Trump’s Blunder: Modi’s Opportunity

Burning Paddy Fields
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Could Trump's exit from the Paris agreement be an opportunity for India to take the lead in Climate Change?

President Donald Trump’s plan to take the United States out of the Paris Agreement is the first major sign of the dangers of voluntary commitment. But India’s decision to stand by it, and even exceed its commitments, is a vindication of the principle that the “Accord de Paris” stands on.

The tragedy of America’s exit is that it was not going to meet its goals even with the world’s largest emitter on board. The voluntary nature, of nations setting their own Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) towards reducing emissions, meant that many punched below their weight in carbon dioxide.

But voluntarism can also spell positively. India, once hesitant about joining the world’s largest climate action programme, is now on track to take the lead. The world’s fourth largest emitter of Greenhouse Gases has become the largest single market for solar power. Solar now costs less than coal, and everyone – from farmers to big business and government is embracing it.

India is already on track to meets it goal of raising non-fossil energy capacity to 40 percent, nearly a decade before the set deadline of 2030. Other goals, like reducing the emissions intensity of GDP by 2020-25, are well on track – the county already achieved a 12 percent reduction according to its Biennial Update Report to the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCC). And for India’s third INDC to create a carbon sink to capture 2.5-3 billion tons of CO2, a budget of Rs. 42,000 crores ($6.5 billion) was allocated for the states to set up afforestation programs.

Then, some of India’s INDC’s were called ambitious. But as of 2017, they’re still not enough. For studies have shown that even if the world’s nations met their INDCs, global warming this century would not be restricted to ‘well below‘ two degrees. Trump even cited one of these in his justification for pulling out. The problem was with the voluntary nature of the agreement, resulting in goals that if too little, were not too late.

With the United States pulling out from even a voluntary cut in emissions, India will have to do more than just meeting its targets. This means reducing the emissions from the world’s fastest growing economy.

Room for more

Factory, smoke
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India needs to place its emphasis on reducing its emissions. With much room left to grow, the country increases in GDP each year, growing emissions by five percent in 2015. As a share of global emissions, India’s was only 6.3 percent in 2015 (the United State’s was 15%; China, 30).

In picking its INDCs, India had to account for the socioeconomic upliftment of hundreds of millions of its citizens. But cutting down global warming need not come at the cost of development. India emits less CO2 per person than many other developed and even developing countries. But its emissions intensity, the amount of CO2 produced per unit of GDP, is among the world’s highest. This is largely due to the country’s largest energy source: coal.

By relying on coal-fired power plants for up to 63 percent of its energy, India has a higher emissions intensity than many other nations. And according to the Niti Ayog, coal will remain India’s mainstay for the next 30 years. Matching demand will require significant imports of coal.

But the solution lies in making coal plants burn cleaner. India’s thermal sector largely relies on outdated equipment, among the most inefficient in the world according to the Centre for Science and Environment. It is this source than contributes nearly half of India’s overall CO2 emissions. And the worry is that the country’s coal production has yet to peak.

Of late, India has cancelled numerous projects for new coal mines, most recently plans for up to 13.7 GigaWatts (GW)of new capacity. The same announcement acknowledged that up to 8.6 GW of existing capacity is no longer viable. It’s a trend followed up on in China too, as reports suggest that new coal plants started after 2016 are no longer financially viable.

But if existing coal plants are the greatest polluters, could replacing them with cleaner burning units make a bigger impact? Analysts like those from Coal Surge have argued that India’s planned coal plants would have more than wiped out the effects of meeting its INDCs. The outcome is that India has more cancelled projects than planned ones, according to Coal Swarm’s infographic tracker.

India just might end up exporting coal to its neighbours, however, returning the question of cancelling out dividends.

A positive move has been the Clean Energy Cess, where taxes on coal have raised billions of dollars to be spent on renewables. Curiously, this money has yet to be spent in large measure.

Surplus Power

Reports point out an unlikely problem of surplus power. With more power being generated than demand calls for, power distributors struggle to sell their excess capacity. With nothing to do with the extra energy, the generators backed down. It’s a problem faced by solar companies as well. For this unused power, distributors still have to pay the generators. In some surplus states, this cost is as much as 59 percent of state government electricity subsidies. This, even as some surplus-power states are adding thermal capacity.

If India can fix the inefficiencies in her energy sector, which contribute 70 percent of the country’s Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, the nation will be in better position to deal with that other big source of emissions : 1.4 billion people (and growing).

Burning through

Not all emissions are equally bad. Some are worse than others. At the end of the Rabi season of crops, farmers in Punjab burn up to eight million tons of crop residue to prepare their fields for the next Kharif crop. The clouds of smoke generated are visible from space, and carry extremeley hazardous levels of particulate matter across the country.

In 2016, Delhi faced its worst smog in history when the combined effect of crop-burning, Diwali (firecracker season) and the millions of cars that ply Delhi streets contributed to a choked city. How bad could such dust and smoke be for a climate goal?

Extremely, when you look at the end result of warming – melting glaciers. The combination effect of wood fires, city pollution and dust has led to a phenomenon in Asia called the “Asian Brown Cloud.” Researchers found that the black carbon in these clouds accounted for nearly 50 percent of warming in the lower atmosphere – the rest coming from other greenhouse gases.

The Himalayan glaciers are melting, and these annual clouds are a big reason. If India and China can tackle the use of wood and open air fires, the immediate Asian neighbourhood would benefit in the process.

Volunteering to save the world

An analysis of India’s progress under the Paris Agreement by the Climate Action Tracker research project suggests that going by existing policies alone, India could safely meet its promised targets. But with Trump’s America out of the picture, India is left with the voluntary option of doubling down on climate action.

India’s cities are growing, and so is the population. Studies have linked rising household income with a spike in CO2 emissions; and ensuring sustainable growth will need a bottom-up approach. Abolishing the use of solid fuels could be one step forward. Another will be cutting the country’s coal addiction and employing better technologies in existing coal power plants.

Living up to Narendra Modi’s promise to go “above and beyond” India’s commitments to the Paris Agreement is a much needed act in this era of inevitable climate  change. Modi has put himself in a unique position to become what Devjyot Ghoshal calls a “Global Climate Superhero“. There are certainly enough supervillains in America to necessitate some heroics in Asia. America’s pullout reduces the funding available for developing nations – but not their will to grow into a better future. The hope of the planet depends on embracing good technology and sustainable policies.

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