The country should ask for targets, finance and technology, says the founder-CEO of Council on Energy Environment and Water.
The United States has re-entered the Paris Climate agreement. What does this mean for India?
This is an opportunity for India to be proactive and propose a bilateral deal, where the U.S. and India can work more closely on climate change. It should be similar to the 2014 deal involving U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The focus should be on what can be achieved in the near-term. There will be pressure on India to give a plan on when it will achieve Net Zero (when a country’s carbon dioxide emissions are balanced by the amount locked back in). However, we must have an agreement on say the use of hydrogen, and form say, a Green Hydrogen Alliance. The U.S. will predictably try to nudge, cajole other countries into raising ambition (in the form of greater emission targets, for example) but India shouldn’t be swayed by emotion and be proactive rather than the other way around. India can use this opportunity to ask the U.S. to raise ambition, given that it has been out of the agreement for four years. We can ask for concrete targets, finance, technology. In such a negotiation, it is important to see who initiates the move.
Do you expect the upcoming United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland to be a significant one in terms of agreements?
Given the expectations, I think it will be a very significant event though probably not as much as the conference in Paris (in 2015). The reason for its importance is because it’s coming in a year after the pandemic began. It will reveal if the world’s recovery has been a green one and [if] we are building a world that is better. However, it is too soon to say if the upcoming COP will deliver. COP26 will likely be about the mechanisms, especially financial ones, to operationalise plans. For many countries, now is the time to begin implementing actions to achieve their commitments as per the Paris agreement. However, if there are only long-term climate ambitions discussed, then I fear it will be celebrated as a significant COP but not actually be one. It must deliver something substantial in financial matters.
A common narrative is India is among the few countries on track to delivering on its commitments as per the Paris agreement (to keep global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius and strive to 1.5 degrees C). However, are our ambitions adequate, given the challenges we face and are vulnerable to?
Between 2011-16, our compounded annual growth rate increased 12% but emissions increased 4%. This means India is growing while reducing its emissions intensity. We are on track to achieving a 35% reduction in intensity by 2030. However, we must recognise that India is already in the middle of a climate crisis. At CEEW, we are preparing the first climate risk atlas. We have released the first instalment that looks at climate over the past 50 years. That shows 75% of India’s districts are now hotspots for extreme climate events such as droughts, floods, cyclones. In 40% districts, flood prone regions are becoming drought prone and vice versa. Secondly, emissions intensity reduction while very good is not the same as emissions reduction. The bulk of our reduction has come from energy efficiency programmes. We still see key sectors, such as iron and steel, where emissions are rising quite rapidly. We need to do a lot more, in our own interest, in decarbonising industry, transport and cities. We can’t make steel with solar power but [we] can make it with hydrogen. That’s theoretically possible and technologically being tried out in Sweden and Japan. Given that steel, ammonia, cement comprise 74% of our industrial emissions, we have to think of ways to move away from coking coal. This is where the National Hydrogen Mission will be critical. We will be making steel and cars in 2040 but could face high tariff barriers when we export, if our sources of fuel are not clean. So we must think strategically.
Hydro power is considered part of the renewable energy mix. However, in light of the disaster in Uttarakhand, questions are being raised on the role of dams. What’s the future for hydropower?
It was only two years ago that large hydropower projects (above 25 MW) started to be considered as renewable energy. I think we should be going back to the earlier definition where only the smaller hydropower plants were considered renewable energy. Hydropower was considered a relatively clean source of energy because it provided baseload energy just like thermal and nuclear power plants. The gestation period for hydropower plants is very long. Without storage, there is no question that solar and wind are the cheapest sources of power in the country now. The older hydropower plants are in operation because of the way power purchase agreements were signed, with States often forced to buy from inefficient plants. In future, we have to think if hydropower can compete with solar-plus-storage and it’s very much possible that the latter will be cheaper than a new hydropower plant. On the other hand, even smaller hydropower plants are in fragile ecosystems and will still be a challenge. But it is not enough to just see them as damaging to the ecosystem. We need to demonstrate that there are alternative avenues that can bring in real investment and create local jobs. We know on paper that solar power has the largest employment generation potential but what is the plan for a small State in the Himalayas to achieve that?
We see the per-unit cost of solar power falling. However, are we anywhere close to an inflection point — and if not, why not — of solar power becoming a much bigger component of our energy mix?
I don’t think we are anywhere near such a point. There are three additional drivers: financial, technological and new markets. We can still shave off a few paise from improving financial contracts and the implementing of them, involving the government and industries. While most of the investment has gone to large solar parks, the solar rooftop market is relatively untapped. There are also solar irrigation pumps, urban microgrids, etc. These are niche markets not being exploited at all. We must be able to offer our market as a test bed for new batteries and storage technologies, like we are doing with vaccines. We’ve developed one vaccine here but we are the factory for the other vaccine, and that makes us relevant to the global market. So could we be the factory for 5-6 battery technologies?