The Road to Paris from India

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“For me, this is a moral issue. You don’t have a right to exploit what belongs to future generations. We are only allowed to milk the earth, not to kill it.”

Reasons for Optimism
That’s not the Pope in his latest encyclical but in fact India’s PM Narendra Modi back in 2009 as Chief Minister of Gujerat when he began to promote renewables. Its not just talk as Modi has a track record of delivery. He left Gujerat after his stint as CM of Gujerat from 2001-14 with a renewables share of 17%.

This is encouraging in the run-up to the Paris talks – possibly the last chance we have at a global agreement to avert catastrophic climate change! It is the line and leadership we may expect from the 3rd biggest emitter, after China and the USA, and one which is already suffering the effects of climate change and environmental degradation more broadly. India has seen thousands of deaths in recent months from the heat wave and drought, with farmers killing themselves each month as a result of water shortages.

Misplaced Optimism?
At the same time we hear statements from the Indian government questioning why India should do much, with the Brookings Institute to the Guardian suggesting that India can’t do without burning huge amounts of coal. There seems to be a view that because India needs to get people out of poverty it must just be allowed to burn this coal, as its still got a very long way to go before it catches up with the USA or China – which both burnt vast quantities of coal and pumped vast quantities of smoke into the air.

Modi’s one time clear moral conviction isn’t obvious from more recent statements. In September last year, he said “We should also ask is this climate change or have we changed. We have battled against nature. That is why we should live with nature rather than battle against it”. That’s all a bit ambiguous, but worrying when read alongside what seems to have a Tea Party flavour: “Climate Change? Is this terminology correct? The reality is that in our family, some people are old…they say this time the weather is colder. And people’s ability to bear cold becomes less”. This is worrying, and confusing at best.

Leaving aside the question of a clear commitment to climate change, the political challenges are high. Saying that bills may rise is problematic, and India has a system of subsidies for fossil fuels. It also has a complex federal structure.

Why India must act
The view that India need not make a significant commitment to reduce emissions or at least stop them rising needs to be challenged. We need to see world carbon levels peaking and beginning to decline by 2020. Despite its low per capita emissions, the scale of India’s population – £1.2bn roughly a 1/5th of the world’s population – means that its emissions will affect the chance of keeping the temperature increase to 2 degrees and avoiding a tipping point. A failure to make such a commitment undermines the efforts of others, in particular if India goes the other way taking steps in these critical years to lock itself into a high carbon infrastructure. If Europe and the US take action, but countries like India, China and Brazil do not the world is still faced with runaway climate change.

The USA and China have taken a step in this direction agreeing to reduce emissions from 2030. So will India follow suit or even go further?

Some positive steps…
India hasn’t yet submitted its Intended National Defined Contribution (as country commitments for the purpose of negotiations are called) so we don’t know its final plans.

We have however seen some positive steps over the last few years. The Electricity Act 2003 puts a Renewable Purchase Obligation on state owned electricity suppliers. The Congress government under Manmohan Singh put in place a National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008 with commitments to energy efficiency and solar power, including 1000MW of solar thermal and 1000MW of PV a year.

PM Modi in his first address promised to expand solar power, though this was only a small part of a broader energy strategy. He declared an intention to boost solar capacity 33 fold to 100,000 MW, which would raise solar to about 10% of India’s fuel mix above Germany’s at 6%. He has also set a target for 60,000 megawatts of wind power by 2022.

To achieve these targets, the Modi government is stimulating demand by raising the RPO to require 8%, rather than 3%, of energy purchased by state suppliers to be renewable by 2020. The government is enabling bonds to fund solar power to be dominated in dollars to take away the risk related to currency fluctuation and reduce capital costs.

Modi’s Prakash Path on energy efficient lighting provides one highly discounted LED light bulb to each household.

Some of these changes really inspire hope and must be welcomed. But to really make a difference in the time we have available, the Indian government needs to step up its efforts beyond this.

But not enough…..
So at present though we have had many steps forward, we have no firm overall carbon reduction targets, no enforcement mechanisms regarding these targets, nor a strategy towards building a low carbon economy. There is little evidence of urban planning and design that makes for low carbon cities. The disbandment of the federal level Planning Commission is also a worry. Will it lead to a weaker central government direction and possible regional competition to reduce costs to industry? How will a strategy towards a low –carbon economy be developed?

Can India do it?
The big question is whether India can reduce its emissions by 30% or even be “zero carbon” by 2050 without consigning its people to poverty? Quoting from Jeremy Rifkin as quoted in Energy Central “India is the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy sources and if properly utilised, India can realise its place in the world as a great power”.

A huge proportion of India’s energy can be generated using renewables: a mixture of wind, solar, hydro and biomass. There is a vast supply of sunlight from the Thar Desert to urban rooftops, as well as wind and hydropower. It has about 70% more solar radiation than the EU. Energy Central estimates that India could easily generate 5000 GWh of solar energy a year. They estimate that India could install 1000GW of solar energy, about 4x its current peak demand, using farmland and desert. WWF take the view that by installing wind turbines along its shoreline a further 170GW capacity could be installed. Capital is needed to fund this, but there is plenty of capital in the world seeking reasonable rates of return.

These power resources are available locally and don’t need to be imported. India may have large reserves of coal but it is a net importer importing coal mainly from Australia. Producing energy locally not only safeguards the balance of payments but creates more jobs and injects more money into the local economy. Energy Central estimates the economic stimulus at US $ 1 trillion.

A large part of India remains unconnected to the grid – about 40% of households do not have electricity. This means local distributed energy – using local power sources – with local transmission lines can be more cost-effective.

Research into these new technologies will be needed as India makes progress. It will mean India taking the lead in a high tech world. It can become a hub of such technology making use of India’s many brilliant scientific minds and its educated workforce.

Its not simply a question of clean renewable energies but also of reducing energy need. That means the right approach to urban planning and building design. India is at that stage of urbanisation and industrialisation where it is able to put low carbon design into effect. If it fails to build cities for the 21st century but builds them for the 20th century, the era of the private motor car, it is tied into an obsolete urban model out of step with what will be needed.

Higher density housing and commercial buildings built around a public transport network with pedestrianised walkways and shade from sun and rain are important. Here India needs to face East. It can learn from the experience of Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, which have built excellent well-used public transport systems and pleasant streets and walkways – often elevated and passing through air-conditioned buildings. In Hong Kong 98% of trips are by public transport and they are fast, comfortable and inexpensive. To the extent that private cars are still needed infrastructure can be put in place immediately for electric cars and hybrids.

New towns and housing developments can be planned and built with distributed energy systems as part of the infrastructure. Solar panels can be placed on roofs at the time of building them, and trigeneration plants constructed. Buildings need to be highly energy intensive, designed to reduce solar gain through glass and walls, make the most of through ventilation, and use highly energy efficient appliances. This can vary from low energy air- conditioning to using traditional building practices.

No doubt readers will ask what will all this cost. To dispel some myths, unless India intends to free ride and take advantage of cheap coal because others stop using it, the costs of renewables are expected to hit parity with coal and fossil fuels by the end of this decade. In terms of energy efficiency, building and designing homes and cities to save energy can cost less rather than more. Public transport systems can be self-financing unlike most huge road projects, and will in the long run save money.

But perhaps India just needs to put its head down and focus on growth?

India itself is highly vulnerable to climate change and the evidence is that it’s beginning already. From a climate justice perspective, India as one of the biggest emitters has it almost in its hands to lead the debate and protect the poorer people in India that will be washed away by flooding and whose farmland will lose its productivity. So India needs to lift its head and be bold by giving the leadership that’s needed. It can do so in the knowledge that climate change will also have direct benefits in the form of clean liveable cities with low transport and energy costs as well as energy security.

So we wait in suspense – will India put its head in the sand and say to the world “you have emitted so much carbon, and why shouldn’t we do the same”? Or will it have the courage and vision to lead? Will it take a bold step forward and say: we don’t need to build our cities to be like American cities, we don’t need to supply stuff to the West at as low a cost as possible no matter the consequences, we don’t need to be as destructive in our lifestyles as the West has been over the last 150 years? It has the capacity to learn from others and leapfrog the West to a better path of development. Lets hope that is the path it will choose.