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'Obsession' with coal power, dams: Is India ready to challenge climate change?

By Shankar Sharma* 

For the environmentalists and rational thinkers in India, it seems never too far away from getting increasingly concerned about how serious the ecological catastrophe will be, and what can happen to our countrymen (as well as people elsewhere) within the next 2-3 decades.
Even though India’s commitment to get half of its energy (it has to be electrical energy or electricity, and not the total energy) from renewables and to reach net zero by 2070 was arguably the most positive news from the opening phase of the UN gathering (at COP26)", there are more questions needing answers than those which might have been vaguely responded to.
The other pledges Prime Minister Narendra Modi made at COP26 were: By 2030, India will (1) increase its non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 gigawatts; (2) meet 50% of its energy requirements from renewable sources; (3) reduce its total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes; and (4) bring down the carbon intensity of its economy to less than 45%.
Whereas, the Union government seems to have succumbed to the global pressure (and maybe to the domestic pressure too) to declare a net-zero target, there are many disconcerting questions being raised on how these so called "pledges" will be met.
At the highest level, the question from the perspective of true welfare perspective of our people is whether India will be able to achieve even a part of these pledges, as long as our national policies are based on the business-as-usual scenario, and on the ill-conceived assumption of the successive governments that a high GDP growth rate oriented economic paradigm is essential for the overall development of our communities.
Developments from around the world, events/ statements at COP26, subsequent opinion pieces/ scholarly articles/reports etc. (click here for links), should indicate that the true concerns for our people are far from over, and there is a need for a lot more due diligence, honesty and collective efforts from different sections of our society to minimise the catastrophic consequences of the fast escalating climate emergency.
Some of the observers are arguing that, when we objectively consider how the country governments have been performing since the Paris agreement in 2015, the 2070 net-zero target may be too little and too late. If the two most populous countries and top polluters (China with a 2060 target, and India) continue to add net GHG emissions to the atmosphere for such a long time (which may also mean that their net GHG emissions may keep increasing till 2040/50), can the run-away climate tolerate the same?
Under such a scenario, unless all other countries do vastly more to reduce their own GHG emissions by then, the planetary conditions may exceed all the limits much before 2050.
The other pledge is: by 2030, India will increase its non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 gigawatts. Since there has been no pledge on reducing fossil fuel energy capacity, India may also increase its coal power capacity by huge margins as compared to what it is now.
Another pledge is to reduce its total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes. Will there be many more billions of carbon emissions added to the atmosphere by then while reducing the emission by 1 billion tonnes only?
Assuming that India's pledge is to reduce carbon emissions on of one billion tonnes by 2030 as compared to that in 2021, how can it do so while adding an unlimited capacity of coal power capacity and increasing its fleet of automobiles by many times in the same period?
In view of the fact that there has never been any policy statements or even indication to do away with its obsession on coal power (more and more coal mines are being opened and coal power plants are being planned/built), one may wonder whether there was only a play with words in this so-called pledge.
The COP26 deforestation pledge may appeal to us more interesting than the grandstanding on net zero target for 2070 by India. But the question always remains as to whether the global leaders are serious in delivering on the pledge.
As far as the case of India is concerned, it will be a miracle from my perspective if the authorities make honest efforts not to cut any trees in legally protected areas (PAs), to increase the total land area under PAs to about 10% of the total land area of the country by 2030, and if the total forest cover is consciously taken to at least to 33% of the land area by 2030.
I will attach more importance to this aspect of our environmental protection efforts, although a diligently prepared road map and honest plan to become carbon neutral by 2070 is important. Can we hope to see some light at the end of the tunnel after all?
Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb warming, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-heating carbon emissions produced worldwide, but release the carbon they store when they rot or are burned. Forests also provide food and livelihoods, help clean air and water, support human health, are an essential habitat for wildlife, regulate rainfall and offer flood protection.
While broadly welcomed, many conservationists note that similar zero deforestation pledges had repeatedly been made and not met by both governments and businesses. Those include the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), the United Nations sustainability goals and targets set by global household brands.
Almost a quarter of all man-made emissions of carbon dioxide can be attributed to land use activity such as logging, deforestation and farming. Humans have already cut down half of all Earth's forests, a practice doubly harmful for the climate when CO2-sucking trees are replaced with livestock or monoculture crops.
Can we see the indication of any set of policies/ practices, which can lead to the smooth achievement of these pledges/ targets? Can the whole set of Acts/ policies/ rules/ practices, which are required in the effective realisation of these pledges/ targets, be enacted/ formulated early?
India’s power requirement in 2030 is projected to be about 2,518 billion units (as per some estimates) and if the country targets to meet 50% of its needs from renewable energy, the installed capacity will have to increase from the planned 450 GW to at least 700 GW. 
But the country's pledge at COP26 is to increase its non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 gigawatts only by 2030. If hydroelectricity is considered a part of renewables – as it is being considered globally – then India will need to increase new renewable capacity to 630 GW, because the total hydro electricity potential in the country may not be much more than about 70 GW.
There are many serious concerns to our communities in this scenario too. Adding a lot to the dam based hydro electricity capacity means vast destruction to the forest cover, a lot more emission of high potency methane gas, and a lot of social-environmental issues. 
Intransigence is observed at the level of top bureaucracy in living up to the needs of fast changing ecological scenario
Since nuclear power cannot contribute much to increase the total installed electricity generating capacity by 2030 (and also since it is not acceptable to the people), the question should be whether India will be able to meet even these smaller and short term pledges by 2030, without deleteriously impacting its communities.
Since there has been no indication or implicit statements /policy directions to suggest that the country can definitively move in the right direction, many questions are being raised by civil society groups. Each of them need to be diligently addressed.
Some of the major steps urgently needed in this context are:
  • A diligently prepared National Energy Policy, which while looking at the long term goal of net-zero carbon emission, should objectively take into various associated issues such as: determining/ projecting the legitimate demand for various energy resources for different sections of our society; techno-economic feasibility of various energy technologies suitable/available to our country; sustainability in harnessing the associated natural resources; the national forest policy target of ensuring 33% of the land area covered by forest & trees; pollution /contamination limits of air, water and soil; the need to minimise the forced displacement of people and to suitably compensate for any inevitable land acquisitions; etc.
  • Meticulously apply the "Options Analysis" and "Costs and Benefits Analysis" to determine the most appropriate technology (or least cost option) of providing energy service to each habitat, area, district, state/region.
  • Determine the role of conventional energy technologies for the future, and how and when to phase them out? Can some of them be modified to suit the need/ relevance of the future?
  • Adequate number of studies/ simulation exercises should be launched and completed urgently to project/ plan the different kinds of REsources, capacities, ideal locations etc. along with the associated infrastructural needs for 2030, 2040, 2050 etc.
  • Commitment on peak emission year before 2030, and the yearly target to reduce the fossil fuel dependency should be identified; and a firm commitment should be made in that regard, if necessary, through clear legislation.
  • In order to live up to the vow to save forests, the natural forest cover in the country should not only be adequately protected, but also need to be enhanced to at least 33% of the land area; such forest & tree cover should be at least 66% of the land area in those districts falling within the Himalayas, Western Ghats, and other hilly areas; all these steps be completed by 2030.
  • The revised INDC along with yearly and short term milestones should be diligently considered and committed to.
  • Since India has made a bold and invigorating pledge for a net-zero carbon emission target of 2070, India should take the next step of leading the global effort to advance the net-zero carbon emission targets: 2035 for developed countries; 2040 for China, and 2050 for itself. Without such stiff and ambitious targets, it may be impossible to adequately protect the poor and vulnerable sections of our society from the perils of climate emergency.
  • Since none of the above pledges/ targets will be feasible without making conscious efforts to minimise the demand for energy and materials, suitable national level missions should be launched and closely monitored to effectively implement the associated measures such as high levels of energy efficiency, optimal demand side management, and imaginatively implemented energy conservation.
  • Since such critical and national level efforts cannot be successful with the effective participation of all sections of our society, suitable consultations with the interested stakeholders should become mandatory.
In view of the intransigence observed at the level of top bureaucracy in recent years in living up to the needs of fast changing ecological scenario, can we hope that the political leadership of the country will effectively lead/guide the bureaucracy towards the urgently needed developmental paradigm shift; now that the country has made so many far reaching international pledges?
Can we also hope that the present political leadership will not slip into a mood of complacency that none of them may be living by 2070 to be held accountable for their pledges?
In summary, as a responsible member of the global community, is India determined to rise to the challenges associated with climate change?
---
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst, Vijayanagar 1st stage, Sagara, Karnataka

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