Scientists unanimously agree that massive quantities of greenhouse gases released from combustion of fossil fuels are primarily responsible for global warming and have unleashed an internecine cycle of melting polar ice and thawing permafrost which greenhouse gases and further warm up the earth’s temperature. They warn that the present fossil fuel based economy is unsustainable and if efforts are not made to curb emissions the planet may witness a 4 degree rise in average temperatures by the end of the century. In fact, certain scientists warn that the planet is currently undergoing its sixth mass extinctionwhich has been accelerated by climate change.
As one of the world’s major economies, Indiais ignominiously ranked as the fourth largest polluter and is responsible for nearly 7 %of total global carbon emissions. Given its vast size and population, India faces the threat of climate change on multiple fronts. Changing climate patterns have resulted in unrelenting heatwaves, erratic monsoons, extreme droughts, unseasonal rains, massive floods, and sudden flash floods. Similar scenes of damage and devastation with increased ferocity unfold each year. The effects on human health and habitation, agriculture and cropping patterns, desertification, wildlife, and sea levels are consequential and are likely to alter forever the country’s diverse eco-systems.
This is coupled with the additional responsibility of catering to the energy needs of a burgeoning population an estimated 600 million or 40 percentof which will live in cities by the year 2031. Furthermore, the countryfaces the daunting task of providing access to electricity to nearly 300 million people. Therefore, balancing heightened environmental concerns with developmental priorities poses an immense challenge for India.
Close to 74 % of India’s energy requirements are met from fossil fuel combustion – coal and oil –with coal accounting for the principal share of 58 %.Other polluting fuels used in smaller quantities include gas, wood, biomass.Coal, however,formsthe backbone of the Indian energy sector.With massive reserves estimated to last for the entire duration of the 21st century, India is one of the world’s largest coal consumers and consumed more than700 million tonnes in 2015-16. While coal is also utilised in manufacturing of steel and cement, the power sector is most dependent on coal and the fossil fuel accounts for nearly 60 %of overall power supply. Therefore in 2016, unsurprisingly, half of all CO2 emissions – 805.4 million tonnes – were attributed to the power sector.
During the run up to and at the Paris Agreement in 2015, India promised definite action on climate change. Although in its first five year Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the country wise voluntary commitments which form the basis of implementation of the Paris Agreement, India has committed to source 40 per cent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, it did not commit to “any sector specific mitigation obligation or action.” Based on the argument that historically the global north was responsible for ruthless exploitation of fossil fuels in order to achieve current development levels, India asserted its right to develop without compromising on the use of coal and vowed to continue with the construction of coal based power plants.
Pertinently, the Paris Agreement marks a new benchmark in the global effort to prevent catastrophic climate change by aiming to limit the rise in global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.However, for the Paris Agreement to succeed massive expansion and scale up of renewable energy and consequent phasing out of fossil fuels is needed. According to a report titled Allianz Climate & Energy Monitor Deep Dive investments in the Indian electricity sector will need to triple if the country wishes to meet its INDCs.
Of late, however, coal has begun facing a rival source of energy in the form of renewables.Demand for coal has droppedand domestic coal markets have slumped.
The cost of renewable energy has seen a consistent declinein India. This year it has hit a record low with competitively priced solar energy at Rs.2.62 per unit, and wind energy at Rs.3.46 per unit.Solar power was lower in cost than coal powered energy priced at Rs.3.20per unit.Renewables have thus begun to emerge as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Furthermore, planned expansion of coal fired power plants is now being stalled. Several states have recently scrapped the construction of new coal power plants.
In case of global renewables production India is ranked next only to china. The government aims to achieve 175 GW renewable energy capacity by the year 2022.Expansion and scaling up of renewable energy remains a massive challenge, albeitreplete with opportunities.
Firstly, there is a large unmet demand for electricity. Traditional coal powered electricity grids suffer from outages, inefficiency, and theft.The gap between demand and supply, aided by falling costs, can incentivise people to switch to RE. Most parts of India are blessed with abundant sunlight for the major part of the year and there are endless possibilities for growth in renewables – both through solar thermal and solar photovoltaic technology.Furthermore, coal-fired power plants cannot be built everywhere. On the other hand, small scale electricity generation through renewable energy powered methods can light up even the last village in India. Renewable energy plants also take lesser time to set up and offer quick return on investments.
According to Piyush Goyal, Minister for Power, Coal and New & Renewable Energy, the power sector has an investment potential of Rs.15 trillion (US$ 225 billion) in the coming few years. This in turn opens up a tremendous investment opportunity for both domestic and foreign investors, in power generation, distribution, and transmission, as well as in manufacture and sale of renewable energy devices and products. Furthermore, investments are required not only in electricity but also other renewable energy technologies such as biomass gasifiers which convert waste to energy.The renewable energy sector is also capable of creating employment opportunities for thousands of people.
Secondly, costs associated with subsidisation of fossil fuelsare eight timesthat of health care. A report by a non-profit called Health and Environment Alliance, states that in 2014, $16.9 billion were spent on fuel subsidies in comparison to health care costs which amounted to $140.7 billion. Local air pollution levels in major Indian cities are routinely above the WHO prescribed safe levels. Air pollution kills nearly 1.4 million Indians every year and also causes several serious and chronic diseases. Gradual phasing out of coal in favour of renewables will be of immense benefit to citizens.
Thirdly, while India does possess vast reserves of coal, it is mostly of low quality. For oil and gas, the country depends largely on imports which are susceptible to international prices.
Fourthly, metropolitan cities are densely populated and often highly polluted. Since large scale renewable energy projects require land which is mostly available in semi urban and rural areas. Tier II and Tier III cities, small towns, and villages thus have immense potential in generating power and bringing development, thereby easing the pressure on increasingly unsustainable megacities.
Renewables have had a good year in 2016 despite globally falling investments in the sector. However, what is certain that this powerful alternative to fossil fuels has tremendous potential to stave off catastrophic climate change, and will act as a major challenge to the current fossil fuel based economy.
Zeenat Masoodi is a lawyer living in Srinagar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org