India and climate change: Can Modi deliver what the world needs?


It is not uncommon for temperatures in India’s Thar Desert to reach 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit). Even when they have descended, the hot wind sweeps across the bare plains. Here the soil is barren, the water is scarce. This place is uninhabitable for humans, but it is ideal for one of the largest solar farms in the world.

The Bhadla Solar Park in Rajasthan state, near India’s border with Pakistan, is a symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grand ambitions to transform his nation into a green energy powerhouse. By 2030, Modi wants half of India’s energy to come from renewables.

It’s a lofty and admirable goal for the world’s third-largest carbon emitter, but achieving it will require trillions of dollars and tough decisions from Modi.

Although renewable energy in India is growing faster than any other major economy, the country remains dependent on coal, which has long fueled the country’s growth and accounts for more than 80% of its energy mix. Indian officials have also said the country plans to expand its use of the fossil fuel, even as it suffocates its nearly 1.4 billion people with heavy pollution.

In the past, India has defended the use of fossil fuels to warm the planet in the name of development, a position it has criticized in international climate talks.

At last year’s COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, India raised a last-minute objection in a joint statement against the language. about the gradual removal of coal. His senior representative argued that government subsidies for fossil fuels should follow the public; otherwise, India could get fuel like natural gas to cook meals for poor people who are still burning wood, he asked.

The exchange highlights a contradiction at the heart of India’s stance on climate change: that Modi’s government may continue to set ambitious targets, but when it comes to implementing them, his country is caught in a Catch-22 between development and decarbonisation.

India’s Energy Minister Raj Kumar Singh demonstrated this dilemma in September when he announced plans to add 56 gigawatts of energy to India’s energy mix by 2030, while also investing in renewables, emphasizing the need to prioritize reliable power for growth.

This is bad news for the global fight against climate change, where India’s actions have far-reaching ramifications.

India emits more than 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year according to data collected by the EU. Climate Action Tracker’s analysis of its plans shows that the country’s targets are “critically insufficient” to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius before industrialization. Warming beyond that threshold will cause irreversible damage and push many ecosystems into tipping points, climate science shows.

“As one of the world’s largest emitters, what India does is critical to helping the world meet the 1.5°C limit,” said Hannah Fekete, founder of the NewClimate Institute, who has more than a decade of experience quantifying the impact of policies on emissions. .

And nowhere are the contradictions in India’s position clearer than in Rajasthan. The state is turning to solar energy, but there are at least seven coal-fired power plants.

Four of the five most polluted cities in the world are located within 400 kilometers of the Bhadla Solar Park, according to the World Air Quality Report 2021. On any given day, they are covered in gray soot and ash from burning coal.

A worker pours water to help clean up pollution caused by trucks and coal loading activities at a coal mine in Uttar Pradesh state, home to the world's second most polluted city in 2021.

According to a Yale University School of Environment report Climate Change in the Indian Mind, 81 percent of Indians surveyed were concerned about global warming, with 50 percent saying they were “very concerned.” Additionally, 64% say their government “should do more to combat global warming.”

However, few would argue that climate change is a problem for India to solve alone. Indeed, the picture changes significantly when its emissions are seen in the context of its massive population. Per capita figures show that Indians contribute very little to the problem. While the average American emits 14.7 tons of CO2 per year, an Indian emits about 1.8.

However, despite the low level of emissions per capita, the weight of the country’s struggles can be disproportionately felt at the individual level.

In Delhi, the world’s fourth most polluted city, people are seeing firsthand the impact of the country’s coal consumption.

A man carries a sack on the road in front of a gate in India on November 1, 2022 amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi.

Resident Rohit Sharma, 36, told CNN: “We’re frustrated when we look at other cities where there’s not a lot of pollution and they’re livable but we can’t.”

“Air pollution will affect everything,” he added. “We will have health problems, breathing problems and our life expectancy will be shortened.”

His colleague Kunal Sharma, 28, worries about what life might be like in the years to come. “If concrete action is not taken, life will become very difficult after 10 years,” Sharma said. “What can we do? We have to live here.”

The Modi government has encouraged Indians to live more sustainably: In October, it launched a program asking drivers to turn off their engines at red lights and take the stairs instead of the elevator.

But the question is not whether the world can count on the Indian public to decarbonize, but whether Indians can also count on their own government to do so.

Even though much of the world was at a standstill during the Covid-19 pandemic, India continued to ramp up renewables. Between 2019 and 2021, India’s share of energy from renewables grew by nearly 3%, according to a 2022 report by the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed the World Leaders Summit

India has seen “steady growth in renewable energy installations,” Nandini Das, an energy research and policy analyst at research institute Climate Analytics, told CNN. “It hasn’t stopped even in the Covid era.”

At COP26, Modi outlined a series of targets for India’s efforts to combat climate change. By 2030, India pledged to increase its non-fossil fuel power capacity to 500 gigawatts (from 156.83 in 2021) and use renewable energy sources to meet 50% of its energy needs.

Experts say India is on track to meet Modi’s non-fossil fuel target by ramping up nuclear and hydropower, but the country’s shorter-term goals, such as having 175 gigawatts of renewable energy installed by the end of 2022, is enough to power 131. million housing – hang on the balance.

A report by S&P Global earlier this year said India may not meet the 2022 target, partly because the country still lacks a clear commitment to phase out coal.

It’s also a question of financing: investing in renewable energy and other climate change mitigation efforts is expensive.

The developed world was supposed to give developing nations $100 trillion a year to help them reduce emissions and help them adapt to the climate crisis. This goal has never been met.

It is money that India can use. Achieving wind and solar targets alone by 2030 would cost $223 trillion, according to a BloombergNEF analysis. And in 2019-2020, India raised only a quarter of the funds it needed annually to meet its initial climate goals, according to a report published by the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), an independent non-profit research group.

If India does not receive the financial support it needs, it will be difficult to keep up the pace of renewable energy development. Scaling up will be even more difficult.

In Rajasthan, projects like the Bhadla Solar Park have helped the state exceed its renewable targets, but experts say the success is not widespread enough.

“If India sticks to its current approach of expanding coal-fired power generation and infrastructure to increasingly use imported LNG, it risks massive fossil energy sector assets and increased dependence on energy imports,” Fekete, of the NewClimate Institute. , he told CNN.

“India should fully focus on renewable energy, with international support as needed.”

If it doesn’t, it says India’s greenhouse gas emissions will increase by 2030, making global targets even harder, if not impossible, to achieve.

“Given India’s size, this puts the global temperature target of 1.5°C at risk,” Feket said.