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COP21: Can India reconcile growth and environment?

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India is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. But as a developing nation, it also faces a balancing act between reducing CO2 emissions and boosting economic growth. DW examines India’s role in COP21.

A factory chimney in a residential area emits smoke as haze casts a blanket over Bangalore on December 11, 2009 (Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Already one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world, India is also likely to be hit hard by the effects of global warming. The South Asian country has very dense coastal populations vulnerable to rising sea levels.

And the freak weather patterns which already taking place – such as extreme heat, drought, and the record-breaking floods in Chennai – will not only affect agricultural and food security, but also cause water shortages and disease outbreaks.

The Indian government has reacted to the growing threat by rolling out an ambitious clean energy plan. New Delhi has pledged to invest $100 billion in clean energy investments over the next five years as well as to source 40 percent of its electricity from renewable and other low-carbon sources by 2030.

Delhi's road engulf with smog-forming weather on October 31, 2015 in New Delhi, India (Photo: imago/Hindustan Times)

India is already the world’s fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the US and the EU


Although it hasn’t specified a cap on its emissions, the South Asian giant wants to reach 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by 2022 – up from currently 38 GW – of which 100 GW will be from solar energy. In fact, at the outset of the UN climate summit taking place in Paris from November 30 to December 11 (COP21), Indian PM Narendra Modi and French President Francois Hollande launched an alliance of 121 countries to dramatically boost the use of solar power.

‘We still need conventional energy’

But will this be enough? Analysts point out that while New Delhi is well aware of the dangers posed by global warming, it also wants to make sure that any deal in Paris doesn’t restrict the country’s ability to expand its economy, with PM Modi saying that rich countries should not force the developing world to abandon fossil fuels completely.

“We still need conventional energy. We need to make it clean, not impose an end to its use,” said Modi at the start of the Paris talks, calling on developed nations to meet their commitment to muster $100 billion a year from 2020 to help poor countries cope with climate change.

Moreover, India sees itself as one of the most vocal proponents of “climate justice” – the notion that historical responsibilities as well as present-day capabilities matter greatly in shaping the climate governance regime.


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“From the perspective of New Delhi, it bears little responsibility for the exponential increase in greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution, and also has very little capacity to address the problem when much of the country still lives in abject poverty and hundreds of millions of Indians still lack access to electricity,” David Livingston, an associate at the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

It is precisely this balancing act between boosting economic growth and reaching environmental goals that poses the greatest political challenge to leaders of developing nations such as India – which is already the world’s fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the US and the EU, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Hard to abandon coal

India is home to one-sixth of the world’s population, and its third-largest economy in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, but accounts for only six percent of global energy use, with one in five Indians – 240 million people – still lacking access to electricity, according to the IEA.

But the government’s plans to lift millions out of poverty will likely to change this, as efforts to modernize and industrialize India will trigger dramatic increase in energy demand. In fact, the IEA estimates that the country’s energy demand will account for roughly a quarter of the global increase in consumption by 2040.

The problem is that coal – the key source of power in the country, accounting for around 60 percent of total electricity generation – is also a key source of carbon emissions. And due to the relatively low cost and large reserves of domestic thermal coal, it remains the key fuel source in India’s long-term energy strategy, as Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific Chief Economist at the analytics firm IHS, told DW.

The IEA estimates the expansion of coal supply will make India – which has some of the most polluted cities in the world – not only the second-largest coal producer in the world, but also the largest coal importer, overtaking Japan, the EU and China in the coming years.

India moves to tackle Air Pollution

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India moves to tackle air pollution

“India is a coal-focused country, and it plans to double its consumption in the next 15 years. This is the crux of the problem, given that it’s hard to imagine India substantially bringing down its emissions if it plans to scale up one of the most emissions-intensive energy resources out there,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center told DW.

But while this may seem like a dire prospect, Livingston explains that from India’s perspective, New Delhi’s long-term climate strategy makes sense as it not only puts the country on a growth path, but also keeps per-capita emissions far below those of other industrialized countries such as the US. Today, India’s per-capita emissions are only one-third of the global average.

“The paradox here is that while India’s implied emissions growth rate to 2030 is the largest in absolute terms of all large economies, the country still ends up with the smallest per-capita emissions of all these economies in 2030,” Livingston told DW.

Around $2.5 trillion needed

That’s why the key to the climate talks in Paris will be the level of support developing countries such as India can get from the international community to lower their dependency on fossil fuels, says climate policy expert Samir Saran.

There are two ways this can happen, the analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation told DW: “Either the West can provide the necessary scale of finance and clean technology that will enable India to rapidly deploy renewable energy to power its development, or, the West needs to drastically cut its emissions to allow for rising Indian emissions in the coming years.”

Indian representatives at COP21 have said the country would cut back on coal if the Paris agreement ensures it receives international support that brings down the cost of expanding renewable energy.

“Solar and wind is our first commitment. Hydro, nuclear, all of these non-carbon sources are what we will develop to the largest extent we can,” Ajay Mathur, the director of India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. “What cannot be met by these would be met by coal,” he added.

A preliminary estimate by Indian authorities suggests that at least $2.5 trillion will be required for meeting India’s climate change actions in the next 15 years. They are to be met from domestic sources and leveraging of financial commitments made by developed countries, said Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar in early December. Three-quarters of that investment is expected to go into the power sector.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech during the launching of the International Solar Alliance on the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen)‘We still need conventional energy,” says PM Modi


Bill Hare, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and founder of climate research group Climate Analytics, believes the financial effort would be worth it. The expert warns that India would be making a very risky investment for its sustainable development by going too much further into coal when the alternatives are not only cheaper and more cost effective but also place a much lower environmental, health and damage burden on the country.

“So from the development point of view, I think India has some stark choices ahead of it. If it goes into coal it will not contain its air pollution problems; if it goes into renewables, it will have a much better chance of a sustainable future,” said Hare.

There’s currently a lot of talk about liquefied natural gas (LNG) opportunities in India. LNG is not as polluting as coal and oil, and India has explored possible cooperative opportunities with Australia and other countries to allow for import arrangements, said analyst Kugelman. But this is all preliminary. “For now, coal will remain king in India. And that’s a troubling prospect for the delegates in Paris,” said the India expert.

Pivotal role in COP21

India’s role in the ongoing COP21 talks is seen as pivotal – not least by virtue of its size, stature and emissions record. “India enters this climate summit with such looming development challenges, such capacity for innovation, and on such a growth trajectory that it is an indispensable nation in any meaningful global approach to climate change”, said analyst Livingston.

An agreement without India’s participation would not only be “practically impossible” under the legal structures of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) but would also lack credibility, the climate expert added, “The country on pace to becoming the world’s largest emitter in a few decades time simply cannot be left behind,” he said.

Indian labourers prepare the flooded field for rice farming as chimneys of Kolaghat Thermal Power Plant are seen in the background in Mecheda around 85 kms south-west of Kolkata on July 26, 2011 (Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/GettyImages)

India’s role in the Paris climate talks is seen as pivotal


Analyst Saran has a similar view. “India’s role at COP21 is critical. Unless a global agreement takes into account the concerns of one-sixth of humanity, it is destined to end in failure,” he said. Without financial support and technology flows from developed nations it is likely that developing nations such as India will continue to turn to cheap, highly-polluting coal to meet their development needs.

A change in economics?

But experts say that over time, the relative economics of conventional energy and new, clean technologies will change dramatically. A recent study from MIT has shown that we can expect the cost of wind energy to fall by around 25 percent, and solar by around 50 percent, based on anticipated investment, past trends and technology cost floors.

“The implications of this are tremendous – it means that by 2030, both technologies would represent a negative cost of carbon abatement relative to coal in many areas. The logic of climate action would finally be articulated in the crude but compelling logic of economics, and this is a development that India, nor any other nation, could afford to ignore,” said Carnegie expert Livingston.


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