India’s carbon emissions in 2022 are six per cent compared to the United States’ 1.5 per cent, according to the Global Carbon Budget, released at COP27, the climate conference now underway at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. But India’s per capita carbon emissions are much below the global level, even compared to other developing countries. It is more than a minor contradiction. It means while the nation’s energy consumption is growing, not all the people in the country are consuming more. It is a contradiction that India has to solve for itself.
The government, politicians and the activists can all talk of greater access to energy, but it will not happen unless development helps all. This is a long-term problem that Indians from all sections have to grapple with. Indians, both at the official and non-official level, can argue that India cannot sacrifice its development needs for the sake of a greener globe, and that the greater responsibility lies with long-time polluters from the developed and industrialised West. But while that would make for a good political stand, it does not help India to envisage a better future for its green economy. There is a growing realisation today that a green economy is needed for a sustainable economy, and it is not just a utopian idea. And in India, at least some of the people need to apply themselves to the hard task of thinking of futurist energy scenarios, which goes beyond grandstanding by politicians and climate activists.
The United States, under President Joe Biden, has become a greater supporter of reduction in carbon emissions and transiting to cleaner energy technologies. US treasury secretary Janet Yellen had announced during her recent visit to New Delhi last week a $500 million solar facility in Tamil Nadu to be backed by the government and private players to help India moved to a greener energy economy. This is also seen as an attempt by the US to strengthen the economic and strategic ties between the two countries, with unnamed China as the main target. The US is putting its money where its mouth is, but we have to see how far it will go in collaborating with India in economic terms in choosing green energy options. India on its own is not really budgeting for a green economy in a serious manner. In contrast to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rhetorical flourishes about solar power and renewable sources of energy — and the Prime Minister is genuinely enamoured of solar because of the association of the Sun with the ancient Hindu past — Union coal minister Pralhad Joshi struck a starkly realistic note when he told the parliamentary committee that “coal being an affordable source of energy, holds prime importance for meeting its energy needs being fuelled by the rising economy”. The figures for the use of coal are quite overwhelming: 51 per cent of prime energy requirements and 73 per cent of power generation is based on coal.
The reality of basic energy requirements for both India and the entire world is quite grimy. Even the European Union (EU), with its over-pious climate attitude, is forced to import coal and fire its coal plants in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia and the Russian retaliation by closing gas supplies to Europe. It is one of the reasons why coal prices have shot up worldwide earlier this year, and nearly created a coal shortage for the power plants in the country.
India will not be able to de-carbonise its economy any time soon. The dilemma is how to retain a leadership role over the issue of climate change? The Americans did not join the climate change efforts even as late as the 2010 Copenhagen summit, and then US President Barack Obama tried to chaperone India and China at the last moment into making a compromise statement. In 2015 in Paris and again in Glasgow in 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to put India in the leadership role of sorts by harping on increasing India’s output in non-conventional or renewable sources of energy. And India has indeed increased its renewable energy resources — especially solar — in the last half-decade or so. But it is not sufficient to change the energy base of India’s economy. Prime Minister Modi will have a very tough time reconciling his dream of solar energy and the harsh reality of India’s dependence on coal. It is not his job alone. The experts and the people at large have to do hard thinking on the issue as well.
If India’s economy is to grow in size over the next decade, and the country is to move into the top three or top four slot, then its consumption of fossil fuels — which means coal and oil — will be on the rise, and it will have to contain its carbon emissions. Of course, it is possible to do so through greater investments in green energy sources to improve the situation. But there are no tidy solutions nor well laid out paths. Experts in India argue that there is a need to think of India’s energy needs at multiple levels, and not of the country as a single unit. It has been pointed out that major coal deposits in the country are in the eastern and less developed regions, while the green energy developments are ready to take off in the developed western and southern regions. So, the big picture figures will hide problems at the smaller levels. The other issue is that in terms of prime energy demand, coal and oil account for a major proportion, with coal accounting for 45 per cent, oil 25 per cent, natural gas six per cent, and traditional biomass 13 per cent, while modern renewables stood at just three per cent in 2020, according to the October 2021 International Energy Agency (IEA) report. There is a long road to travel then, and it is high time to lower the rhetoric and focus more on analysis of the energy demand and consumption patterns, and hunting for better options to meet India’s immediate as well as long-term energy needs.