As India Goes, So Goes Civilization

How India builds its energy grid could decide the fate of humanity. Maybe we should help the country out.

Photo: Brahma Kumaris/FlickrA solar thermal project in Rajasthan, India

World leaders came out of Paris with an international climate agreement seeking to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The following is part of a “What It Takes” series that looks into what we’ll need to do to pull that off.

At the Paris climate change conference last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called India a “challenge” and said the expansion of the country’s coal industry was moving it in the wrong direction. Several reporters—most of whom had little insight into the negotiations—piled on.

I guess every media narrative needs a villain. On climate, it used to be China. Now it’s India.

How was India cast into this role? The journalist Michael Kinsley once said, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” From an American perspective, India is prone to climate change gaffes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tells reporters at every opportunity that Western countries, not India, are responsible for our warming planet. While the Paris conference pressed on in early December, heavy rains caused floods in southeastern India, killing hundreds in the city of Chennai. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar blamed greenhouse gas emissions from the developed world for the deluges.

Indulge me in an analogy. When someone scolds my three-year-old niece for some bit of naughtiness, she raises her hand, turns her head away, and declares, “I don’t want to hear you saying that.” She doesn’t deny wrongdoing; she merely objects to being reminded of it.

This is our approach to India’s climate change comments. The accusations, while inconvenient, are indisputably true. India is responsible for less than 3 percent of cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions despite being home to approximately 17 percent of the world’s people. Per capita U.S. emissions are about 10 times those of India.

But hey, Modi, we don’t want to hear you saying that.

Coal Plus Solar

The biggest legitimate complaint about India’s climate policy is its decision to continue relying on coal. India is the second-leading builder of new coal-fired power plants (behind China), locking in decades of dirty, carbon-intensive electricity. It is currently building or has already approved 113 gigawatts of new coal capacity and will double coal production to one billion metric tons annually by 2020.

And yet as Harjeet Singh of the global antipoverty group ActionAid explained at a December press conference, “Coal is not an obsession for India; it’s a compulsion.” This simple statement is key to understanding India’s approach. It doesn’t want to mine and burn more coal; surging energy consumption leaves the country no choice. 

Energy demand there will more than double by 2030. By 2040, the country’s energy consumption will be greater than all of Europe’s and nearly on par with the United States. This growth is coming, in large part, from bringing its citizens onto the grid, not from greater consumption among those who already use lots of energy. More than a quarter of a billion Indians currently lack reliable access to electricity. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Indonesia, and India is trying to bring them all online.

To do so, Indian leaders argue that they must build coal capacity in addition to renewables, not instead of renewables. India is leading the world on solar power. The country committed to install 175 gigawatts of renewable power capacity by 2022. And it’s actually doing it. Four Indian states are each developing more than 1 gigawatt of solar capacity right now, with many others planning to more than triple those figures next year. The national government has also published plans to build 25 “ultra mega” solar power parks across India, each with a minimum capacity of 500 megawatts.

Indian officials—even those working for the state-owned behemoth Coal India Unlimited—say they’d prefer to build more renewable capacity and fewer coal-fired power plants, but they don’t know how much more is possible. India is already planning to nearly double the solar capacity of the entire world over the next 10 years. When it made that commitment last February, many people said it couldn’t be done. So it’s strange to simultaneously criticize the country for building coal capacity instead of yet more solar. This is India’s version of “all of the above.”

That’s not to say this is the best India can do. The question is how to get them to do better. Calling India names in newspapers is not likely to help—Indians have no lack of shame over their coal consumption. Even the secretary of India’s coal ministry, Anil Swarup, says, “No one would want coal to happen. Coal is happening because that is the only alternative available with us at this point in time.”

How Can We Help?

The problem, as ever, is money. This brings us back to Paris. Indian leaders have repeatedly told the international community that money is the rate-limiting factor in the greening of their energy sector. Before Paris, India said that it needed international aid to meet its emissions targets. India also argues, much to the aggravation of richer countries, that the developed world has exaggerated the amount of money already committed to mitigation assistance—by a factor of 26.

So, when Indian negotiators arrived in Paris, their primary goal was to secure additional financing to help them develop renewable technology. What happened? Negotiators argued for days over just about everything except how to fund renewable power in the developing world.

While the debates unfolded, finance was put off, and put off, and put off, until there was no time for anything other than a vague promise to raise $100 billion before the 2025 conference, with no concrete plan to get there. Even though it didn’t get a specific commitment on the issue most important to its development, India signed the Paris agreement.

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India faces many challenges in climate change policy. It has more than twice as many vehicles today as in 2005. As wealth expands, those numbers will balloon further. Deforestation—much of it linked to coal extraction—has the potential to undermine the country’s gains in renewable energy. The list goes on.

But in so many ways, India is moving in the right direction. It just needs a financial nudge. Will the world give one, or is India simply too useful as a scapegoat?


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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