Sanjeev Ahluwalia | India's energy transition: Who will lead the way?

By 2070, India will go from spewing 2.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually to none at all -- a near nirvana like, post-industrial wonderland called “Net Zero” -- when a country’s carbon emissions from humans, animals and decaying plants equal the amount of carbon that forests and trees absorb to grow. Any additional emissions from industry, travel or homes from cooking or heating/cooling, must be captured and rendered inert. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led from the front by voluntarily announcing the target date at the Glasgow Conference of the Parties -- COP 26 -- in 2021, jettisoning India’s traditional unwillingness to accept target-bound climate action. Most advanced economies are planning to get there by 2050 and China by 2060.

The problem is that India is still growing. We are already the largest country by population and will add around 240 million more people by 2065 before the population starts tapering. On top of that, India is severely land unconstrained, yet forest cover must become denser and grow beyond the existing 24 per cent of total land area. Deep changes in the fuel mix, higher efficiency in fuel use, material circularity and mindful rejection of waste will be necessary.

The target date is nearly half a century away. But action to get there must start now for three reasons.

First, the Indian economy is growing at present at more than double the rate of the global economy, the same as Bangladesh, but faster than China. High growth embeds carbon into buildings, appliances and industrial equipment. A carbon intensive stock of capital goods is a future liability in a low carbon world. Investing in high carbon fuel dependent building stock is a waste. Hence the urgency to switch to low carbon development pathways.

Second, the asymmetric paths to decarbonisation announced at Glasgow are a mirage.

Advanced economies are lavishing fiscal resources on captive green technology to accelerate decarbonisation and kickstart lagging growth. The moment clean technology reaches scale and becomes affordable -- at their higher levels of income -- they will mainstream it. Tighter standards and penal tax will follow, to discriminate against carbon intensive products, processes, and services. The European Union is starting a sequenced process from 2024 to impose a border carbon tax on imports. We have no choice except to gear up and compete.

Third, and most importantly, there are significant co-benefits to decarbonisation. Consider the health benefits of clean air from enhanced use of renewable electricity rather than coal and the disappearance of street-level petrol and diesel fumes with electrification of travel.

Good jobs can be created if we join global supply chains in manufacturing, including “green” technology -- electrolysers, semiconductors and solar modules. These might be enclaved developments, but spill-over income benefits will accrue.

The energy transition must happen at three levels. First, the technology shift from dirty coal to renewable electricity, from coal use in industry to blue hydrogen (hydrogen manufactured from hydrocarbons) and green hydrogen after 2040 by electrolysing water along with the necessary distribution infrastructure to commercialise its use for powering heavy vehicles and vessels. Electrification of transport -- 100 per cent of rail by 2030. You might have already bought your last petrol scooter or motorcycle and your second last petrol car. By 2050, you might prefer the metro, a bus or pedal push to work.

The second transition reduces the amount of energy embedded in production or in daily lives -- technically called energy intensity. India has done well over the past two decades in decoupling energy from economic growth. Against a six-fold increase in GDP (constant terms), energy consumption only doubled, reducing energy intensity. Some of this was because lower energy intensive services grew faster than manufacturing. That will change.

Also, with a larger population and higher incomes, energy consumption is bound to grow.

Deepening energy efficiency programmes and more aggression in the existing standards and labelling programme of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency can help.

The third transition is in citizen awareness of our carbon reliance in daily choices and the consequences on climate and the environment. Apps now tell you the carbon cost of taking a cab to the movies. Your jacket is carbon tagged. Twenty-six per cent of Indians prefer being vegan (IPSOS survey). In India, extended family bonds remain the norm, family values dominate and can be tweaked to promote green behaviour and choices. The flagship program LiFE launched in Glasgow in 2021 has intrinsic value but sadly, low visibility, and should be amped up.

Rekindling the community spirit behind the Independence movement, a century ago, is one option. The Mahatma diversified its ownership beyond the urban middle class. Energy transition needs to be imbued with the same spirit of generalized ownership. The energy transition can only succeed if it makes life better for the average citizen whilst also decarbonising the economy. Take the case of transiting away from coal in India. This entails a loss of around three million to six million formal and informal jobs in mining and power generation.

How should the energy transition be sold to this set of citizens? Good practice, “Just Transition” principles, tell us that preparatory, participative, consultations around alternative work options, reskilling, or retirement must start five to ten years prior to the targeted date of mine closure or retirement of power plants. Mines tend to develop communities around them. It is not enough to tackle individual displacement. Rehabilitation must extend to entire communities.

The Government of India has recently started an initiative where potential open cast coal mines are being assessed for conversion to water catchment areas for new pumped hydro storage schemes. Energy storage facilities -- battery electricity storage systems and pumped hydro storage -- are critical for integration of higher proportions of variable renewable electricity into the grid. They offer a reasonable core option for rehabilitating impacted mining communities around which other economic activities can be created.

Energy transition is more than just a techno fix -- adding more renewable energy capacity, enhancing energy efficiency by deepening the Perform, Achieve and Trade scheme or incentivizing the domestic manufacture of “green” technology and appliances. These are necessary but far removed from the average citizen. Stepping beyond to co-opt communities, local governments and states into the decision-making and implementation loop can nurture land and marine natural assets, water ways, lakes, and ponds and promote material circularity, waste reduction and mindful use of energy. Looking within rather than without is the key. The challenges and the opportunities are primarily domestic. External engagements are, at best, a distraction.

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