Remarks by Dr Samir Saran at the Opening Plenary session of the BRICS Academic Forum 2022
It is a pleasure to be back again and be a part of the academic forum that has continued to raise important issues for intra BRICS cooperation and indeed, for the challenges that confront our world.
We are meeting today at an important moment—a moment that will be recorded and studied by future generations. It is important that all of us rise to the challenges that confront us and be creative in discovering solutions. Three major trends are seeking our attention and indeed, resolution.
First, global politics has been upended by the political actions in Asia and Europe. Conflicts, contests, and careless power projection have jeopardised stability, peace, and prosperity for all. Can we discover a new geostrategic balance and what role can BRICS play?
As we emerge from the pandemic—or at least begin to learn to live with it—what are the lessons that we have learnt? Will new development and growth models emerge, and will BRICS and other actors invest in what is most important for humankind?
And finally, we are experiencing the digitalisation of everything. Technology is having an impact on our economy, our politics, our societies, and indeed our individual behaviours, choices, and assessments of the world we live in.
New Politics, Green and Inclusive Growth, and our Common Digital Future beckons us. At the Indian presidency of the BRICS last year, we coined three words—Continuity, Consolidation, and Consensus. These remain relevant even as China steers the group and must continue to define the BRICS agenda.
We have to work together to overcome the contested politics of today. We must be contributors to stability in world affairs. We should reject actions as a group and as individual nations that can create further instability or exacerbate current tensions.
BRICS was always meant to be a grouping that would offer an alternative path to one prescribed by the Atlantic Order. We must continue to strive to do this. Unipolarity must give way to multipolarity. Bipolarity is not an option.
Three key elements will shape the path that BRICS and others must pave.
First, as the political assumptions of the 20th century may no longer be sufficient or valid for a more complex world, we must work together to script a multilateralism that is fit for purpose. It must reflect current realities, the aspirations of different geographies, and a governance structure that is plural, transparent, and accessible. The old hegemony of the Atlantic Order must not be replaced by a new hegemony from another region.
BRICS must continue—individually and collectively—to remain inclusive in shaping the multilateral system. This system must deliver on economic and trade growth. It must find new ways of catalysing financial flows for infrastructure and aspirational needs of multiple geographies. Multilateralism for this century will require new anchors and champions. BRICS can play that role, provided all members are committed to it.
Second, future growth and our economic needs will have to cater to our planetary responsibility. Green transitions must not simply be a buzzword, but the policy design for all. BRICS must work—both within and with others—to put together a template to invest toward a green planet. We have to rethink mobility, urban spaces, consumption, and our lifestyles. We must also work to protect those who are already being burdened by the deleterious consequences of global warming, rising sea levels, and harsh weather conditions.
Thirdly, we have to embrace technology and not allow it to become the new arena for zero-sum politics. The world must see technology as a digital public good and it must serve all of humanity equitably. The rules for this digital future are yet to be written. These rules must not be written only by the western hemisphere. In the absence of such agreed rules, sovereign arrangements must prevail over those written by the boardrooms. BRICS can share experiences and learnings from our individual journeys and offer to the world examples and methods of managing our common digital future. We must ensure that countries, within and outside, do not weaponise technology or game the digital public square.
It is impossible for BRICS to attain its full potential and contribute to global affairs unless each member is committed to the BRICS project and the thinking that led to its creation—peaceful co-existence, within the group and with others, being the primary ethos.
In the third decade of the twenty-first century, democracies face a new adversary — technology. Technology was once seen as a force for good, which could bridge the gap between the state and restless streets. Today, owned and controlled by large enterprises and extra-territorial governments, that very technology sometimes undermines the foundations of democracy, where it functions as a public sphere and a vibrant information exchange.
Much of the world has blearily woken up to big tech’s ambitions, expansion and unaccountable power to shape the human condition. A few companies, dotted on America’s West Coast (henceforth referred to as big tech), now possess the ability to harness the digital gold rush — along with the equally overwhelming influence on discourse in democratic societies. In parallel, a rising China, with its rapid successes in building a vibrant technology ecosystem, has unleashed plans to dominate innovation, high technology and the global perceptions ecosystem (henceforth referred to as red tech).
Technology from the West Coast of the United States and technology that seeks to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have both chosen to pursue their defined objectives with little thought for constitutional systems and laws in third countries. As such, much of the democratic world is at risk of being caught in the vice-like grip of big tech and red tech. It is, therefore, time for democratic societies to discover and examine means to secure an open and free global technological ecosystem that serves all shades of democracy.
Technology from the West Coast of the United States and technology that seeks to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have both chosen to pursue their defined objectives with little thought for constitutional systems and laws in third countries.
Why the Battle for Tech Matters
The threat that big tech poses to democracy is multifaceted. First, major social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Google and others — curate, promote and curtail information received by and, indeed, even the opinions of citizens in democratic societies. This power over speech and expression, and therefore over our politics and polity, is unrivalled in history (Baer and Chin 2021). While US steel, big oil and big tobacco were brought to heel by domestic regulations and national governments, the transnational reach of big tech has made it much harder to circumscribe (Lago 2021).
Operating outside rules and regulations prescribed by sovereign constitutions, social media platforms now exercise a worrying level of influence without accountability. Big tech has deplatformed controversial political figures such as Donald Trump (Byers 2021); censored content, a decision that internal ombudsmen disagree with (Eidelman and Ruane 2021); and has encouraged an engagement-based content ranking system that has allowed everything from disinformation about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to hate speech to spread (Harris 2021). Platforms are free to decide whether they function as private hosting platforms or providers of a vital public utility; they cannot be both. Yet, they pick and choose between the two functions as it suits them.
National governments have not been asleep at the wheel. From New Delhi to Canberra, they have tabled regulations to rein in social media behemoths. In every instance, platform enterprises have chosen to obstruct, obfuscate and outmanoeuvre regulatory efforts (Clayton 2021). Left unregulated, our digital commons may become a noxious space that suffocates democracy, rather than being the promised breath of fresh air.
The future of democratic societies will also be decided by the contest with China in high technology. This competition runs deeper than China’s desire to build “national champions” that can outcompete the Googles and Apples of the world. To Beijing, China’s technology capabilities directly serve interests, ideologies and inclinations of the CCP (Tyagi 2021). Even as the Great Firewall of China allows the CCP monopoly control over ideas and over truth among its own citizens, China’s ever-increasing reach and economic expansion provides the party the ability to pervert and undermine the public sphere of other nations.
Platforms are free to decide whether they function as private hosting platforms or providers of a vital public utility; they cannot be both.
From harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of facial recognition technologies to vastly expand its citizen surveillance system (Davies 2021) to deploying those very capabilities against Uighur minorities in Xinjiang (Mozur 2019), the CCP will not shy away from deploying tech to reinforce strict authoritarian control at home. Overseas, “wolf warriors” (Martin 2021) insert themselves into every global debate of consequence and Chinese money power prevents Western media or social media from acting against such insidious and troubling participation that aggravates cleavages in other societies.
As China’s economic influence and technological capabilities have grown, it has sought to influence and manipulate global publics. China’s official media, governmental entities and diplomats have leveraged open platforms such as Twitter to peddle disinformation on the origins of COVID-19 (Associated Press 2021). China’s influence operations have also extended to election interference in Taiwan (Kurlantzick 2019), and they are increasingly inserting themselves in other countries as well. According to Freedom House, China has used its technological capabilities, in tandem with its economic and political power, to launch a massive influence operation that is gaming democracies from the inside out (Cook 2020).
Red tech is clearly an extension of the CCP’s global ambitions. For example, global standards bodies and multilateral organizations have been flooded with standards proposals by Chinese tech firms that would enshrine CCP values into the fundamental architecture of the internet (Gargeyas 2021). At the United Nations, Huawei and other Chinese state-owned enterprises have led advocacy for a “New IP” to replace the existing TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) structure of the internet (Gross and Murgia 2020). Industry analysts have expressed concern that this new structure, with inbuilt controls that would allow for vastly increased governmental interference, is fundamentally at odds with the open internet of today.
According to Freedom House, China has used its technological capabilities, in tandem with its economic and political power, to launch a massive influence operation that is gaming democracies from the inside out (Cook 2020).
The ascendance of Chinese standards and tech also worries global actors for other reasons. While the United States and the European Union have enabled the creation of penetrated and argumentative democracies — wherein all countries and civil society organizations can advocate for the regulation of big tech or the promulgation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards — China has no equivalent political structure. In fact, China’s intemperate wolf warrior diplomacy, which has precipitated clashes with Australia (Ryan 2020), Sweden (BBC News 2018) and France (Seibt 2021), among others, demonstrates that China has little tolerance for dissenting views or for reciprocal tolerance of criticism.
The Regulatory Void
Despite the high stakes and clear threat, regulation has failed to keep up. Major powers have not come to the fundamental realization that regulations must be both political and functional. Technology regulations driven by industry may have prized functionality, but both big tech’s subversion of regular constitutional processes and democratic debate as well as red tech’s brazen advancement of the CCP’s agenda demand regulation to recognize and return to its political roots.
Part of the reluctance to commit to a more political vision of regulation stems from overdependence on a China that dominates major global economies and the tech innovation ecosystem (Pletka and Scissors 2020). Given the massive size of the Chinese market, its capable and growing technology product and service lines, and Beijing’s willingness to use market access as leverage, many dither in enforcing regulations that exclude Chinese technology from specific sectors and functions. Others feel that government interference and politicization in regulatory matters could result in the fracturing of the global tech innovation ecosystem altogether (Schneider-Petsinger et al. 2019).
Technology regulations driven by industry may have prized functionality, but both big tech’s subversion of regular constitutional processes and democratic debate as well as red tech’s brazen advancement of the CCP’s agenda demand regulation to recognize and return to its political roots.
However, the return to more political regulation to oversee technology in the days ahead is inevitable. Simply, it is part of a well-established historical cycle. As Caetano Penna (2022) points out, every technological revolution has generated cycles of exuberance that leave contemporary social forces and political institutions in disarray. Only later does society mobilize to reshape institutions to suit a new era. Such regulation in service of societal goals has always been a key determinant in the evolution of industrialized societies. The spread of communication technologies in the boom from the 1980s to 2008 represented a cycle of exuberance. Today, however, technology possesses the power to fundamentally remake, disrupt and destabilize societies. AI-enabled machines threaten to put millions out of work and social media platforms, with a little Chinese help, have the potential to undermine democracies.
What Does a More Political Vision Look Like?
States, civil societies and general publics will have to take back control of the conversation over technology from tech companies. Part of this process will be nationally led and the rest multilateral. Domestic polities need to debate and hammer out a national consensus on some key issues, including on whether to enshrine privacy as a fundamental right. Assuming privacy is guaranteed, what level of privacy would suit their purposes? Who should own and have access to data? Who decides, and through what process, whether particular ideologies and groups should have access to the public commons?
In parts of the world where this debate is ongoing, robust data protection and privacy laws have been framed. While Canada now holds major tech platforms to the same transparency standards as traditional broadcasting groups (Solomun, Polataiko and Hayes 2021), Australia (Choudhury 2021) and India (Saran 2021) have adopted more stringent social media rules aimed at forcing big tech to comply with national-level regulations and directives on content. Nations would also have to debate the merits and benefits of the existing open internet model versus competing visions such as China’s New IP proposal. Each of these decisions would require clear choices by citizens who have, thus far, been excluded from conversations by governing elites and technology companies.
Domestic polities need to debate and hammer out a national consensus on some key issues, including on whether to enshrine privacy as a fundamental right.
At the multilateral level, bringing politics back into regulation will help safeguard data and democracies. An excellent example of political regulation is the European GDPR data architecture. Even firms outside the European Union that provide services to EU citizens find themselves subject to the European Union’s fundamentally political vision of privacy for its citizens (Nadeau 2020). The GDPR has also allowed for another political choice: flows of data will be free within the European Union but will be subject to protections upon leaving its borders.1 In effect, the European Union has erected a robust regime of protection that privileges countries that share a similar vision of privacy and data protection.
The European Union’s economic, political and normative leverage, popularized through the “Brussels effect,” has effectively forced other regimes to make way for it, with numerous countries enacting similar procedures. As such, the European experience in norms and standards setting is useful. Countries that share similar political visions of internet governance, disinformation and other aspects of technology policy can come together multilaterally to make the vision prevail globally. And disruptive players such as China, still new to the standards game, must make their peace with liberal democratic norms — or risk being left out in the cold.
Robert Fay suggests key digital powers come together to form a multilateral body, the Digital Stability Board (DSB), which would enact digital policy in much the same way that the Financial Stability Board helps design and monitor the implementation of key financial policies while assessing risks and vulnerabilities in the global financial system (Emanuele 2021). A DSB would lead discussion on regulating data value chains, countering misinformation and the development of cutting-edge technologies such as AI (ibid.). Given the transnational nature of the challenge posed by big tech’s dominance, a forum such as the DSB would be well suited to lay down the rules of the road on regulation and reining in major tech platforms.
Countries that share similar political visions of internet governance, disinformation and other aspects of technology policy can come together multilaterally to make the vision prevail globally.
While such a DSB would be useful to manage hostilities with powers such as China, another interesting proposal comes in the form of a group of 1o leading democracies, or D10. Proposed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Fisher 2020), a D10 grouping would significantly source equipment for key technologies such as 5G from countries within the partnership. It could also develop a shared approach on key threats facing democracies, including countering disinformation, penalizing purveyors of influence operations such as China (or even Russia and other countries) and devising workable regulations for social media platforms that strike a balance between fighting fake news and preserving freedom of expression.
Ultimately, the introduction of the D10 to digital policy debates would signify a shared political vision, born out of democratic values, toward building the digital economy and regulating malcontents in the system. Good, old-fashioned democratic politics remains a primary driver even in the digital age. Wolves and wolf warriors hunt in packs; open societies need to respond with similar unity of purpose.
This piece builds on an intervention by Samir Saran at the Summit for Democracy on December 10, 2021.
A decade ago, the Arab Spring levelled the divide — even if briefly — between the Palace and the Street. Powered by social media, the age of digital democracy was upon us. Technology has since become the mainstay of civic activism. Not only are more voices heard, but elected governments are also more responsive to them. And indeed, in many countries, more people are participating in politics than ever before. From attitudes and approaches of platforms and governments to the proliferation of intrusive technologies that invade personal spaces, the gains of the past decade are nevertheless being undermined. The past year or so has made us acutely aware of the weaknesses and threats to digital democracies. Some of these need a coordinated global response.
First, the very platforms that have fuelled calls for accountability often see themselves as above scrutiny, bound not by democratic norms but by bottom lines. The fact is acquisition metrics and market valuations don’t sustain democracy. The contradiction between short-term returns on investment and the long-term health of a digital society is stark. If hate, violence, and falsehoods drive engagement, and, therefore, profits for companies and platforms, our societies are indeed on shaky ground.
To make technology serve democracy, regulation will have to be completely rethought. Big Tech boardrooms must be held to standards of responsible behaviour that match their power to influence and persuade. Moreover, any accountability framework must be global. The global south lives with and depends on technology platforms designed in the north. These platforms have been visibly taken to task by lawmakers and institutions in the countries of their design. Does the larger cohort of users in the developing and emerging democratic world have recourse to such action? And is this denial tenable and fair?
Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.
Second, much of Big Tech is designed and anchored in the United States (US). Understandably, it pushes American — or perhaps Californian — free speech absolutism. This is in conflict with laws in most democracies — including in the US after January 6. Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.
This American approach to freedom of expression imposed on other democratic societies, at velocities facilitated by technology, is a formula for serious disorder. If American Big Tech wishes to emerge as Global Tech, it must adhere to global democratic norms. Its normative culture must assimilate and reconcile, not prescribe and mandate. In the absence of such an understanding, a clash is but inevitable. It must be emphasised that the fault line would be social norms, not the benefits of technology.
If global democracy and global tech are to coexist, the global south must sit at the high table when regulations are designed and as ethics are embedded in algorithms. Today, the global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.
Finally, the greatest danger to the freedom our democracies enjoy is from authoritarian regimes that exploit our liberties and turn them against us. In the real world, Peng Shuai is under house arrest. But in the virtual world, she is presented as being free and happy. Wolf warriors have given a whole new meaning to the phrase “virtual reality”. Recently, an Indian speaker at a transportation conference in China found her microphone turned off because she questioned the Belt and Road Initiative. We are in an unprecedented political landscape where authoritarians weaponise our debates even as we are silenced in theirs. Would any country allow another to open an embassy if it did not have reciprocal rights in the other capital?
The global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.
We are living in that perverse reality already. China’s media and government handles conduct aggressive diplomacy in our digital public sphere while we are denied the right to do so in theirs. Beijing and other authoritarian regimes are omnipresent in our digital lives. Their handles bombard us; their chosen narratives besiege and colour the truth. How can we prevent such regimes from gaming the public sphere, and from this perversion of institutions, academia, media, and tech platforms? Their presence on our platforms represents a systemic challenge and a security risk. It must be responded to.
The alleged disruption of America’s elections in 2016 will be child’s play as compared to what may happen in 2024. That year, India, the US and the European Union Parliament will all hold elections — the first such coincidence in the age of digital democracy. We face a perfect storm of misinformation and manipulation. Confronted by wolf warriors, the rest of us can’t be lambs to the slaughter. Open societies have always stoutly defended their borders. Now, they must safeguard these new digital frontlines. At the Summit for Democracy — called by President Joe Biden and addressed by, among others Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was apparent to all that the democratic world needs to get its house in order. Even as democracies attend to this they need to ensure that other’s don’t burn the house down.
As the BRICS passes through a crucial milestone of its existence, celebrating 15 years of its formation, this report examines the initiatives launched since inception and makes recommendations for consolidating and streamlining the agenda.
The BRICS remains a prominent grouping in the global governance architecture due to the individual influence of each member-state and the collective size of their economies. The confidence in BRICS from within and the perceptions outside the grouping are shaped by its successes in institution-building and resource mobilisation. The highlight of BRICS’s success is its strong focus on issues of financial stability and global governance reforms, particularly in areas related to macroeconomic stability. These are supplemented by attention to sustainable development issues backed by finance and technology.
The BRICS agenda has witnessed a steady expansion of its scope ever since its inception. During the initial years, the agenda was focused on responding to the trans-Atlantic financial crisis with a special focus on multilateralism, particularly the need to reform the international monetary and financial architecture. Subsequently, the BRICS established the New Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, two flagship financial initiatives that remain the biggest success stories of the plurilateral to date. Notably, with the outbreak of Covid19 in 2020, there has been a special focus on responding to the pandemic and coordinating recovery.
Given the expanding scope, there is a need for consolidation and streamlining of the BRICS agenda. This will help address structural deficiencies and facilitate the smooth coordination for building consensus on key issues. To realise these goals, a thorough review of the BRICS cooperation mechanisms is necessary. This joint academic study presents an assessment of the various tracks under the BRICS framework, such that the grouping can better pursue the collective agenda of economic cooperation and sustainable development.
The year 2021 has been significant, with the Indian presidency underscoring ‘BRICS@15: Intra-BRICS Cooperation for Continuity, Consolidation and Consensus’ as the theme. The aspect of ‘consolidation’ received special attention. The Indian presidency also helped in concretising several action areas that had remained dormant. A case in point is the Agriculture Research Platform proposed by India at the 2015 Ufa Summit with a memorandum of understanding signed during the Indian presidency in 2016. This was launched in the virtual format in 2021, again during India’s presidency.
India’s presidency of BRICS in 2021 has set a definite example for streamlining of the BRICS agenda. As the agenda consolidates, future presidencies will find room for emerging themes that require urgent attention. Consolidation does not always only mean weeding out weaker sprouts, but to have comprehensive approaches towards setting common goals so that even relatively weaker initiatives can be scaled with resources. A preliminary assessment of the initiatives launched by BRICS is presented in this report.
As the price of natural gas reached record highs in the UK and Europe—trading at the equivalent of $200 per barrel of oil, and as economic activity in China has been curtailed by the country’s power supply crunch, central bankers and policymakers from across the globe are forced to confront significant challenges to price stability, with a focus on shielding households and businesses from an increase to the cost of transport and basic goods, while monitoring the potential for price pressure and supply chain bottlenecks to upend the global economic recovery. This is important at this time, for the ripple effects of disruptions to energy markets could amplify social and political fissures that are visible across the global landscape, and which might portend complex domestic politics as many countries head into elections in 2022.
Surging demand for natural gas—and shortages and bottlenecks to supply—have resulted in a corollary demand for oil products (referred to as gas-to-oil switching), thus driving up the price of WTI crude to seven-year highs. The skyrocketing commodity price environment has led one observer to point to the “revenge of the old economy”, according to which the collective noble efforts to move toward a cleaner, greener future fuelled by renewable energy have been stymied by a recent past of inadequate investment into the capacity and infrastructure of the hydrocarbons that power our economies.
Thus, even as COP26 has drawn to a close, and as policymakers, business leaders, and investors have left Glasgow with firm commitments to ostensibly advance the decarbonisation agenda, we are reminded of the extent to which our entire energy infrastructure still hinges upon the use of fossil fuels. This includes oil used for transport or power generation, or natural gas (or coal) for power generation, as well as natural gas deployed as “bridge fuel” to support the growth of renewable energy, including wind, solar, and hydrogen. This is effectively captured by what transpired in Germany earlier this year. In the first six months of 2021, the country increased its coal-based generation, which contributed 27 percent of the country’s electricity demand. The need to resort to coal-fired power generation is not unique to the case of Germany: the US has also posted the first annual increase in coal use for power generation since 2014. The combination of an asynchronous economic recovery, attendant shocks to demand, curtailments of supply, and surging prices in natural gas are contributing factors to rich income countries’ pivoting toward the use of coal. This illustrates one stark reality: hydrocarbons continue to underpin our global energy infrastructure. For all the talk of “stranded assets” and potential “dinosaurs of investment”, hydrocarbons still compose the lion’s share of energy consumption on a global basis.
What are the lessons to be learned from the recent power crunches? And what are the potential macro, socio-economic, and geopolitical implications as we navigate the energy transition? Amidst so much uncertainty and volatility, where are the opportunities for accord, as well as bright spots for investment?
Humility is also requisite as governments confront their energy interdependence with one another: again, despite record growth in renewable energy capacity, and surging climate financing, countries within the European Union are poignantly aware of their dependence upon natural gas imports—whether from Russia, Norway, or the US. And even despite its own domestic shale and conventional oil and gas production, the US continues to import hydrocarbons from countries such as Canada, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, even despite trade tensions, resource ties still bind China with Australia, with the latter having exported a record volume of natural gas to China in 2020. Thus, geopolitics remains at the very heart of the changing energy landscape. The inverse is also entirely true.
In the past, resource ties have been a source of tension; but, as we shall see, such bonds also have the potential to become a geopolitical salve, provided that the relationship is designed to be mutually beneficial to both parties. As we navigate the path toward net zero, and by seeking balance and diversification, our continued energy interdependence can actually spur opportunities for cooperation amongst policymakers, and for long-term investment and profit generation for enterprises and economies around the world.
The quest for resources to fuel industrial growth, military campaigns, and transport and urbanisation lies at the very heart of geopolitics. In considering the relationship between energy and geopolitics, the existence of resources is often associated with tension, be it in the form of border disputes, armed conflict, trade disputes resulting in embargoes, or interstate conflict or war. Access to strategic reserves of coal in Romania was a pivotal part of the campaign on the Western front during the Second World War. During the 1970s, energy-importing countries experienced the oil shocks related to the OPEC crises in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War, the Yom Kippur War, and the Iranian Revolution. Indeed, research shows that if a resource-rich country has an endowment of oil along its border with an “oil-less” country, then the probability of conflict between these two countries is higher than if there were no oil at all. Recent data also indicates that the presence of onshore oil might even portend a higher rate of conflict than the presence of offshore oil, as the potential for production and output to be seized by rebel groups is far higher on land than it is in deep-sea projects.
And yet, while asymmetric access to resources might spur tensions between countries, it can also be a geopolitical salve, by underpinning ties of trade, development, and civic diplomacy and even employment. Japan’s quest for resources to fuel its extraordinary manufacturing era from the 1960s onwards resulted in a mutual export of ODA (overseas development assistance) to southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam. One might also argue that Israel’s relatively recent discoveries of natural gas—and successive exports to Egypt—have also underpinned a normalisation of relations with Cairo, — a diplomatic rebalancing which has also been a key facet of improving relations between Israel and the UAE.
A crude awakening: our enduring energy interdependence, and continued reliance upon fossil fuels
Such positive examples of resource ties are swiftly forgotten in times of crises. The underlying conditions that led to positive benefits to the political relationship in these two instances are also ignored. And so it is with the present power crunches ricocheting across the globe. With the asynchronous reopenings of economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—and amidst ongoing disruptions to supply (be it from underinvestment in hydrocarbons, weather-related events such as flooding, pandemic-induced stoppages to production, or port congestion)— we are reminded not only the extent to which our economies depend upon fossil fuels for power generation and for transport, but also, of the extent to which many countries remain deeply interlinked in patterns of energy interdependence.
The European dilemma regarding natural gas supply from the Russian Federation is instructive, but it must also be recognised that energy interdependence cuts both ways. As long as Russian gas is a competitive source for energy, then energy-hungry European manufacturing powers will need to engage with the leadership in Moscow; equally, as long as Europe has access to alternative sources of fossil fuels – even if not as cheap – Russia will need to retain an understanding of European red lines. This is what interdependence means. This insight is equally applicable to the energy interconnections of the future: China can be a useful partner in the energy transition, even if it is not the only one.
Indeed, for some policymakers, part of the allure of developing domestic renewable energy capacity was that it ostensibly would lead toward more enhanced energy independence. Ostensibly, extraordinary efforts in diplomacy might not be needed in such a green future, as countries would, in theory, no longer be reliant upon conflict-ridden territories to secure energy supply. Even in a net-zero future, this is perhaps to view the world through rose-coloured glasses: for the development of wind, solar, and hydrogen energy—or indeed techniques of greater energy efficiency—at an affordable cost is intrinsically related with garnering supplies, inputs, R&D, and human capital from different jurisdictions. Overly halcyon scenario-planning for domestic renewable energy capacity development often fails to incorporate these facts.
The shift from fossil fuel-based to renewable energy capacity does not end interdependence; it merely pushes interdependence to a different part of the energy mix. The dependence now shifts from hydrocarbons to metals and from ores to rare earths. Countries in Africa, Asia, Americas and Australia are likely to emerge as global mineral hubs, and the routes to ship these new commodities might pave new geostrategic highways.
In recent years, control over the production of rare earths has become a familiar site for geopolitical tension. In 2021, the Biden administration in the United States ordered a review of the country’s critical mineral supply chain; the recommendations included prioritising development financing for “international investments in projects that will increase production capacity for critical products, including critical minerals”. The administration’s concern is readily understandable, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1: China’s share in the rare earths supply chain
*Disaggregated data for neodymium was not available; the data for Rare Earth Concentrates (REO) has been used since neodymium is a rare earth metal.
Yet it is not just production of rare earths that will be relevant, but also the locations of their processing and other forms of value addition. These might emerge as the equivalent of present-day refineries and petroleum complexes, and their distribution potential linked to key consumption centres might lead to the birth of new geostrategic lynchpins such as the Straits of Malacca and of Hormuz. The notion that domestic renewable energy production would free countries from the intricacies of dependence is misguided – and a seminal mistake if it was to be the basis of new energy order.
Sunset on Malthus?
Part of the reason why the aspiration of energy independence retains its sheen is that our energy economics and policymaking continues to be suffused with a Malthusian legacy. Said another way, the spectre of scarcity continues to inform the way we think about energy and resources. The fear that “there will never be enough” renders misgivings about dependence—or else outright denial. A sense of energy insecurity –no matter how much it is brushed under the rug might also prompt a premature and imprudent vaunt into a disorderly energy transition, with a disproportionate focus on bolstering capacity at home. Such a policy would have little regard for the fact that climate change has been branded as humanity’s largest negative externality: in order to mitigate the situation, global actions ought to be in concert. Humility is thus needed not only in recognising the endurance of hydrocarbons within the energy mix, but also, but it is also implicit in our interconnectedness as we navigate the green transition. For the rich income countries, part of this humility also requires understanding the various ways in which the energy transition has the potential to deepen the chasm between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
The haves and the have-nots: is the energy transition deepening the chasm?
The energy transition has the potential to create a deeper chasm between the standings of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in the global macroeconomic environment. First, if we consider the traditional trajectory of industrial growth—that is, from agrarian activity to textile production, and then from heavy industry to light manufacturing, eventually segueing to services-oriented economies—the case can be made that for developing countries earlier on the maturity curve (such as Vietnam and India), stringent measures toward decarbonisation might actually thwart what would otherwise unfold as a full evolution of robust domestic industry. For the ‘price takers’ and for commodity-hungry countries, this might take the shape of premature restrictions on access to or use of resources to fuel domestic manufacturing activity.
And for the ‘price makers’—that is, commodity-rich exporting countries—the case can also be made that swift or unrealistic moves toward decarbonisation might rob oil and gas exporters from a significant base of output as well as a source of gross national income. In a country in which resource wealth underpins GDP, export activity, employment (both directly related to exploration, extraction and production of natural resources, as well as indirectly, via civil service salaries), national income, and sovereign and pension funds, the potential for social fissures to either manifest or to be exacerbated is clear.
It should be noted that history indicates that access or proximity to natural resources is not perfectly correlated with a trajectory of sustainable economic growth—hence the “Dutch resource curse”. Research from Brazil also indicates that oil endowments within a province or a municipality do not necessarily result in improved livelihoods for members of that community. Indeed, even in a lofty commodity price environment, such as at present, windfalls potentially reaped from higher export prices of oil and gas do not always translate into higher incomes for households within the exporting country.
This tension between environmental and the development agendas within emerging markets and developed economies (EMDEs) is also evident in the debate surrounding the potential carbon border adjustment tax (CBAT), as well as recent agreements on deforestation in COP26.
Home game: mitigating the domestic bias of climate finance
An effective, secure energy transition is currently undermined by the “domestic preference” evident within the realm of climate finance. In recent years of tracking climate finance flows, data from one leading industry body evidences that 76 percent of capital is invested in the same country in which it is sourced. Thus, despite various commitments and guarantees from bodies such as the G7 or the G20, a significant challenge remains regarding the ability for much-needed climate finance to cross borders. Certainly, a long-running trend of a domestic bias for investment is not limited to climate and infrastructure investments. Rather, it extends across sectors and asset classes, including real estate, energy, private equity, and venture capital. Whilst managing ‘sticky capital’ and the prospect of generating long-term returns, and building up enterprise and asset values, investors might harbor an inclination to place their money close to home—in other words, “where home-country risks are well-understood.”
As these authors have highlighted previously, playing close to home in infrastructure investing may not always be the least risky option. And yet, we have already motioned that the dawning age of renewables is not one of energy independence, but of a new kind of interdependence. Policymakers operating under the illusion of energy sovereignty are otherwise missing out on the opportunity to cultivate positive structures of interdependence which could potentially support their own geo-strategic aims – such links, might, in turn, spur opportunities for private investment.
Thus, we might witness a shift in incentivisation for private finance and the climate problem: such that sticky capital not only supplies the domestic market, but that it is directed outwards as well, perhaps even towards the geographies where host countries of finance might find mutually beneficial resource ties – such as the model of Japan and ODA in Southeast Asia, discussed earlier. As argued above, interdependence can be a salve for geopolitics as long as both sides gain in the energy or in the development equation. Such a value exchange – or what Michael Oakeshott refers to as an “enterprise association” – rests upon an understanding of interdependence – again, something that has been jettisoned in the lack of humility in the energy transition (something which is mirrored in the “domestic bias” of climate capital).
Such misconceptions have the potential to divert policymakers from a future of true sustainability, which involves the creation of resilience through diversification. Redirecting long-term flows of investment—including private capital—towards emerging market/developing economies will not necessarily be easy. Large sources of private capital in the global north – whether institutional capital or banks – will need a fresh set of incentives to invest in the energy supply chains of the future.
Moreover, recognising that these investments will likely be in new minerals, new processes, and new geographies, it is clear that old regulatory risk models may no longer be suitable. New market mechanisms to help enable a level playing field of investment in new energy materials are needed—which might take inspiration from the industry bodies which have developed over time in support of oil markets around the globe.
Conclusion: The Green Marshall Plan
The scale of the rebalancing required – of investment, attention, and financial flows – is vast. If anything, it should be compared to the Marshall Plan. That enormous effort, after all, had both pragmatic and idealistic motivations. On the one hand, it was necessary to assist a Europe devastated by war; on the other, it was essential that a liberal community be built that was strong and resilient in the face of the Soviet challenge. There are similar overlaps today between the realist search for security and the idealist requirements of climate action. A Green Marshall Plan has the potential to both stabilise international relations and create the diversification and resilience necessary to allow for durable interdependence during the energy transition.
For the energy transition to act as a geopolitical salve rather than as a source of discord, a Green Marshall Plan must have four characteristics.
First, it should be genuinely global in character. A global net-zero approach would understand that some regions might take longer on the fossil fuel transition because of the specifics of their development or their energy landscape. Nor should geographical factors be ignored: An archipelago like Indonesia will take longer to transition to solar energy and away from natural gas than a continental country.
Second, legacy energy infrastructure will need attention to help enable the success of the Green Marshall Plan, to make it implementable, and to scale it. As is evident in energy consumption patterns across the globe, fossil fuels remain a part of the energy mix, and a way of working toward a balanced and global green transition. Nor can sectors like mining be ignored: the Green Marshall Plan will likely have to go into a “dirty” sector, invest in new ways of mining and new materials to mine.
Third, the Green Marshall Plan is not just about blue-sky research into the possibilities of the future. It is about increasing investment in nuts-and-bolts manufacturing in underserved geographies as well – whether energy efficiency in the Asian steel producers of the future or new cobalt mining technologies in sub-Saharan Africa today. It is about enabling development of critical frontier technologies, as well as swiftly and sustainably spreading a green ‘know-how’ which is globally benchmarked.
And fourth, the Green Marshall Plan should embed energy resilience at its heart. Areas which have sped up their energy transition are those where it is seen as assisting in energy security. As these authors argued, dependence on a single source or vendor is antithetical to achieving long-term and sustainable energy security. As such, the strategic mapping of a secure energy future cannot exclude a China, with its strong presence in the rare earths supply chain, or a Russia with reserves of natural gas, or the countries of the Gulf, abundant in oil and gas reserves. Again, humility as well as diversification might render each actor a more responsible and empathetic participant in the global energy transition.
What we are recommending is an all-inclusive future. That will require the leaders of key nations to invest political capital in a new institutional framework that supports the energy landscape of the future. The International Energy Agency, OPEC, commodity exchanges and others defined and shaped the hydrocarbon world. The global energy transition requires new frameworks, organisations and political arrangements to underwrite our common journey ahead, which reflect the needs of multiple stakeholders, in both the private and public spheres. The G7’s B3W, the European Union’s Global Gateway, and the Indo-French International Solar Alliance all point to one imperative: of green arrangements underwriting green transitions. The world needs a new institutional structure: one that keeps the lights on in the 21st century.
In the Indo-Pacific and beyond, China’s growth in capabilities and political authoritarianism are now threatening to alter how we engage with technology and digital domains. China believes it has the right to access other nations’ information and networks without offering up access to its own. This is not a simple techno-mercantilism. There is a single purpose to China’s deepening investments in existing and future technologies: furthering the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
For Beijing, technology is about both national security and ideology. Under Xi Jinping, it will use the information age to rewrite every assumption of the postwar period. Countries outside China must join together to seek open, safe and inclusive technology and digital platforms and products.
There are five main ways in which we can shape national, regional and global engagement with our digital world. These must also drive the purpose and direction of the Quad countries (the United States, Australia, Japan and India) as they strive to create a technology and digital partnership in the Indo-Pacific.
‘China tech’ was for the CCP initially about managing the social contract within China. Now, the CCP is weaponising and gaming other nations’ democracies, public spheres and open systems. It is creating a digital insurgency that allows it to delegitimise its opponents on their own political turf. This goes beyond episodic interference in elections. The CCP uses American forums such as Twitter and Facebook to critique the domestic and foreign policy of nations such as India. Wolf warriors seek to shape the information space internationally while China and the CCP remain protected behind the Great Firewall. The unimpeded global access China is allowed under some perverse notion of free speech must be questioned; internet propaganda endorsed by authoritarian regimes cannot and should not go unchecked. As a first step, the world will have to embrace a political approach to repel the digital encroachments we are witnessing. The European Union offers a model – just as its General Data Protection Regulation sought to rein in the US technology giants, we need laws that limit China’s access to the public spheres of open societies, thereby curtailing its global influence.
Today, all digital (silk) roads lead to Beijing. Many developing countries rely on China for their technology sectors. From control over rare earths and key minerals to monopoly over manufacturing, China commands the digital spigot. The Quad countries and others in the Indo-Pacific must seek and encourage diversification. Affordable, accessible products and innovations must emerge in the digital space. From resilient supply chains to diversity of ownership, a whole new approach is needed to prevent the perverse influence of any single actor. This is the second way to shape global patterns of digital engagement.
The Chinese under Xi have embraced the dangerous essence of the Chinese phrase ‘borrowing a boat to go out to the sea’. The CPC has essentially borrowed all our boats to further their agenda.
Universities in the developed world, their media, their public institutions and even their technology companies are serving and responding to missives from the Middle Kingdom. Many journalists have exposed the Western media’s promiscuous entanglements with a Beijing that artfully co-opts them into its propaganda effort. In the digital age, this cannot be ignored. Countries will soon be faced with a digital fait accompli – signing on to Pax Sinica. As a third way to enhance engagement, it is time to protect liberal institutions from their own excesses.
China has attempted to internationalise its currency with the launch of its own digital currency. After banning financial institutions and payment companies from providing crypto-related services in May, China launched a crackdown on computer-powered crypto mining in June, and a blanket ban on all crypto transactions and mining in September, clearing the way for its digital renminbi (digital RMB). With the development of its own central bank digital currency, the Chinese government will now have the power to track spending in real time. It will have access to the entire digital footprint of a citizen or a company. This will provide Beijing with an unprecedented vault of data, which it can use to exercise control over technology companies and individuals.
The rise of China’s digital RMB has the potential to challenge the status of the American greenback. For decades, the US dollar has been the world’s dominant reserve currency. Yet countries such as Iran, Russia and Venezuela have already begun using the Chinese yuan for trade-related activities or replacing the dollar with the yuan as reference currency. China can shape all three attributes of the ‘ideal’ currency, also referred to as the ‘Impossible Trinity’: free capital flow, a fixed exchange rate and independent monetary policy. It is a matter of time before it uses currency as part of its wider geopolitical plans. And with its past experiments with many countries on ‘trade in local currency’, it will have the capacity to create disruptions in the global monetary system. This can only be countered with two measures: one, depoliticising the existing dollar-led currency arrangements (the tendency to weaponise the SWIFT system – a giant messaging network used by banks and other financial institutions to transmit secure information – and to employ ad-hoc economic sanctions) and two, investing in the economic future of the emerging economies that currently depend on China.
Lastly, China is seeking technological domination not only terrestrially but also in outer space. China has invested considerably in space technology and engages in counterspace activities. These include suspected interference in satellite operations, both through cyberattacks and ground-based lasers. There are growing fears that Chinese technologies developed for ostensibly peaceful uses, such as remote satellite repair and cleaning up debris, could be employed for nefarious ends. The inadequate space governance mechanisms is an opportunity for the Quad to develop situational awareness in the space realm to track and counter such activities, and to develop a new set of norms for space governance.
The Quad’s agenda is prescribed by China’s actions. It will have to be a political actor and have the capacity to challenge China in the information sphere and the technology domain. It will need to be a normative power and develop ideas and ideals that are attractive to all.
From codes and norms for financial technologies to the code of conduct for nations and corporations in cyberspace and outer space, the Quad has the responsibility and opportunity to write the rules for our common digital future.
The Quad will also have to be an economic actor and build strategic capacities and assets in the region and beyond. It will have to secure minerals, diversify supply chains and create alternatives that ensure the digital lifelines are not disrupted.
Most importantly, the Quad will need to be an attractive partner for others to work with. This is its best means to counter China’s dangerous influence.
It is no secret that Washington is bullish about the idea of fostering closer ties with India in an effort to counter China. But tighter ties takes two. Is Washington, DC’s enthusiasm matched in New Delhi?
“We know that we don’t share a typical Atlantic-style relationship. It’s a more Asian relationship, more grays than black and whites in our relationship,” Samir Saran, the president of the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank in New Delhi, told me.
Dating back to the Cold War, India has maintained a formal policy of non-alignment. In reality, though, the Soviet Union, which supported India in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War and provided the vast majority of its defence equipment, earned India’s support and sympathy. The US, meanwhile, was seen as an untrustworthy and unreliable actor; nor did it help that America was close to India’s neighbour and foe, Pakistan.
In recent years, however, relations between India and the US have improved. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one is arguably a rising China, which America is seeking to counter and contain by working with other countries, and with India in particular. Pakistan, meanwhile, cooperates closely with China.
A year after the US president Joe Biden’s election, and with China at the top of America’s foreign policy agenda, I turned to Saran to ask how, exactly, policymakers in New Delhi perceive US overtures, particularly given the fact that, historically, America has been seen as a less than reliable partner.
“I think much of what you sometimes may hear in Delhi or in DC could possibly be remnants of the 20th century, people holding on to positions of the past, people who have written books on India’s behaviour or American attitudes to the past, wanting to still be relevant in the 21st century,” he said. “I think there is a more pragmatic assessment of each other today.”
Still, he added, “I’m not saying that we trust the Americans all the time.”
One area in which America and India have traditionally not seen eye to eye is in India’s immediate neighbourhood, including Afghanistan. “I think the Americans had to leave [Afghanistan],” Saran told me. “Could they have left better? I think all of us would agree, yes. It was a bit of a messy withdrawal. I don’t think any amount of spin can change that.” He also noted that India could have been consulted, though added that Delhi has always seen America maintain a certain distance from India on Afghanistan. “And in that sense, it’s not surprising. It’s not that we’ve been let down heartbroken because America did not consult us.” In other words, the events of this summer were not enough to deter India from cooperating with the US.
Relatedly, if China is bringing India and the US together, some have wondered if Russia might tear them apart.
“Russia punches above its weight in terms of global affairs,” said Saran. “Russia is going to remain a relevant voice. And we do not want a situation where we paint Putin into the Chinese corner. I think that would be disastrous for us. So we will have to find ways in which we can accommodate Russia.
“I think that is now visible to all in DC, we have not let that come in the way of being more bold, more ambitious, more forward-looking with our American partners.”
This is, broadly speaking, true, though there are some in Washington who feel differently: for example, John Bolton, former president Donald Trump’s national security adviser, penned an op-ed in the Hill on 10 November in which he argued that India’s purchase of S-400 air defence systems from Russia “raises serious obstacles to closer politico-military relations between Washington and New Delhi”. Saran, unsurprisingly, sees it differently, painting a picture in which India can help the US by developing economic ties with Russia, thus moving Moscow away from Beijing.
Even issues as weighty as US-China or India-Russia relations, however, seem small next to the existential issue of our age: climate change. India is already battling air pollution and will be profoundly impacted by the climate crisis. Is there a sense there that America is not doing enough?
India, he told me, has been a strong proponent of climate justice, equity, and action. And this is an area where the US and India can “work together and create a new framework that would catalyse trillions of dollars of green capital to flow into green projects”. He didn’t mean aid or grants, he stressed. “We are talking about commercial capital from banks… We are talking about creating a whole new green financial ecosystem.”
And what about the gap between India’s rhetoric and, say, the reality of air pollution in Delhi? How does that gap close?
“The gap closes like it was closed in New York and London, by more advanced, cleaner, greener systems,” he said. “We are going to have to go through that decade of pain.”
The painful period would hurt less if it was accelerated, he acknowledged. Still, some element of what India will go through to get to the other, better, greener side will require discomfort. The same could perhaps be said of the US-India relationship itself.
Progress as the world has designed and defined it requires material production which, in turn, requires energy. Historically, therefore, fossil fuels like coal were key in economic growth across geographies. Today the developed economies stand on the edifice of fossil fuels, carbon-intensive industries and lifestyles that have resulted in global warming. The same growth path is now being questioned, and the poor and developing countries are being asked to build, find and fund newer low- and no-carbon models to lift their people out of poverty and achieve their development goals.
Consequently, there are growing calls for India to declare a net-zero year: to offset its carbon emissions by various processes of GHG absorption and removal. India is aware that such calls are irrational, and despite international pressure, has avoided making pledges or setting hard targets, beyond its commitments at the Paris climate conference in 2015. Indeed, “net zero” is not possible with India’s current levels of reliance on coal. Its shift away from this fuel will depend largely on the quantum of additional money and resources that can be invested into alternative energy. However, as global climate finance has both under-performed and been subject to clever redesignation, countries such as India remain in dire need of green financing.
In August 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged India to give up coal immediately. He asked that the country refrain from making any new thermal power investments after 2020, and criticised its decision to hold auctions for 41 coal blocks earlier that year. Similarly, in March this year, in a message to the Powering Past Coal Alliance Summit, the Secretary-General urged all governments to “end the deadly addiction to coal” by cancelling all global coal projects in the pipeline. Pre-pandemic, India had the second largest pipeline of new coal projects in the world. He also called the phasing out of coal from the electricity sector “the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement.”
For much of human history, photosynthesis was the primary source of mechanical energy. Human and animal muscles powered by food and fodder, made the world go around. Photosynthesis was also at the root of heat energy derived from burning wood. Eventually, coal replaced wood as the dominant source of heat energy, but still represented the energy of photosynthesis stockpiled over hundreds of years. The advent of the steam engine in the 17th century helped humans change the heat energy released from coal, to mechanical energy.
This development also upended the paradigm of material production. According to a recent estimate, coal was accounting for well over 90 percent of energy consumption in England by the mid-19th century, owing in large part to the steam engine. For long, researchers had been divided over the question of whether coal was pivotal to the industrial revolution. Scholars such as Wrigley (2010) regarded the switch to coal as a “necessary condition for the industrial revolution,” while others like Mokyr (2009) held that the “Industrial Revolution did not absolutely ‘need’ steam…nor was steam power absolutely dependent on coal.”
A November 2020 paper by Fernihough and O’Rourke might just have settled the question: Using a database of European cities spanning the centuries from 1300 to 1900, the authors found that those located closer to coal fields were more likely to grow faster. Those cities, the researchers wrote, “located 49 km from the nearest coalfield grew 21.1 percent faster after 1750 than cities located 85 km further away.”
It is no wonder then, that in March this year, International Energy Agency (IEA) chief Fatih Birol said it will not be fair to ask developing nations like India to stop using coal without giving international financial assistance to address the economic challenges that will result from such a move. He noted that “many countries, so-called advanced economies, came to this industrialised levels and income levels by using a lot of coal,” and named the United States, Europe, and Japan.
This article explores this line of enquiry by examining the consumption of coal across developed and developing countries, and mapping it against key metrics of energy transition. It finds that countries such as India—with their high dependence on coal and a simultaneous growth spurt in renewables—can be the most effective location for climate finance. This is plausible given that per capita coal consumption in India is still far below that of the developed world, and economic transitions are both inevitable and required to be ‘green’.
To be sure, India is struggling with a coal shortage, which has the potential to derail its post-Covid-19 recovery; the same is true for China. Consequently, there is growing scepticism in developed countries, that both India and China will double down on coal and increase production to overcome supply challenges in the future. While such concerns are not unwarranted, they are not unique to the developing world.
Germany, for instance, in the first six months of 2021 ramped up its coal-based generation, which contributed 27 percent of the country’s electricity demand. Three factors contributed to this rise: increase in energy demand amidst the successive waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, increased prices of natural gas, and reduction in electricity generation from renewable energy (particularly wind.) Coal is often the bedrock of energy generation, and its use is impacted by complex market processes that cannot be reduced to normative choices.
Energy Use and Coal
Countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are using progressively less energy to power their societies. Multiple factors can contribute to this trend, at least in theory. First is the technical improvements in energy efficiency – i.e., the use of less energy to perform the same tasks. Second is the “activity effect”, or the changes in energy use because of changes in economic activity. This would also encompass a “structure effect” which relates to changes in the mix of human activities that are prompted by changes in sectoral activity, such as transportation. And finally, there could be weather-related changes in energy use – for instance, more temperate weather can reduce the need for heating or cooling.
The IEA quantifies these effects, and consistently finds that the reduction in energy consumption in the OECD countries is largely a result of technical improvements in energy efficiency. This means that the reduced use of energy in advanced countries is not on account of any significant changes in consumer behaviour—otherwise, the activity effect would be the primary determinant of the fall in energy use. While energy efficiency improvements have driven this fall, the IEA finds that the current rate of improvement is not enough to achieve global climate and sustainability goals. Consequently, the Agency has advocated for “urgent action” to counteract the slowing rate of improvement observed since 2015.
Conversely, developing countries have seen a rapid rise in energy use owing to the activity effect (see Table 1). The increase in economic activity in the developing world is also directly correlated to improvements in life spans and socio-economic progress. While energy use has approximately doubled in countries like India and China from 2005, a large share of global energy efficiency savings is also driven by technical improvements in these countries. However, in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global financial crisis, China implemented a stimulus package that “shifted its manufacturing sector to more energy intensive manufacturing.” A similar trend may emerge in China’s recovery from the pandemic, that may reduce efficiency gains in the future.
Table 1: Total Energy Consumption (Exajoules)
Equity in Coal
It would appear that OECD countries have managed to cut their dependence on coal over the last 15 years quite precipitously. In particular, this seems true of countries like the US and EU members. Japan, meanwhile, is an outlier, having turned to coal to provide base-load power to substitute nuclear energy. In most years between 2005 and 2020, the fall in coal consumption in OECD countries has outpaced the decline in total energy consumption. In 2020, for instance, coal consumption dropped by around 18 percent whereas total energy consumption fell by around eight percent.
While China has begun to reduce its dependence on coal, it still accounts for the largest share of coal consumption among all nations. China is also home to over half of the world’s thermal power plant pipelines – with around 163 GW in pre-construction stage, even discounting the 484GW worth of cancellations since the Conference of Parties at Paris in 2015. China is also one of the last of the biggest providers of public finance for overseas power plants with over 40GW of projects in the pre-construction pipeline.
Simultaneously, coal consumption has remained relatively stable at just under 40 percent of primary energy consumption among non-OECD nations (see Table 2). In these countries, coal consumption tends to mirror total energy consumption. India’s dependence on coal has also remained unvarying. These trends suggest that non-OECD countries such as India require to do much more to contribute to a global reduction in coal consumption and therefore towards net-zero GHG emissions. However, there is more to the OECD’s reduced coal consumption than meets the eye.
Table 2: Share of Coal in Primary Energy Consumption (%)
Since the Earth Summit in 1992, India and other developing nations have argued for an equity-based approach to GHG reduction, commensurate with domestic capabilities and historical emissions. This approach has often been subject to cross-examination by OECD experts. For instance, in a 2019 report by the Universal Ecological Fund, high-profile experts including a former White House Adviser and a Harvard professor, ranked national climate commitments based on absolute emission curtailment targets. The report clubbed developed and developing countries together in its assessment of the general insufficiency of climate pledges to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrialisation levels. This should not be a surprise, however, as it is only in consonance with the overall trend of Western academic discourse seeking to dilute the equity principle.
It is a principle that should not be set aside just yet, given the persistent differences in per capita fossil fuel consumption between the developed and developing worlds. Despite near doubling over 2005-2020, India’s per capita coal consumption is still below the global average (see Table 3). The global average, in turn, has remained static around this period because the decrease in the per capita consumption of coal in OECD countries has been partially offset by an increase in the per capita consumption in non-OECD countries. However, the per capita consumption of coal in OECD countries still exceeds that of non-OECD countries, despite much higher levels of wealth and, therefore, greater capability to transition to renewables and other fuels.
Table 3: Total per capita Coal Consumption (KWh)
Indeed, a large share of the decrease in per capita coal consumption in OECD countries is driven by transition to fuels such as natural gas, that are used to generate electricity, particularly in countries like the US. It accounts for around a 34-percent share of primary energy consumption in the US, and 25 percent in the EU, compared to seven percent in India (and a similar share in China). In contrast, the share of gas in India’s energy mix is among the lowest in the world. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to more than double the contribution of natural gas to 15 percent of India’s energy mix by 2030, the Petroleum Secretary has said that the country cannot rely on natural gas. There are several reasons, including high landed costs relative to coal, complex domestic pricing mechanisms, a lack of pipeline infrastructure and stable supply/ import linkages, and the inability of financially stressed electricity distributors to enter into “take or pay” contracts.
India, therefore, requires relatively greater and more aggressive investments in alternative sources of energy than its developed country counterparts that have had decades to transition to fuels like natural gas. Such financial flows to India can prove to be much more effective vehicles for a net-zero trajectory, compared to similar investments in other parts of the world with higher per capita exposure to coal and relatively slower transition pathways to renewables.
Around 72 percent of India’s GHG emissions are linked to its energy sector. It is clear, that if OECD countries are aiming to accelerate a global reduction in GHG emissions, they will need to help India finance its energy transition and overcome the many resource-linked barriers to the wide-scale adoption of renewables. The high costs associated with renewable energy storage and grid upgrade requirements, are related resource challenges. Since developed countries are unlikely to be satisfied with per capita equity, they would do well to help India hurdle some of its obstacles.
Financing Energy Transition
According to India’s Central Electricity Authority’s (CEA) Optimal Generation Capacity Mix, the country’s installed capacity will increase to 817 GW with an additional 27GW of battery storage, by 2029-30 (see Table 4). Of this, firm capacity will contribute approximately 395 GW while renewable sources, around 445 GW. Additionally, a July 2021 study has concluded that more efficient use of existing thermal resources could lead to 50 GW of excess coal capacity with respect to current needs of the system. With limited expectations from nuclear and gas resources and deteriorating coal economics, investments in renewable energy storage options are crucial for managing India’s base load requirements. This requires unlocking of financial and technological flows from the OECD, particularly since there are several uncertainties associated with the cost of battery storage technology. These include risks linked to supply chains and exchange rates.
Experts point out that the more renewable energy is introduced into the grid, “the harder and more expensive it will be to use” because of inherent factors such as intermittency. This will need to be offset by investments in a grid that is able to accommodate variable and increased flows of electricity across different regions. The IEA estimates that annual investments in electricity grids will need to “more than double” by 2030 in a conservative scenario where developed countries achieve net zero by 2050, China around 2060, and other emerging and developing economies, by 2070, at the latest. India will also need to explore much wider scale of privatisation of state distribution companies, which now owe generators around USD 20 billion.
The capacity utilisation of India’s coal assets has also witnessed a significant decline over the past decade, with power plants running at 53.37 percent plant load factor (PLF) in FY 2020-21 compared to 77.5 percent in FY 2009-10. Several factors have contributed to this, including the rapidly expanding share of renewable energy generation. India’s coal story is beset with additional challenges including planned decommissioning of older coal plants (approximately 54 GW of coal plants by 2030). Research indicates that the cost of retirement ranges between USD 0.41 – 0.59 million per MW, with older thermal units relatively cheaper to decommission. Consequently, maintaining India’s coal fleet also requires around USD 106 million in investments, to retrofit existing thermal power plants with Flue Gas Desulphurization units. The deadline for doing so has been extended several times in the past decade and has finally been fixed for 2022 for plants located in populous areas. The combination of underutilised coal plants, increasing costs of plant maintenance and reduction in costs of renewables, provides a unique opportunity to galvanise investments and strategic attention towards a low-coal pathway.
The technologies that will pave the way to such low-coal path are developing rapidly, with significant progress in renewables, battery storage, and green hydrogen, among others. They each require, however, large financial outlays. Moreover, India is still highly dependent on expensive bank lending, which is now hitting sectoral exposure limits, whereas long-term capital is required to finance energy infrastructure. As of April 2020, the exposure of banks and non-bank financial institutions to India’s power sector was already around USD 160 billion, roughly the lending necessary to finance the country’s renewable energy targets for 2030. 
According to the Government of India’s ‘Energy Compact’ submitted to the UN in September 2021, the country required a total investment of USD 221 billion to set up 450 GW renewable generation capacity, including associated transmission and storage systems. However, other research has pegged this investment much higher at USD 661 billion, to build both renewable energy systems and transmission and distribution systems. The IEA also estimates that India requires a total investment of USD 1.4 trillion for clean technologies to help achieve a sustainable development path till 2040. In comparison, developed countries managed a transition away from coal over a longer period of time and with different costs. Investments for clean energy in the Global South need to be consistently and significantly higher to help achieve the simultaneous goals of SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and other development targets.
Advanced countries would do well to recognise that long-term institutional capital is urgently required to help India transition from coal to renewables at scale. What is needed is far more than lip service; nor will change happen only through negotiations at Glasgow at the COP26. Overall, mainstream sources of international climate finance such as the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility have managed to provide just over a billion dollars in finance for national projects. While there is enthusiasm around green bond financing, the absolute value of issuances towards relevant segments such as renewable energy, is still relatively low at around USD 11.2 billion since 2014. To put it in context, the global issuance of green bonds totalled over USD 305 billion in 2020 alone, specifically for climate-related and sustainability projects.
A high sensitivity to the cost of capital means that other sources of institutional capital are needed to fill the gap, even as the Indian private sector learns to raise green bonds and co-develops green taxonomies with relevant parties. Most OECD financing towards renewables in developing countries is conducted through debt instruments. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, cumulative transactions and financial flows from the OECD countries towards renewables development in the rest of the world reached USD 253 billion between 2009-2019, of which around USD 228 billion was in the form of debt. India accounted for just under USD 11 billion of the amount, which is less than five percent of the cumulative debt finance by OECD countries.
Table 5: Cumulative Transactions by OECD Countries into Renewables (2009-2019, %)
OECD members must aim to redirect institutional investments towards India. For instance, their sovereign funds and pension funds must adjust to new business models around energy storage and distribution. There are also many possible designs of new financial instruments that could be explored. These could recognise the different capacities and capabilities in developing countries at the outset. For instance, grants and debt funding could be combined in multiple ways to subsidise loans. The scale of grant involvement could be directly proportionate to relevant environmental, social and governance factors, and therefore could incentivise more aggressive low-carbon paths. Similarly, new kinds of investment management and rating modalities could be employed to scale up investments where they are most required to offset planetary risks. The availability of innovative long-term finance for India is critical to any meaningful realisation of global net-zero ambitions. India, for its part, must bite the bullet on large-scale power sector reforms, to improve distributional efficiencies and facilitate inward financial and technological flows.
India’s current per capita coal consumption is three-fifths that of the OECD average, and one-fifth that of China’s. This low per-capita coal consumption in a coal-rich country can and must remain the key feature of India’s growth, going forward. This article demonstrates, that for India to keep its coal in the ground, more and better financing is needed.
A market case for a green transition in India already exists. The last few years have demonstrated India’s appetite, among the public and the political class, for a move towards cleaner growth. What it requires now is what this essay calls for: a higher flow of capital towards crucial green sectors—in particular, a higher level of foreign capital inflows towards these sectors, and a better texture of such capital, moving towards a more patient and equitable finance.
This brief was first published in ORF’s monograph, Shaping Our Green Future: Pathways and Policies for a Net-Zero Transformation, November 2021.