Follow the money

A truly just green transition means not just that there are green jobs available, but also that the technology these are based on are appropriate and are created in developing countries

Indians in non air-conditioned 2nd class railway coach [image by: Brian Holsclaw]

Ganges Water Machine by Anthony Acciavatti is a gorgeously detailed book on the history and morphology of the Ganga. Among the photographs and plans there is a small mention of the role of railways. Before the introduction of the rail by the British during the colonial era most goods were transported wither by caravan or by boats and barges. Among the impacts of the railroad was the withering away of trade by river, and the pauperisation of communities dependent on it for their livelihoods.

This is a rarely discussed facet of the introduction of rail travel in India. Usually it is discussed as a “gift” of the colonial era, an example of the “modernisation” of India under British rule. Or it is discussed as a strategic calculation, which – with the telegraph lines – helped a small contingent of rulers transport armies quickly to strategic locations very quickly. Notably it is considered one of the advantages through which the British managed to reconquer their empire after the 1857 Uprising. Comparatively little attention is paid to the role of money, both in investment, and how it effects technology, and the money that pays for technology.

India received one of the most modern railway systems in the world during the time of British rule. It was paid for by Indian taxes, and it was not a gift. The makers of these steam engines were in England, so in effect Indian taxes subsidised the wealth of the British rail system. Today India is trying to rebuild some of its waterways for trade through the Inland Waterways Authority of India, though these are without their own challenges as noted in one of the articles in the critical reading list below.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here as India starts to deal with the climate crisis. The first, and most important, is that if solutions are developed exclusively in other countries, Indian taxes will end up subsidising technologies and wealth in other countries, without building up capacities internally. The country may acquire – at great costs – some of the best infrastructure, but like the railways, may not be able to continually build up the technology so that it remains world class over time.

The second is that new technology is not necessarily the most appropriate technology, and putting all eggs in one basket is not always the solution. The example of railways and waterways is worth looking at as a balance that tipped too heavily in one direction, and as we struggle to rebuild our waterways much later, we are trying to rebalance. Similarly, the Green Revolution led to higher water, pesticide and chemical fertiliser usage across India, and it came at the cost of promoting monoculture. A “one technology” model for growth has sharp drawbacks, and makes a country, and its economy, far less resilient, as we are finding out.

In our interview this fortnight we look at jobs in the green economy, as well as the recent G7 meeting, and the challenges between developed and developing countries cooperating to deal with the climate crisis. The next Conference of Parties – COP26 – will be held in November in Glasgow, with the UK as the chair. It will be the first COP post Trump, and one in which the fight for a green future is being fully joined between the US and China, as US President Joe Biden ups the ante in challenging China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

There is both an opportunity and a challenge for India here. As our interview illustrates, there is a great potential for green jobs in India, but if the base of these technologies remain things manufactured outside of India – for example cheap solar photovoltaic cells from China – will we end up subsidising new technologies yet again in other countries? Even if we have the US and China competing to sell us cleaner tech, and we get new infrastructure, are we building up research and design in India?

Secondly, is all the technology we are rushing to adopt entirely appropriate. Nature based solutions are often cheaper and more effective than new technologies, but they need better stewardship of land. This issue barely gets a mention, except as a sidebar, in conversations, although it was raised as early as the Stern report. Much of this revolves around making sure deforestation is combatted and crop diversity is maintained. India is at the cusp of change in this regard, as we contemplate more mechanised large farms, and afforestation, instead of maintaining forests that already exist. Our choices will show us whether we have learned from our past, and whether we will help shape the future, or merely be shaped by it.

The Interview

Madhura Joshi is a clean energy and climate policy expert with over ten years of experience in managing and implementing large multi-disciplinary teams and projects. She is currently a Senior Associate and India Energy Transitions Lead at the E3G based in India. Her work focuses on developing the strategy and analyses to advance just and low-carbon energy transitions in India working closely diplomatic, governmental, and civil society networks. Prior to E3G, Madhura was the lead consultant on energy access, green jobs and climate policy in India for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Madhura has also worked at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), and was the manager at the Centre for Research on Energy Security, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) before CPR.

Her areas of research and interests include energy and climate policy in India; energy poverty in developing countries; co-benefits of low-carbon transitions; energy security; multilateral and regional energy climate governance; political economy of energy transition in India; and multiple-objectives based policy decision-making. She has authored several book chapters, academic papers, strategic memos, and policy-briefs meant for senior decision-makers on these topics.

Q. Are there jobs in the renewable sector, specifically in India?

A. The straightforward answer is yes. In a 2020 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested that a sustainable green recovery after the pandemic would be far more useful than a polluting one. It would add or save (the electricity sector would be under threat of losing many jobs otherwise) up to 9 million more jobs, globally, over three years and would spur economic growth.

Specifically in India, a 2019 report by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated that there had been a five-fold increase in green jobs between 2014-19.

Just reaching our commitment to produce 175 GW of electricity from renewables would end up employing over 300,000 workers in just the utility scale solar, rooftop solar, and wind sectors.

According to another study by Power For All, in the financial year 2018 alone 95,000 direct jobs were created in the distributed renewable sector in India.

Bear in mind these are jobs just from in the direct renewable energy sector. There are indirect jobs as well, for things like skills training, market linkages and allied services associated with renewable energy. Experience of the Self Employed Women’s Association in partnership with NRDC shows that working with salt-farming women in the Little Rann of Kutch to switch from diesel to solar not only helped them save money, but also created jobs in managing solar power. There are also other sectors such as in electric vehicles, green buildings, and energy efficiency which  have green jobs. The data on this is, however, not captured well.

Q. Are these jobs accessible to women and marginalized groups?

A. On paper these should be available, but unfortunately, we do not have enough studies to capture gender participation in the sector. CEEW’s report on women working on rooftop solar was one of the few that did.

Compared to the fossil fuel sector, there were more women, but still only 11%. The global average of women in the renewable sector is much better – 32%.

Part of this has nothing to do with the sector. There has been a sharp decline in women in workspaces in India over the last few years, but we can design incentives. For example, having training programmes - like the Kutch one – at the village level. This cuts down on travel, making them more accessible. There are a whole bunch of schemes on skill development. Focusing on increasing participation from women will be useful. There also needs to be greater communications outreach at the grassroots level that will bring greater awareness about these programmes.

Q. What did you make of the recent G7 meeting?

A. Many people have been disappointed, and even caustic about the outcome. I am a little more optimistic. There were a lot of expectations from this summit, and we should look at it as part of the process, in which a few ground rules were stated and progress sustained.

Never before has a coal exit plan been explicitly addressed.

In May the G7 environment ministers had committed to net zero by 2050 and keeping temperature rise below 1.5C from pre-industrial levels. The G7 financial ministers also committed to end new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021. These commitments have been reaffirmed.

The G7 also made the connection between an energy transition and a just transition, recognizing that the transition must have support and policies for affected workers and sectors. So that  jobs lost in the fossil fuel sector are compensated and new employment opportunities are created. There was also agreement to provide support for coal retirement mechanisms. More clarity on the extent climate finance required remains, but this is will hopefully become clearer in the run up to the Conference of Parties (CoP) at Glasgow in November.

I would call it an encouraging step in the right direction, one that leaves space to build upon soon, and which sets ambitious and clear time bound goals.

Q. What would you consider is the main issue between developed countries and developing countries?

A. There are a few issues, but a key one is a lack of trust. Without sufficient trust in follow through on commitments and demonstrated action on the ground, it is hard to make cooperation work. Quite often the context of developing countries and the needs of their people can be overlooked. The lack of sufficient financing for making a transition possible and just has added to that. Countries with means also need to take stronger steps domestically to bring about clean energy transitions faster. Hopefully this is changing, and with it the trust deficit may also shrink.

Q. What is the one big issue that does not get the attention it deserves?

A. There are so many! But maybe the key issue is that we must focus on adaptation now. We are already experiencing very different weather patterns. India has seen two cyclones on the western coast in two years, when it used to be the eastern region that was usually harder hit.

We need to ensure resilience, have regulatory, financial, and social mechanisms to respond, and pay attention to the infrastructure we build so that it can deal with the climate challenges.

The need to give greater attention for adaptation measures is also visible globally. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has been saying that at least 50% of funding should go to adaptation. The impacts of the climate crisis on communities and how it is reshaping economies have to be better understood to design comprehensive solutions. Unfortunately, too much of state response is short-term, such as relief measures for droughts. These are, at best, momentary relief. They cannot address lands lost to rising seas, areas where it is no longer possible to farm, or crops that no longer produce as much as weather patterns change. We need to build more resilience in our economy, cities, villages, infrastructure, jobs, and communities – in both existing and new structures – while planning for changes that are likely to take place because of unavoidable impacts of climate change that have set it.

Critical reading

  1. How one official helped Tata Steel and Vedanta get away with flouting green law: With the government focused on fast-tracking green clearances to help specific industry lobbies, rather than following the path of sustainable development, the rule of law and legal principles of environment conservation are bound to be a casualty. During June and July 2020, the Union environment secretary drafted a legally-dubious ex-post facto clearance procedure to facilitate two mega steel plants, operated by ESL Steel Ltd (Vedanta Group) and Tata Steel Ltd, that had violated India’s key law for environment clearance - the EIA Notification 2006. After the Union environment minister approved the procedure for the EIA law, it was then extended to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification in February 2021, that instituted amnesty to projects violating the CRZ law, based on the same ex-post facto clearance procedure which directly contradicts both EIA and CRZ. While the ministry explicitly denies this procedure could be called an ex-post facto clearance, the Bombay and Madras high courts confirmed it is so in May 2021 through interim orders in response to public interest litigations by environmentalists. 

  2. In Lakshadweep, a Strongman Leader Courts Ecological Mayhem: The Lakshadweep administration, led by Praful Patel, has announced several new Bills that threaten the local communities’ way of life. The draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation 2021 bans beef; the draft Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation 2021 allows the administrator to unilaterally detain people for up to a year; the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 concentrates planning powers with the administration, and empowers it to take any piece of land in the island, irrespective of its ownership, for “development” purposes. Reinforcing the state’s eminent domain over all of Lakshadweep must be considered against the backdrop of NITI Aayog’s plans to convert the UT into a site for premium tourism. Planning ambitious projects such as high-end hotels and floating villas is incongruent with existing realities of climate change such as water-stressed islands and eroding coral reefs, not to mention the ecological cost of the other construction projects being discussed – building a sea port, converting Kavaratti into a smart city.

  3. NITI Aayog's Vision for Great Nicobar Is at Great Odds With Islanders' Reality: NITI Aayog’s Rs 75,000 crore vision for ‘holistic development’ of Great Nicobar island entails building a transshipment terminal with a greenfield international airport, townships and solar and gas-based power plants, but doesn’t account for the existence of at least 15 Nicobarese villages along the island’s west coast. The island has two indigenous groups – the Nicobarese and the Shompen, a forest-dwelling community. But a pre-feasibility report by consulting agency Aecom India Private Limited recognises only seven revenue villages on Great Nicobar, but not the tribal villages. Envisaging 6.5 lakh people to inhabit the island by 2050 – currently the population is only around 8,500 – NITI Aayog’s projection is “a death knell for the already minuscule Shompen tribe and an obvious ecological disaster for leatherback turtle nesting sites”, according to a journalist based in Port Blair. The project is also unrealistic given the islands’ water scarcity.

  4. How infrastructure projects intensified cyclone Tauktae's impacts in Kerala : Cyclone Tauktae caused much damage on India’s western coast but in Kerala, human activities such as large-scale land reclamation, development of ports, shrimp farming, river diversions, dredging, sand mining, as well as rampant coastal zone violations including destruction of adjoining wetlands, intensified its impact and continue to keep the region at high risk. Ongoing coastal erosion through unscientific and rapid development of big infrastructure projects exacerbate the impact of climate change-induced cyclones in the Arabian Sea. The most vulnerable are small coastal villages, such as Chellanam, where the construction of a nearby coastal highway intensified sea erosion and now regular cyclones pose a severe threat to its people. In Vizhinjam-Shanghumukham regions, fish workers accuse the construction of the Vizhinjam International Seaport of inciting natural disasters. “Because of the construction in the sea, the waves have become rougher. The breakwater has prompted the waves to hit the shores harder,” says Joseph Vijayan, an expert on coastal communities in Thiruvananthapuram.

  5. Black carbon in High Asia can go down 23% if Subcontinent cuts emissions: Report: If South Asian countries implement all the current Black Carbon (BC) emission policies, the deposition of the pollutant can go down by 23%, according to a new report released by the World Bank Group on June 3. BC is generated by a range of human activities such as industries, vehicles, biomass burning, forest fires, brick-making and cook stoves and is capable of travelling long distances, sometimes towards the mountains and settling on top of glaciers and snow. The report finds BC deposition is responsible for as much as 50% of the increase in glacier and snow melt worldwide. “Black carbon and glacier melting in the Himalayas and erratic rainfall in the mid-mountains always lead to landslides, floods and inundation in the lowlands,” Maheshwar Dhakal, joint secretary of the Nepal government and former United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change national focal point of Nepal, said. The resultant changing patterns of hydrology, the timing and the quantity of water have a direct impact on agriculture, and on increasing the vulnerability of local communities. 

  6. World Environment Day: A new proposed law backs construction projects in eco-sensitive areas: A Bengaluru team at private law firm J. Sagar Associates is working on the draft of a new, single environment management act, which is all set to back projects such as Adani-L&T Kattupalli Port in Tamil Nadu, several hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand and Jammu’s Ujh multipurpose project, all of which have the potential to destroy the ecologically sensitive areas they are set in. This new umbrella law is set to replace three existing Acts — Air Act 1981, Water Act 1974, and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986. The roots of this new law can be traced to the 2014 Subramanian Committee that was appointed by the Union environment ministry to revise environment laws. It is hard not to question the timing of yet another environmental law amidst a crippling pandemic. “The problem is when COVID-19 becomes an excuse to do away with public consultation and discussion that are an essential part of parliamentary democracy. It is ironic when the government considers not having public consultation as an act in public interest,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. 

  7. New Systems, Old habit: A new study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) examines the state of pollution data generated by the use of an automated monitoring system in the coal-based thermal power sector – called the continuous emission monitoring systems (CEMS). The study finds that even after having been installed in most power plants for more than 6 years, the system is not ready to be mainstreamed as a compliance tool. With only four states currently making CEMS data public, which accounts for 28% of India’s installed coal-based capacity; even in the most transparent state, Madhya Pradesh, there are wide data gaps. Less than half of the data is being sent to the pollution control board by the plants; and poor data quality is rendering a lot of that data unusable. 

  8. Van Gujjars: People of the forest or nowhere?: The nomadic pastoral tribe of Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand are being slowly displaced to protect the Rajaji National Park – they’re being blamed for increased pressure on wildlife through overgrazing their buffaloes, even as multiple development projects continue to eat into the forest, raising questions of whether conservation is valued only at the cost of marginalized and minority communities. Manshi Asher of Himdhara, an environmental research and action collective, calls the accusation of overgrazing unfair: “Over the years, it is industrialisation and urbanisation that has forced Van Gujjars to become sedentary and limited their access to smaller forest patches, manifesting as overgrazing”. It is paradoxical, she says, that both development and conservation have acted to dispossess the communities of their resources.

  9. Modi Government's Grand, Flawed, Expensive Waterway Project: Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the National Waterway-1 in Varanasi in 2018, which sent the signal that India would create a web of inland waterways. A 2021 study reviewing the progress and impacts of the National Inland Waterways Program, released by the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a non-government organisation working on water and energy issues, states that the project was “greenwashed” into existence, meaning that environmental benefits were touted to push through an ecologically harmful and economically non-viable project. The authors – interviewed here – emphasize severe implications of keeping National Waterways and their components such as multimodal terminals outside the environmental clearance process, i.e. the monitoring of impacts being done by the very same authority that is in charge of developing the waterways in the absence of any mandates for baseline EIA study or public hearings. 

  10. Protests over ecological concerns at Bunder diamond mining project: The proposed Bunder diamond mine project in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh won by Aditya Birla Group’s Essel Mining & Industries Limited (EMIL) in 2019, is facing protests against the likely felling of more than 200,000 trees, over ecological and local livelihood concerns. Earlier, Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, had to exit the project in 2017, for similar reasons. Locals now gear up for a long fight yet again, this time against an Indian company receiving political patronage from an uncaring national government. “The Ken-Betwa River Interlinking project already threatens 23 lakh trees and 1.9 lakh trees have already been cut down for Bundelkhand Expressway Highway. The destruction of flora, mega-fauna (tiger) and human socio-ecological habitat done so blatantly and ‘legally’, shows that it is never about the environment or the people, nobody in power cares about this in current India,” says Arnab Roy Chowdhury.

  11. A massive rock and ice avalanche caused the 2021 disaster at Chamoli, Indian Himalaya: A new study by a team of international researchers finds that the February 7 disastrous flood at Chamoli that killed 200 people was caused by a massive chunk breaking off a glacier on Ronti Peak in the Indian Himalayas. The study presents a rapid and comprehensive reconstruction of the hazard cascade, after leveraging multiple types of remote sensing data, eyewitness videos, numerical modelling, seismic data, and reconnaissance field observations. It also describes the antecedent conditions and the immediate societal response, in order to consider some wider implications for sustainable development in high-mountain environments.

  12. Govt Think Tank Hand-Picked SC Rulings To Probe Judicial Activism: Government think tank NITI Aayog funded a study on the economic impact of judicial activism, overruling a warning from a top official that it served no purpose, according to documents accessed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. It commissioned the study from CUTS International, a non-governmental organisation in January 2020 to examine five judgements of the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal, including an order that CEO Amitabh Kant had written an op-ed against. The research intended to gauge the economic impact of Supreme Court rulings on environmental law violations, which included the manufacture and sale of vehicles that did not meet Bharat Stage-IV emission standards; a February 2018 judgement in a case called The Goa Foundation vs M/s Sesa Sterlite Limited & Others, related to unchecked, large-scale illegal mining in Goa, and another on environmental clearance to Mopa airport in Goa, the order that Kant believed was erroneous.