350 carbon rhetoric: A wakeup call for India

These studies conclude that 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a kind of ‘do-or-die’ number for planet earth. Beyond 350 ppm, our very survival as human civilisation could be at stake. It is a well researched and documented doomsday scenario and the bad news is that we have already crossed the number 350 and are at around 390.

United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, also called COP15, to be held in Copenhagen in December, will strive to arrive at a new climate treaty as a successor to the not-so-successful Kyoto Protocol. However, the contentious issues will persist: the growth needs of developing nations, ‘burden-sharing’ by the developed nations, transfer of ‘clean’ technologies and funds transfer from the developed to the developing countries.

India and China, who have decided to fight out their case jointly, will push their development agenda. India needs to triple its power generation capacity from about 1,40,000 MW now to over 4,00,000 MW by 2030 ie within the next two decades — a massive requirement indeed. India will be the fourth largest energy consumer after China, US and countries of the former Soviet Union. With this mammoth need for energy, does the number 350 have any relevance to Indians? Is it just a rhetoric?
Let us examine the energy inputs scenario in India today. India’s domestically produced coal satisfies a little over 50 per cent of the energy demand, with oil — domestically produced and imported — contributing to another 30 per cent, gas another eight per cent and the remaining 12 per cent satisfied by hydro-electricity, biomass and several other renewable resources. Coal plays a dominant role in India’s electric power supply accounting for about 81.7 per cent of generation, hydro-electricity 14.5 per cent, and nuclear power 3.4 per cent ie almost entire remaining supply. The contribution of either wind power or solar power is negligible — and between these two negligible entities, wind power supplies the major share. India lacks woefully in oil and gas reserves. It has good nuclear energy potential, particularly with the breeder reactors and the thorium reserves; but, the issue of nuclear energy is always mired in international politics. While nuclear energy is carbon-free, it comes with its own baggage of serious problems of politics, misuse, terror, and environmental accidents. With so much dependence on fossil fuels, does India have any alternative but to fight diplomatic battles at climate treaties buying more time for coming clean on environmental pollution?

Several benefits

While buying time, India can do other things that are in its interest of economic growth as well as minimising environmental load. India is lucky in that issues of minimisation of greenhouse gases and of energy resource crunch are not conflicting. In fact, it can address both the issues simultaneously, the resolution of one helping the resolution of the other. The solution for its energy crunch is staring right in its face, if it cares to look beyond its nose. It has plenty of sunshine on adequately large number of days and in most parts of the country. It has good wind energy potential as well. It has a large coastline providing tidal or wave energy. The large land area of India can also be used to plant and produce biomass. Renewable energy is very crucial for India’s economic growth, its energy security and its independence and such renewable energy is bountifully available. Only such energy needs to be harnessed.

The developed countries are into certain fuel habits — using fossil fuels predominantly and using these indiscriminately. India need not and should not copy all of their ways of energy generation and use. In the area of renewable energy, India has the resources in plenty and should make it a national priority to develop the technologies which are practical and economical. India should take the lead. Solar and other renewable energy research should be as much its priority as its space and nuclear programmes.

If the latter two programmes are of strategic importance, the renewable energy research and development programme is of no less strategic significance. It would drastically reduce our dependence on undependable international partners with fragile internal politics and wavering objectives. India has made a beginning in setting up some goals for the renewables. But, it needs to do a lot more. What is needed is a strong political focus on energy policy and a concerted detailed planning accompanied by sustained punctual implementation with periodic reviews of the potentials, progress and effects. ‘350 carbon’ is a wakeup call for us. A call that will help us locate our own energy resources.

(The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)

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