Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Balance growth with climate consequences

Preceding the ongoing India visit of US president Barack Obama, there has been much speculation about a possible joint US-India climate announcement. With the EU, the US and China having already set emissions targets, everyone is now looking to India to follow suit.

I believe India should make its emissions target clear, tough and ambitious, with or without the US. By doing so, India would lead the way and inspire humanity at large. Obviously, having a pact with the US to tackle climate change threats could have huge economic benefits. And I trust president Obama and prime minister Narendra Modi will seize the opportunity to keep the momentum going ahead of the Paris climate conference in December.

An aspiring nation like India will naturally peak in its carbon emissions. However, the arguments for effecting peak emissions should not be based on ‘our right to pollute’ because others have done so in the past, but on sound assumptions based on enhanced energy efficiency.

Emerging economies must learn from the past mistakes of developed countries. Here lies the greatest opportunities to lead and show the way.

India is already on a clear path through a series of measures, overt and covert, to demonstrate that it means business. The high-level panel on power sector reforms, ambitious actions to tap renewables’ potential, the independent research to assess emissions trajectory, the much anticipated renewable energy act, and the upcoming investors forum on renewable energy—all point to serious and concerted efforts by the Modi government to usher a new sense of direction and purpose to cleanse India.

For an aspirational society, economic growth must be translated into equitable national growth. For this to happen, the estimated 300 million Indians earning less than a dollar a day must see the standards of their lives significantly improve. Double that number of people must move a step higher in the social and economic ladder. This calls for massive development investments—be it infrastructure, energy or facilities—so we can sustain such opportunities for all.

But here comes the dilemma. On one hand, we cannot ignore the right to development of millions. On the other, exercising such rights under a linear economic track will have a detrimental impact on the environment at large. Are those scientists, activists and environmentalists myopic when it comes to the development aspirations of millions of people? Are the professionals and optimists misplaced in their notions and claims that development can happen without doing much harm to the climate?

India currently has an installed capacity to generate 254 GW of electricity. If the country continues to grow at current levels over the next six years, its electricity demand will be at least twice the current installed capacity. And if people move forward along the social and economic ladder with increasing consumption, the requirements will be even higher.

So, where will this energy come from? How can the government address the demand and supply equation while keeping risk factors minimal? Can renewables offer a dependable solution to meet the peaks and lows of demand as well as cater to spikes without pushing the economy into despair?

The renewable energy potential in India has been estimated at close to 300 GW. This means that even if India utilises 100% of its renewables potential, it will still need to find a way of meeting the huge energy gap, either by conventional fossil burning or through nuclear power.

India’s current thermal power generation plants emit 540 million tonnes of CO2 every year. This is equivalent to 820 kg of CO2 per MWh of energy produced. Compare this against a global average 550 kg of emissions by efficient thermal power plants. This means that for the same quantity of energy produced, India emits nearly 60% more toxic gases than the desired levels. While India remains one of the least carbon-intense economies with a per capita emission of one-fourth of the global average, it is one of the most carbon-inefficient economies.

A clear picture emerges here. Naturally, the issue is not about a need for generation, it is more about the technique of generation. If the current thermal power plants start producing energy at higher efficiency standards, there will be a huge drop in CO2 emissions. Investing in revamping and tidying up the existing transmission and distribution systems in India will further boost efficiency levels.

We just touched on the power sector. But if India manages to control inefficiencies in transport, infrastructure and manufacturing industries too, it will herald a new future. It is a question of cutting and polishing the edges of that rough, dust-covered diamond called India. Cost of energy inefficiency is already bleeding us and we need to plug this immediately.

While we continue to promote renewables, modernising existing power plants and making them globally competent should be accorded highest priority. That will help us the country not to depend on coal-powered electricity generation. Pushing for efficiency in productive energy at all levels should be made mandatory.

A combination of tough internal emission targets and increased investments in vulnerability reduction and adaptation will pave the way for an exciting low-carbon journey. Planned transition to a low-carbon future will boost growth, create new jobs and usher a new wave of clean-energy-centric social and economic development.

Time is ripe. Leadership is in place. Willingness is there. Demand is clear. So, let’s just do it.

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