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

  1. Renewables in Electricity Must Increase 55-fold for India to Achieve Net-zero Emissions by 2050: CEEW | CEEW: As India mulled declaring a Net Zero outcome, CEEW published a study explaining how India’s challenge was significantly different from that of China, the EU, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Important: “India's real GDP growth rate would be much higher than any other country post their peaking years. This indicates that India would need to put in significantly more effort to peak and subsequently reduce emissions.”

  2. The chase and the change: Let's look back at 15 years of MGNREGA this World Water Day: Coverage by Down To Earth, 14 reporters across 15 states. Finds that water conservation structures under MGNREGA have a lot of potential for overall village development).

  3. Government eases public hearing rules for legacy mining cases: A new rule by the environment ministry means that old mines may not have to go through public hearings to get clearances.

  4. Corporate environment responsibility guidelines for companies get scrapped by environment ministry: More than five months after the environment ministry strongly defended its corporate environment responsibility, or CER, guidelines (which also required companies to allocate funds for mitigating adverse impacts of their projects on local communities and the environment) in the Delhi High Court, environment minister Prakash Javadekar asked his officials to scrap them following a letter from Rajju Shroff, the founder of United Phosphorus Ltd, or UPL. 

  5. Against environmental clearances: Green tribunal cited delay in filing as reason to dismiss every second plea:  In 2020, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) dismissed a total of 22 appeals, mostly by local communities against green clearances issued to 20 projects. As many as half of these dismissals, a recent analysis by The Indian Express of NGT orders shows, were on the technical ground that appellants did not approach the Tribunal in time. This raises questions of due process: of the 11 dismissals due to delay, as many as 5 were filed within 44-90 days, well within the outer limit.

  6. Coal burning responsible for heavy air pollution in India: IEACCC study: Unabated burning of coal in thermal power stations and a delay in implementation of latest carbon capture storage technology are among major reasons of air pollution in India, according to a recent study by the International Energy Agency’s Clean Coal Centre (IEACCC), which recommended implementation of emission norms at coal-based thermal power stations at the earliest. While the study said it was techno-economically possible to meet the norms if there were no further delay or dilution, media reports suggest that the environment ministry is already considering a graded response to a January 2021 request from the Union Ministry of Power to extend the deadline from 2022 to 2024. 

  7. Coal industry gets a single-window clearance system but the affected people are ignored: The Union government has unveiled a single-window clearance system, a long-pending demand of the coal industry, to speed up the operationalisation of coal mines. This latest measure adds to the series of steps that the government has taken in the past few years to ease rules for the industry and increase domestic coal output. But despite a plethora of complaints and grievances from mining-affected communities, no such support is being provided to address their concerns, including pending compensation and rehabilitation packages.

  8. Illegal and Unnecessary – but Adani Port Proposal Makes it to Public Hearing Stage: Adani Ports and SEZ’s subsidiary Marine Infrastructure Development Private Ltd has applied for environmental clearance for a Rs 4,000 crore port and harbour project that is part of a Rs. 53,400 crore masterplan. Set to come up on wetlands and ecologically fragile sand dunes on the Kattupalli Barrier island near the Pulicat Wildlife Sanctuary, the company’s proposal for a megaport is illegal on several counts. By falsifying vital information and suppressing other critical facts, it has managed to get its proposal past the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s announcement to hold a public hearing for the project on January 22, 2021, has triggered massive outrage among local communities, environmentalists and political parties.

  9. Centre grants clearances to 140 hectares of forest land for Goa projects: The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF) has granted clearances for the diversion of 140 hectares of forest land for the South Western Railway’s double-tracking project — amid protests by environmentalists and locals against the plan to cut through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park — in south Goa.

  10. State of India's Environment 2021: People and planet in peril: The “clean air and blue sky” seen during the country-wide lockdown due to the Covid 19 pandemic became a reminder of our abuse of nature. But as the State of India’s Environment 2021 published by the Centre for Science and Environment says, this remained just a blip and the Union government in 2020 took up a series of policy decisions that effectively diluted India’s environmental regulation regimes.

  11. "We have to come to Glasgow with no excuses; it's the last best chance to get to net zero", President Biden's Envoy, John Kerry says: Speaking at the at the World Sustainable Development Summit (WSDS) 2021 organised by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) in New Delhi in February, Mr John Forbes Kerry, United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate said, “As countries prepare to negotiate the acceleration of climate action at 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, it needs to raise ambition towards achieving net zero emissions”. Mr Kerry participated in a High-Level Roundtable on 'Rebooting Green Growth' along with Dr S Jaishankar, India’s Union Minister of External Affairs, Lord Zac Goldsmith, Minister for Pacific and the Environment at the FCDO, UK, Ms Amina Mohammad, Deputy Secretary General, United Nations, and Dr Ajay Mathur, Director General, TERI. The roundtable aimed to steer discussions towards strengthening commitment to maximizing renewable energy, enhancing capacity to deal with the changing climate, and creating financial flows to help enable these actions.