India in the age of the climate crisis
More than a year after pandemic induced lockdown, India continues to ignore the climate crisis
Migrant workers cook a meal [Photo: © World Bank / Curt Carnemark]
A little more than a year after the devastating lockdown instituted by the government to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, India is still far from recovery. 32 million people were pushed out of the middle class, while about 75 million people were added among the poor, according to the Pew Research Centre.
In many ways this story is about the environment of India, the choices taken in its developmental path, and the challenges that are being ignored. The obvious link is that zoonotic diseases are far more likely to occur with rising deforestation and monoculture, something that compensatory afforestation cannot offset, but there is a far deeper connect with how the diseases travelled, what areas were affected, and how people coped.
The harshest blow was to migrant labourers in urban areas, many of whom had to walk huge lengths to get back home. It was the agricultural sector that survived best in the cycle of ruin, absorbing the shock, but it is increasingly clear that the climate crisis will hit it severely.
A time of increasing disasters
During the climate crisis is that we are increasingly living in a world beset by disasters. They can come in the form of anything from a pandemic, to more powerful tropical storms like Amphan, or landslides and disasters like the one that happened in Uttarakhand recently. Added to this, the floods and droughts, the most visible signs of climate change, are increasingly rapidly. The costs of these disasters are disproportionately borne by developing countries, especially the more vulnerable populations within them, despite the fact that the rich in India for example, emit 7 times more carbon than poorer populations.
For a country like India, which hosts the largest population of the poor in the world, this is a crisis that cannot be ignored. And yet the development pathways being followed seem to offer no clear way forward. This year’s Union Budget was silent on clean energy or stubble burning, at a time when India accounts for the most polluted cities on earth in the air pollution index. The new farm laws passed by the Parliament, leading to the largest protests in the world, entirely ignore the climate crisis. Even worse, they copy the pathway of the US agriculture industry, which has promoted monoculture that undermines environmental stability.
A new growth model
Business as usual in the current scenario risks everything from India’s growth story to its fight against poverty, while leaving India more at risk to disasters. Too often we are told that there is no other option. That India has to copy the carbon-based growth pattern of industrialised countries that have laid the foundation of the current crisis. Or worse we are offered partial solutions, such as solar photovoltaic cells and wind power, which account for only about 4% of energy demand, and only offer intermittent supply.
These will not change the structure of the Indian economy and society in a way to deal with the scale of the problem, or offer a pathway to prosperity for its poor. Instead what they guarantee is a much more fragile system, in which another shock like the Covid-19 pandemic, rising sea levels along India’s coastlines, or disasters within its fertile borders, leave us with reruns of seeing millions of people without jobs trying to find a way home.
What India needs is not just to play “catch up”, or merely tweak its growth project with ineffectual minor fixes like compensatory afforestation, but to develop a growth model that creates greater prospects of prosperity in a stable system. This cannot happen at the cost of the environment, but in utilising its environment in a way that does not degrade it, enhancing it instead. This is a massive task, but one that is central to the desire of the freedom struggle, of a country which offers a life of dignity and opportunity to every one of its citizens.
The India Challenge: Prem Shankar Jha has been a critical participant in environment issues in India and globally since the 1980s. His latest book was Dawn of the Solar Age. He spoke to The Environment of India on the lead role India can play in averting the Climate Crisis.
Q. Two years ago the IPCC’s 1.5oC Special Report set a deadline for achieving zero net CO2 emissions of 2055 or as soon as possible thereafter, if the world was to avoid catastrophic climate change at, or shortly after, the end of this century. But global CO2 emissions are continuing to rise, and the fossil energy investment already in the pipeline indicates that they may continue to do so till 2040, if not longer.
Something drastic needs to be done to find alternatives to fossil fuels and since nearly most of increase in CO2 emissions will take place in the developing countries, these are the ones that need to find the alternatives. Since India is the second largest country in the world, with the fourth largest Carbon footprint, much of responsibility will fall on its shoulders. What can India do?
A. I regret to say that although we, in the warm tropics and sub tropics, stand to gain the most from shifting out of fossil fuels, we have made almost no contribution whatever towards finding alternatives to them. The Climate Change debate has been dominated so far by the industralised countries. And none of our governments have realised that, beyond slowing down global warming, their objectives are radically different from ours.
Q. Most people would say that this is a global challenge, but you are suggesting that there are significantly different challenges between rich and developing countries. Could you please elaborate upon this?
A. The rich nations’ goal has been, and remains, to lower CO2 emissions without lowering the standard of living in their countries– i.e. without rocking the very comfortable boat in which they are sailing today. Much of that comfort is derived from heavily subsidised fossil fuels. So, to get accepted, any new energy source has first to be priced below the subsidised fossil fuel it seeks to replace.
The policy makers, and even their climate scientists know that this is a difficult hurdle to cross. So ever since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol the trigger phrases of the climate debate have been studiedly vague: ‘a low carbon economy’, ‘carbon neutrality’ and, more recently, ‘zero net emissions’ but not ‘a fossil -free, or a ‘no-carbon’, or zero (anthropogenic) emissions’ economy. These implied caveats reflect the narrowness of their focus.
Developing countries face a different, and far more severe challenge. They have to find technologies that will reduce CO2 emissions but sustain economic growth at the same time. Technologies that can do this have been developed, but almost all the research has been done in university departments and dedicated research centres in the developed countries, like the Institute for Solar Energy and Hydrogen at Stuttgart.
Q. Why haven’t developing countries jumped at the opportunity to adopt these technologies?
Taking these technologies from the laboratory or pilot plant, to the technologically and commercially proven stage requires at least one, preferably two, further enlargements of scale, and a year at the very least of refinement and correction to overcome teething troubles. With only a few exceptions the governments of the industrialised countries have avoided subsidising these stages of development, and have left it to private industry, and start-ups backed by venture capitalists, to take the risk. Inevitably the only yardstick of success is profit.
They have also have turned a deaf ear so far to proposals to remove fossil fuel subsidies or levy a Carbon Tax, that would greatly increase the viability of new technologies because they don’t want to endanger their current standard of living, which depends upon the continuance of fossil fuel subsidies.
Q. Are there any RE technologies that have been technologically proven and have broken this price barrier?
A. Only two – solar photovoltaic and wind power. But their global contribution has been miniscule so far, so CO2 emissions are still rising. India has made a valiant effort to harness both, but wind and solar PV still account for only 16 percent of our power generation capacity, and 7.4 percent of delivered power. This amounts to a bare 3 percent of the energy we consume.
Q. Is there a different yardstick that India, and other developing countries, can apply for determining which technologies to promote?
A. The yardstick that developing countries should be applying is social as opposed to private profit. Technologies that generate power, or bio-fuels, at a higher cost than conventional power plants and refineries must nevertheless be given preference through subsidies. If they simultaneously meet other economic and social objectives, such as increasing employment, reducing air and water pollution, slowing down urbanisation, dispersing production to smaller towns and villages and reducing the urban-rural income gap, then they will not only confer huge political and social benefits on the people but also sustainable growth.
Q. Have such technologies been developed?
A. All this is entirely within reach. But it requires that instead of trying to play catchup with the industrialised world developing countries need to find a different paradigm of growth.
That lies in the harnessing of solar energy not in the present, segmented way but strategically, as the key to a cleaner, more equitable and more sustainable future.
Q. Could you elaborate on what you mean by ‘strategically’?
A. The sun’s energy is available to us in not two ways, but four. It reaches us directly as light and heat. It reaches us indirectly as wind, and biomass. So far we have harnessed only Light, which drives photovoltaic cells, and Wind which replaces steam to generate electricity. Both of these are abundant but give us electricity only for parts of the day and parts of the year.
While scientists are working frantically to create ‘smart’ grids backed by battery storage, that can switch power supply from one source or one region to another in a fraction of a second, the hugely expensive, extremely sophisticated and fully automated infrastructure these will need will not only be well beyond the paying and maintenance capacity of smaller developing countries, but will soak up the limited capital that is needed to create more employment.
Q. If not these, then what are the game changing technologies available?
A. The gamechangers for developing countries are the two other forms of the Sun’s energy, Heat - its infra-red energy - and Biomass.
Unlike SPV power, which can only be stored in batteries, the sun’s heat can be stored for entire days with little loss of energy. This enables solar thermal (CSP) power plants to provide power night and day, and to smoothly mesh with solar PV and wind power whenever this is needed. The three technologies together will soon be generating all the electricity we need from the sun at a cost no greater than today’s subsidised power from coal and natural gas.
But the technology that can transform the future of not only India but every other low-income tropical country in the world is biomass gasification. Gasification is very different from fermentation; the process being used at present to produce ethanol from sugar cane and corn. It is, quite simply, the partial burning of any carbon bearing substance in a carefully limited supply of air.
In simple gasifiers this can convert any crop waste under the sun into a lean gas, that can be used to generate electricity and run cold storages in villages, and a residue of biochar that, when cleaned, becomes a perfect substitute for coking coal in steel plants or a feedstock for the production of transport fuels via a technology that Germany used to fuel its tanks and aircraft during the second World War.
India has an abundance of crop waste. The waste from rice, wheat and sugar cane alone adds up to more than a billion tonnes a year - sufficient to guarantee electricity to cold storages in every village in the country, and meet its entire needs of coking coal and transport fuels for the next decade.
If India does not take a lead in fighting for, and promoting, these technologies it will continue to adopt the cast-off technologies of the West, become increasingly dependent on fossil fuels and persist with a strategy of development that will leave no hope of a life of dignity and security for the vast majority of its people.
Critical reading on the environment of India, 31.03.2021, compiled by Shambhavi Madan
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