Former Foreign Minister Shyam Saran was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy and Chief Climate Change Negotiator between 2007 and 2010. He recounts Rashme sehgal that India will only be able to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious net zero carbon emissions target by 2070 if it invests heavily in renewable energy. Edited excerpts.
How well will India meet its commitment to reduce carbon emissions?
India has not made a commitment to reduce its carbon emissions. The commitments relate to its capacity to increase renewable energies, which are expected to reach 450 to 500 gigabytes. We are working to reduce the emissions intensity of our gross domestic product (GDP) growth. The carbon intensity of growth will drop by 45% by 2030 against an earlier target of 33 to 35% announced in Paris. The Prime Minister pledged India to achieve zero carbon neutrality, which we will achieve by 2070. Several countries have pledged to achieve zero carbon neutrality by 2050, while China pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060. Given the difference in our economic levels, ours seems to be a good target. We have to see what impact this will have. It’s an ambitious goal, but it played well in the COP26 negotiations. China currently produces more than 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases, the United States produces 14% and India 7%. So there is a huge divide between India and China. India’s goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2070 is a rather ambitious figure, which has more political significance. Much can change between now and then: it’s vague, but the commitments made by other nations are also vague.
Will we be able to meet our renewable energy target by 2030?
So far our target for renewables has been pretty good. We have to do a lot more. India has pretty ambitious plans for solar and wind power.
What kind of investment will be needed to meet our renewable energy goals?
I don’t have a number, but when you consider technological advancements both have costs, but when we compare solar power to thermal power, it makes more sense to go for renewables. The economy favors renewable energy, so I don’t see why we can’t expand it. Look at the coal-based thermal energy sector. Many coal plants are over 20 years old and have efficiency levels below 30%. It is better to move towards a more favorable energy composition in the next ten years.
What mix of solar energy can we talk about in the Indian context?
The strong increase in capacity will come from solar power plants connected to the grid. Solar energy needs a lot of space. Rajasthan and Gujarat are making rapid progress in this area, but given our population, they too will have limited space in the future. Of course, so far, space has not become a major constraint. Much will depend on future technical developments. The technological challenge will be that for every megawatt of energy produced, less space will be used. A major challenge will be to provide electricity to remote areas. [Therefore,] it makes more sense to go for solar power on the roof and also for high capacity.
And the wind Power?
Wind capacity is more limited and has a lot more variability, so we have to make some balancing power available. In many places, hybrid solutions for integrating renewable energies with one another are being considered. I believe that in the future [India] will use hybrid solutions in the interim.
East green hydrogen ready for deployment?
Hydrogen energy is not as advanced, nor as proven as solar and wind power. Does hydrogen have the capacity to store energy, a battery that can provide predictable and reliable energy storage for six to eight hours? Work is underway in this area, but we are not there yet. To produce hydrogen, we need electricity, and for that, again, we will need to produce more renewable energy. We haven’t reached a point where we have a feasible alternative to fossil fuels. The transition will take longer.
Funding for less developed countries has been a vital issue COP26.
The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies will require the deployment of significant resources. Developing the technical capacities to accelerate such a change will also require huge investments. Complete elimination is therefore not realistic at present.
Is this why the Union Minister for the Environment Bhupender Yadav has not announced any phase-out of coal, but a phase-out?
The Indian minister made the announcement during the last session of the conference. China is the world’s largest producer of coal. China and the United States have adopted this language [âphasing downâ] in their November 10 agreement. China should have done it [the announcement]. Why would India have agreed to make this statement when the United States and China were responsible for it?
Why do you think this happened?
I was not there. I do not know why. In my mind, it was an error in judgment.
Will this switch to coal affect our economic growth?
Energy is not a major constraint. The economy is growing more slowly than expected. The kind of estimates that previously existed for energy use for 8% growth have not happened. We have a surplus of coal-based thermal energy and are currently supplying coal to Nepal and Bangladesh.
If our economic growth begins to accelerate, naturally our energy needs will increase. What balance do we need to maintain in renewable and cleaner energy sources? Should we opt for a large-scale increase in nuclear power?
The BJP government appears to have been silent on nuclear power.
Internationally, public opinion has turned against nuclear energy. Political support for nuclear power is much less today. The cost of nuclear power has also increased. In the wake of Fukushima, nuclear power plants must incorporate more safety features. The economics of nuclear energy have turned negative. We saw nuclear energy as one of the answers to the energy crisis. It is one of the cleanest sources of energy available. We have technicians available in this area. Work on none of our nuclear power plants is on hold and we are currently working with the United States, France and Russia.
The Prime Minister assured at the beginning of COP26 to end the use of coal, but the Indian team contradicted it in the closing session of the meeting. What does this imply?
The question is not of political will but what is the reality on the ground [and] what alternatives are available. US and Japanese companies have expressed interest in investments [in renewable energy]. China has also shown interest, but the current political situation is not very conducive to Chinese investment. Will the money fit the scale required? So far, FDI investment has not reached the scale to which it is needed.
India was not part of the pledge made by countries like Brazil and Indonesia to end deforestation by 2030.
Brazil later said the goal of ending deforestation by 2030 applied to illegal logging; this diminishes its commitment. With regard to India, some phraseologies had suggested measures to restrict forest products. We have a national mission for Green India, and the government says our forest cover is currently 24%, which they want to increase to 30%. I don’t think we are doing enough to protect our forests. The figures quoted by the government include scrub and fallow land, while the actual forest area is much less.
Look at the type of development going on. Take the Char Dham Highway project or the Dehradun Airport (Jolly Grant) extension, which will involve cutting a huge forest. Compensatory planting does not replace a forest that has existed for hundreds of years. It is worrying that forests are being cut in the northeast to make way for oil palm plantations, a monoculture. As they target the virgin forests of the northeast, the government’s position is that they are committed to expanding green coverage. It’s contradictory.
We did not participate in the methane initiative at COP26 neither.
This is a sensitive issue for India, as one of the sources of methane emissions is livestock and agriculture. This was once again a collaborative initiative between the United States and China that they [India] adopted. We should be more concerned about how global warming is causing the rapid loss of permafrost in Siberia, Greenland and Canada. Permafrost is organic matter frozen under ice. Large-scale smelting will lead to a massive increase in methane emissions, which will be much more dangerous than carbon emissions from coal.
Food insecurity is increasing due to heat stress. Economists calculate that if emissions go unchecked, 50 million more Indians will become poor by 2040. This is a major concern for us.
We cannot separate climate change from the development process. We need to focus on climate justice and climate equity. India should invest more in public transport than in private car ownership. The United States has 1,000 cars per 1,000 people. Europe has 750 cars per 1,000 inhabitants, while India has 38 per 1,000. If we allow the density of motorization to increase, there will not be enough room on the planet to accommodate these. figures. Even if we move to electric vehicles, where will the electricity for these vehicles come from? People need the right to mobility but don’t need the right to own a car. If we push this model of development, we will perpetuate large-scale inequalities, which is not compatible with a democratic society.
We need to rethink our economic model. We follow a model of intensive agricultural investment that requires hybrid seeds, lots of chemical fertilizers, high use of pesticides and large amounts of water. Fifty years later, this strategy has become destructive. Farmers exposed to chemical fertilizers face serious health consequences and have been bankrupted by high medical costs. These fertilizers also enter our food chain. Is this strategy still relevant today?
We need to move away from the previous model, which has a negative impact on climate change and diminishing returns, and follow a more sustainable agricultural model. We pit development against the environment. If we do not change this development model, we will be at an impasse.
(Rashme Sehgal is a freelance journalist.)