can recede further; India’s clout in the global arena can be drastically reduced.

Shall the country invite all these negative consequences because of any lofty principles?  Should the other reason for our bureaucrats to continue to dither be as the Reuters report has indicated?   This Reuters report says:  “The scale of transition is going to be enormous for India, and there is a risk that in trying to reach net zero by 2050, we will end up constraining energy needs for the poor,” said Navroz K Dubash, a professor at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.”  Such unfounded apprehensions are likely to be due to the inadequate understanding of India’s energy/ electricity sector; especially the electricity sector.  

  • A decent understanding of India’s electric power sector will reveal that the real cause behind the lack of adequate access to energy for the poor is not the non-availability of the commercial forms of energy themselves; but it is due to highly inequitable distribution scenario of the same across the length and breadth of the country.  In order to understand this sorry state of affairs, all that is needed is a high level study of India’s power sector during a period of last 20-30 years w.r.t the following parameters: (i) the total annual electricity generation in the first year and last of year of such a period, which will indicate the additional amount of electrical energy generated in that period; (ii) the per capita electricity consumption in the first and last year of this period; (iii) the number of households officially noticed in the first and last year of this period.  
  • Such a study will reveal that most of the massive amount of additional electricity generated in such a period of 20-30 years has resulted in the increase in per capita consumption of urban households and commercial establishments, whereas the per capita consumption of rural households might have increased only marginally, but the number of households without access to electricity has not come down drastically.  On the basis of the recent past experience only about 5-6% of such additionally generated electricity seem to have been dedicated to provide even the baseline electricity of 30 Units per month to electrify the unelectrified rural households. Even if 20-30 percent of such additional electricity generated (or about 2 – 3 % of annual generation in a typical year) were to have been dedicated to the electrification of the unelectrified households, the country could have achieved 100% electrification many years ago. But the very characteristic of the centralised and integrated power grid fed by large size conventional technology power plants, such as coal power plants, is such that the inequitable access to the grid for the poor communities has remained a common feature.

The other unsubstantiated reason being offered by the advocates of the BAU energy policy is that the capital cost and the operational cost of the renewable energy sources is much higher than that of conventional technology power sources, such as coal and nuclear power.  In recent years, certainly in 2021, a large number of studies /simulation exercises /practical examples are available to establish that the effective price of renewable energy sources can be much less than any of the conventional technology power sources.  As per the published information: “Renewable energy has already gotten to the point where new renewable generation is a good investment compared to new fossil fuel generation. Next, new-build onshore wind and solar will be cheaper than it costs to operate existing coal plants.”   Massive technological advancements in the production of solar energy backed up by storage batteries have made renewable energy also to overcome the uncertainties associated with continuous power supply.  The effective prices of such renewables PLUS energy storage systems are decreasing continuously whereas the effective price of electricity from fossil fuels is going up continuously. There have been a number of recently completed tenders for solar PLUS storage batteries in India, which should clearly indicate that these effective prices are comparable to or even less than that of new coal power.

When we also take into objective account the social and environmental costs associated with the fossil fuel power technologies, and the massive direct/indirect subsidies, which are generally known as propping up these technologies since decades, the renewable energy sources can be seen as having overtaken the conventional power technologies, certainly the fossil fuels and nuclear power technologies, many years ago from the perspective of overall relevance to our society.  Appropriate policy interventions by the govt. will make the renewable energy technologies a lot more attractive to our scenario.  

  • A new study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from researchers at Berkeley Lab, University of California, Santa Barbara, and University of California, Berkeley, shows India can aim even higher with its renewable energy goals.  “By increasing its clean power capacity from the current target of 450 gigawatts within the next decade to 600 gigawatts, the nation can hold its greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector at 2018 levels while nearly doubling the supply of electricity to meet economic development needs,” it says. 

Integrated Energy Policy of the erstwhile Planning Commission had estimated that CO2 generated from the energy sector use can be reduced by 35% through effective deployment of efficiency, DSM measures and renewables. IEP’s main action recommendation for energy security is: “… relentlessly pursue energy efficiency and energy conservation as the most important virtual source of domestic energy”.  So bad has been the efficiency of our energy sector, especially the electric power sector, that the effective demand for electricity at the national level can be only in the range of 50-60 % what is being projected; and the renewable energy sources can satisfactorily meet the legitimate demand of all sections of our people at the lowest overall cost, and on a sustainable basis.    As the Bureau of Energy Efficiency has estimated, at the prevailing cost of additional energy generation, it costs a unit of energy about one fourth the cost to save than to produce it with new capacity.  Hence, the global best practice of efficiency at all levels, effective demand side management and imaginative energy conservation efforts will make such an energy transition smooth and people centric.

Keeping all these and other associated issues in objective consideration, it is evident that a net-zero target and a clearly laid out action plan with stiff milestones for every 5 years until 2050 for India is essential and techno-economically achievable through suitable policy interventions and through effective participation by various sections of the society.  Most importantly such a road map for smooth energy transition is critically important from the overall welfare perspective of our communities.  Our society will consider it a serious let down of its people, if the govt. ignores all such credible and enormous threats to its people, and continues with the BAU scenario along with the irrational argument that India has a right to continue to pollute the atmosphere because it has a low caper capita GHG emission record.

In view of the fact that India is already the third largest GHG emitter and that it will continue to emit enormously more GHGs because of its vast population in a BAU scenario, it has a significant responsibility to offer an economic development paradigm to the world, which is just, equitable and sustainable to all sections of the global society, including the flora, fauna and the general environment.

May I submit that India must not miss this chance to become a sort of a global icon in the fight against Global Warming, and also to chart out a sustainable and green pathway for its vast and highly vulnerable population?  On behalf of the people of this country, may I hope that the Union Cabinet will diligently consider all these issues /facts /references, and announce a well prepared action plan to reduce the country’s total GHG emissions by 50% by 2030, and to achieve net-zero target by 2050? 

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