India must move to a new equitable green energy system

18 Mayo 2015

The Indian government's demonisation of NGOs opposed to coal mining marks a backwards step in climate commitments. India is heading towards being the number two leading world emitter of carbon dioxide, missing out on a renewable energy (RE) revolution worldwide.

The Indian government has attracted widespread opprobrium for cracking down on environmental non-governmental organisations like Greenpeace, maligned for obstructing “development” (read, ecologically destructive growth). But not many noticed its hostile actions against other international NGOs focused on climate issues, particularly coal: Bank Information Centre (which ecologically monitors the World Bank group’s lending), Sierra Club (a mainstream environmental organisation), (a campaign for reduced greenhouse emissions), and Avaaz (a human rights-cum-ecology group).

Greenpeace evoked official ire especially because it campaigns in Mahan (Madhya Pradesh) against Essar’s coal-based projects: Priya Pillai was offloaded on her way to London, where Essar is headquartered, to brief British MPs on that very issue. Mahan is part of Singrauli, India’s coal-and-power heartland, where huge corporations like Reliance, Hindalco, Lanco and NTPC are well-entrenched. Singrauli has been ravaged by coal-mining and burning, which have played havoc with people’s health and the environment.

Demonising NGOs that oppose coal — the dirtiest, most climate-destructive fossil fuel — sends out a specific message. India may talk of promoting renewable energy. But the government intends to rely primarily on coal to generate electricity that powers “development”. Coal’s share in power generation is unlikely to fall below 70 percent for decades.

At a recent IMF-World Bank meeting, Arun Jaitley said India could contribute to combating climate change provided the world recognises that India must reconcile its energy needs with restricting greenhouse emissions. Coal will remain India’s principal energy source: “Unless coal can be greened and cleaned, it may not possible to reconcile development and climate change goals”; technologies for greening coal must be generated on a “war-footing”. 

This is a step backwards from India’s climate-change negotiations stand, and makes climate action conditional not just on GDP growth, but upon a specific fuel. It’s doubtful if coal can ever be greened. Burning it will always produce carbon dioxide; efforts to sequester the gas from the atmosphere have technologically and financially failed. 

So India will continue to mine, import and burn coal without let up or hindrance. Coal will play a major role, according to recent studies, in catapulting India from its current rank (Number Four) among the world’s emitters to Number Two, overtaking even the US. Under the weak pledges likely to be made at the Paris climate summit (December), the planet will probably warm by 3, or even 4 degrees, well beyond the 1.5-to-2 degrees Celsius considered the upper limit before the climate system breaks down irreparably. This spells disaster for the world and a catastrophe for a majority of India’s own people, who are particularly vulnerable to climate change.  

Relying on coal would be a suicidal blunder just when a renewable energy (RE) revolution is under way worldwide. It has infected India too, but in a skewed manner. As RE costs fall dramatically, India is planning to raise its solar-photovoltaics capacity to over 100 gigawatts (GW-one thousand megawatts) by 2022, and wind energy to 50 GW by 2030. This must be welcomed, but with two caveats. More must be done in wind (potential 200 GW-plus) and biomass. And the emphasis on centralised-grid solar generation must yield to decentralised production, mini-grids, etc. The topmost priority is to provide solar home-lighting to the 400 million Indians who don’t have electricity.  

This demands a sea-change in conceiving electricity generation and distribution on equitable, environmentally sound lines. Conventional central grids fed by base-load sources like coal/nuclear must make way for “smart” and mini-grids and standalone systems based on a mix of RE sources, without fossil fuels — in short, a new energy system.

Photo by Billy Wilson