Being frank about India’s energy dilemma

Being frank about India’s energy dilemma

The government’s rhetoric on climate change and the government’s pragmatic stance at the ground level are not contradictory

Representative image. Coal power Plant. Reuters

Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav had to play a difficult role in the final stages of the CoP-26 at Glasgow on November 12 and 13. The change in the final text of what is now called the Glasgow Pact about the use of coal from “phase out” to “phase down” is due to pressure from India, apparently egged on by China and other developing countries. This put India in an uncomfortable position and Yadav had to defend India’s stance as standing up for the cause of climate justice and the legitimate right to economic development.

This was obviously a comedown from the highfalutin rhetoric of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the start of the summit when he promised to bring down carbon intensity of the Indian economy by 50% and increase India’s share of power generation from renewable sources to 50% by 2030. What is not clear is whether India’s dependence on coal will increase to accelerate India’s growth on its way to a $5 trillion economy. The coal shortages of this monsoon pointed to a crisis. Union Home Minister Amit Shah had to convene an emergency meeting to ensure that there is no disruption of coal supplies and coal production is ramped up. Where does India stand on the issue of its coal consumption and the resultant carbon emissions?

The last-minute alteration in the final text of the Glasgow Pact is also viewed in India as the country’s growing clout in the comity of nations. But it has certainly dented India’s image as the benign big country which rises to defend the interests of the vulnerable countries on the climate change front. Prime Minister Modi had presided over the ginger group of Like-Minded Developing Countries (LDCs) and launched the Initiative for Resilient Island States (IRIS). It will be said that whatever the expansive gestures that Modi might have made on behalf of India, at the end of the day there is no alternative to defending national interests. And that in taking a firm stand on the use of coal and forcing a change in the text of the final agreement, India did what any country ought to be doing – defend its interests.

International experts are of the view that India’s dependency on coal will decrease by 2030 as the share of renewable sources in the energy basket increases, and that compared to coal, the costs are much less for renewables and that coal will phase itself out in sheer economic terms. It could well be the case. Though the Modi government’s zeal and desire to switch to renewables is very high – the public sector coal plants have been asked to set up solar plants and the energy generated has been impressive – the government and policymakers are not yet preparing to banish coal. And the renewables are not yet in a position to replace coal.

The Ministry of Coal’s website says, “Coal is the most important and abundant fossil fuel in India. It accounts for 55% of the country’s energy needs. The country’s industrial heritage was built upon indigenous coal.” And there is the curious statement: “Indian coal offers a unique eco-friendly fuel source to domestic energy market for the next century and beyond.” Whether Indian coal is eco-friendly or not, the share of coal in the Indian energy mix will remain high. Thermal power plants, a majority of them coal-fired, contribute 60% of installed power capacity and 80% electricity consumed in the country. The alternatives to coal are not too many. The ministry notes: “Considering the reserve potentiality of petroleum & natural gas, eco-conservation restriction on hydel project (sic), and geo-political perception of nuclear power, coal will continue to occupy centre-stage of India’s energy scenario.” That is a big coal confession.

The argument based on climate justice says that India is not polluting as much as others like China, the United States, the European Union – and the numbers for CO2 emissions go in India’s favour as of now – are doing and that it has room to increase its carbon emission levels and still not reach the polluter-pays levels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that India’s CO2 emissions are now at the same level as that of the European Union at 2.53 gigatonnes – in per capita terms, two-thirds lower than that of the EU and 60% lower than the global average. In terms of the argument of climate justice, India’s CO2 emission numbers are on the right side. The government’s rhetoric on climate change and the government’s pragmatic stance at the ground level are not contradictory. Surprisingly, many of the advocacy groups agree with the government, a rare example of consensus between adversaries.

The Modi government’s rhetoric about renewables turns out to be a smokescreen to hide the facts about the use of coal to fire the economy. It would be churlish to dismiss renewables as of no consequence. But it is necessary to keep the focus on fossil fuels. No economy can do without them. There is a need to find ways of controlling the polluting effects that arise from fossil fuels even as attempts are on to strengthen the use of renewables. The earlier argument going back to the 1960s against fossil fuels was that we would be exhausting the limited resources and therefore to use them frugally or find alternatives. With the climate change issues coming on to the agenda, the argument is now about the polluting effects of the fossil fuels, and therefore the need to replace them. What we need then is a frank discussion of energy resources, old and new, and ways of managing them. It looks like politicians cannot be trusted to think about these issues because they are bound by short-term prospects and goals. It’s time for a free-wheeling discussion on energy sources, needs and consumption patterns.

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