Will India Lose The Lead In Tackling Climate Change?

Smoke, power, plant,
Image: Snowpeak/ Creative Commons
With the U.S. out of the race, only India and China can stop climate change. But is India undoing its own efforts?

India is at a rare, historical crossroads when it comes to climate change – and the future of the planet. India and China are the only two major polluters showing signs of making positive progress on climate change. The United States has changed tracks with Donald Trump’s presidency, showing signs of cutting all funding for climate-change-related initiatives, as well as opposing regulations on the fossil fuel industry.

According to a report published by Climate Central, India and China have been the only global leaders in tackling climate change. India has made record strides in adopting the solar technology, even as China finds opportunities in green technologies. On paper, these were the only two nations making positive headlines on the environment. Trends elsewhere have also been uninspiring. As the report states:

The U.S. isn’t alone in its regression. European lawmakers are balking at far-reaching measures to tackle climate change. Australian climate policy is in tatters. International efforts to slow deforestation in tropical countries are failing.

However, the problem emerges once you keep an eye on the goal – i.e. meeting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming to under two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. India, despite good progress on the pledge to use renewables for 40 percent of its energy supply by 2030, is set to increase coal production by 123 percent in that same period. According to a research article published in “Earth’s Future”, the added emissions coupled with the emission targets of other nations mean that the two-degree goal is set for failure. The implications include large-scale migration, triggered by catastrophic natural disasters.

The uncertain road to disaster

It’s a situation that belies the otherwise glowing headlines on India’s progress. In three years, India had tripled solar generation capacities. Prices are falling, creating some of the lowest energy tariffs in the world – the latest record being Rs.3.15 (4.9 cents) per Kilowatt Hour. It’s yet another example where solar power can be as cheap or cheaper than coal as a source of energy.

The problem lies in economies of scale. Just as how solar gets cheaper with wider adoption, coal prices too can drop with increased capacity. And, India plans to not only double its own capacity but increase that of neighbours as well.

Both India and China competed to build Bangladesh’s largest coal-fired plant, located just ten kilometres north of the UNESCO-heritage Sunderbans Mangrove forests. The UNESCO and IUCN have expressed their opposition to the project, notwithstanding protests in Bangladesh that saw thousands participate. But, thanks to financing by the Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM), India emerged as the lowest bidder. The outcome is a $1.6 billion project, awarded to Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL).

The plant is an ecological and economic nightmare in more ways than one. It will be heavily reliant on coal imports, resulting in hundreds of ships transiting the mangrove’s shallow river systems. Thousands of tonnes of coal have already been lost from ships sinking in these straits – making toxic one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. In addition, the plant necessitates 219,600 cubic metres of water every day in order to keep functioning. And, to pay for all this, Indian taxpayers will be shelling out $988 million while those in Bangladesh bear a $1.87 billion subsidy.

India has been helping most of its South Asian neighbours with building and financing infrastructure projects – but very few of these were to do with sustainable forms of clean energy like solar.

Global problem

With the United States now backing away from its role in tackling climate change – including its commitments to the Green Energy Fund – developing nations are the only ones equipped to make a change. In attempting to grow coal capacity alongside solar, India runs the risk of making solar redundant with coal.

It’s true that on aggregate, India emits far less CO2 than the rest of the major polluters. However, the problem is India’s emission intensity (the amount of CO2 produced per unit of electricity) is almost double that of the global average – thanks to the country’s thirst for coal. Where India’s Nationally Determined Contributions plan to add 100 GW and 60 GW of solar and wind capacity respectively by 2030, coal capacity is slated to increase by 243 GW.

Even government agencies are questioning why India needs all the extra coal capacity when the country is already power-surplus. This is also reflected by India’s energy minister, Piyush Goyal, who claimed in February 2017 that “today India is a surplus power nation, unlike in the past”.

One simple explanation could be revenues. Exporting coal is more feasible than exporting solar (especially since solar power is still subsidy-driven). India is eyeing Bangladesh as an export partner. And auctioning coal mines in the state of Jharkhand alone generated Rs. 49,273 crores of revenue in 2016 i.e. $7.68 billion.

India is in a strange situation. It has ‘cancelled’ more coal plants in the last seven years than any other nation. But at the same time, it can’t stop adding more coal to its inventory.

In the saddest irony, a study conducted by researchers from Duke University estimated that India’s solar yield could decline by 17-25 percent every year because of air pollution. The more India burns coal to grow, the less it can rely on solar. It’s a double irony for Bangladesh whose geographic locations makes it one of the first expected victims of rising sea levels.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that despite all this, India remains one of the best ‘success’ stories for tackling climate change in 2017, largely by proving that solar can be a feasible source of energy. The U-turn of the United States in the matter is a nightmare yet to be understood. The two degrees of warming we have accepted will already affect millions. Any more than that will affect many, many more.

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