Is India serious about its climate goals?

Armin Rosencranz/ The Statesman |

There is no doubt that as the world’s third largest polluter, India needs to control its greenhouse gas emissions, but it needs to be asked whether India has really found a way to do so, or whether a shortsighted government that cannot see itself in power through 2030 might be using it as a ploy.

The Paris Agreement was adopted by 185 nations on 12 December 2015 and signed in New York on 22 April 2016 by 191 nations. Under its provisions the treaty comes into force on 4 November (today), thirty days after 5 October, when 55 countries contributing to 55 per cent of total global emissions had ratified the agreement. India will stand committed to this treaty to adhere to its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

The press release of Press Information Bureau  of 28 September states:

“While agreeing to ratify the Paris Agreement, the Cabinet has also decided that India will treat its national laws, its development agenda, availability of means of implementation, its assessment of global commitment to combating climate change, and predictable and affordable access to cleaner source of energy as the context in which the Agreement is being ratified.”

This commits Indian laws and India’s development agenda as “the context in which the Agreement has been ratified,” or, in other words, that Indian laws and its development goals will somehow be adapted to fit into this ratification. So far there isn’t any blueprint or even a roadmap for achieving this, and in fact, contradictory signals in the government’s domestic policies abound.

Approval after deliberation in both houses of Parliament would at least have engaged the issue in a debate with people’s representatives and brought the ruling party’s mission and policies up for discussion.  The short cut adopted will bind subsequent governments and unwitting future generations of voters without having any say in the matter. This government has been voted to power only for five years of which half the term is now over. The least that our statesmen could do was to debate this commitment in both houses of Parliament.

At last year’s Paris climate meeting, India committed two targets in its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, namely 33 to 35 per cent carbon intensity relative to its GDP, and 40 per cent fossil fuels in its total energy consumption by 2030. There is no target for reduction in actual or absolute emissions, only these, relative to the GDP and to the total energy consumption.  While India grows, therefore, there is much room between the lines for pollution to also grow. India has also committed to create a carbon sink of 2.5 million hectares to absorb pollution with greenery, but there is no commitment to actually reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal India Ltd increased its coal production from 450 million tonnes to 540 million tonnes last year, with firm plans to increase it to over 600 million tonnes this year and further to almost a billion tonnes by 2020. With another 500 million coming in from coal blocks re-allotted to private miners, this would triple India’s total coal output to 1.5 billion tonnes in 2020. Additional coal burning will inevitably increase India’s greenhouse gas and particulate carbon emissions.

In addition, Indian power plants continue to import a large amount of coal duty free on open general licence, estimated at 160 to 200 million tonnes last fiscal year.  So we are mining more coal, we continue to bring more coal to burn in our country, and we have no plans to limit the huge impact this will have on our emissions.

NTPC Limited, India’s largest power producer, generates 47 gigawatts (GW) of energy.  This includes merely 800 MW of hydro and 360 MW of solar.  NTPC has various projects under implementation at 23 locations across the country, to add 24 GW of thermal power capacity with an investment of Rs 1,60,000 Crore ($28 billion).

Four large Ultra Mega Thermal Power Plants are on the anvil and requests for proposals are being framed by the Ministry of Power. These and several private power producers have plants in the pipeline which will come up to supply the huge need for energy.  India should see at least a three-fold increase in its coal generated power by 2022.

Oil and gas are a similar story. India expects to grow at a fast clip and needs more energy, whatever the source. We have no intention of slowing down our fossil fuel use, and therefore no intention of curtailing our actual greenhouse gas and particulate carbon emissions.

The much hyped ramp-up of renewable energy from the present level of 45 GW to 175 GW by 2022 is not a commitment made at Paris. It is an internal target that has been showcased to reveal India’s renewable energy plans, but this pales into insignificance when India’s total energy output trebles to about 900 GW from the present level of 305 GW. Renewable energy capacity of 175 GW, even if achieved, would generate only a fraction of the nation’s total energy consumption.

No further firm plan beyond 2022 has been laid out so far. The biggest gap is how such a large commitment would be financed. With India’s meagre resources and lack of cutting edge technological capabilities, all equipment and know-how would need to be imported at huge cost.

Niti Aayog has declared that it will present its comprehensive fifteen-year energy policy soon, but intense bickering between ministries seems to be delaying it. There is no doubt that India needs more power to grow. But the impact of our increasing fossil fuel use will wreak havoc on the environment. The effects are showing up already in the air we breathe in our cities.

Evidence that India has played political dominoes lies in India’s internal coal and thermal power targets, which belie the country’s intentions to curb pollution.  It also lies in Prime Minister Modi’s interaction with David Letterman on 8 October  2016, quoted in the Economic Times of 28 October:

“If the world helps me technologically, provides us with the resources, I would be the first person to emphasise on switching from coal to cleaner sources of energy. Until I am able to do that, I will think of something else,” Modi said.

Stating that environment is a “collective” responsibility, the prime minister said, “In today’s world, no country can remain isolated. The entire world in inter-dependent.”

At earlier international climate meetings, India and other developing countries argued against paying royalties to developed country corporations for renewable energy technologies.  At the recent COP 21, however, these arguments were dropped. India accepted the draft agreement and signed up with an assurance that the developed nations would provide $100 billion to the developing nations and details of that would be worked out in 2020.  India has no means to buy technology without paying a huge price and $100 billion divided among the G77 nations is a very meagre sum.

Our leaders have agreed to sign without any firm commitment from developed nations about financing the switchover or waiving royalties.  Machinations behind the scenes were obvious and as the leader of the G77, India’s role was critical. While India’s commitments stand ratified now, it is hard to imagine where the funds would come from.

While China found its own way by developing its solar and wind manufacturing capabilities and then leading the world in the manufacture of renewable equipment, India has lagged far behind. As a result, China will have hardly any royalites to pay, while India and the G77 will import almost all they need, and pay, by some estimates, 30 per cent of their total costs towards royalties.

China has also actually reduced its thermal power production and its targets for mining coal and stands with the US and the EU in exhibiting a strong, steadfast and dynamic approach to cleaning the environment.

We can look at India’s accession to the Paris Agreement as a breach of national trust and a contradiction to India’s development agenda. We have no budget to meet the huge cost of dramatically switching from thermal to renewable energy. More foreign direct investment is being invited; but the costs of the transition, plus the royalties and profits of the multinational investors must eventually be borne by the citizenry in prices paid for renewable energy and taxes paid to subsidise it.

At the recent G20 summit at Hangzou, Niti Aayog Vice Chair Arvind Panagriya led the negotiations for India. It has been reported he insisted that India is not ready with domestic actions required to implement the Paris agreement and succeeded in removing some clauses to ratify the Paris agreement this year.

More flip-flops are evident. Minister Prakash Javadekar had stated just a week before that India would not be able to ratify the Paris agreement until early 2017 due to the schedules of the houses of parliament, and then suddenly it was taken up by the cabinet and approved, announced and sealed. Minister Javadekar held the Environment and Forests portfolio in 2015 and it was he who had negotiated the agreement at Paris.

Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Secretary S Jaishankar made similar statements in the month prior to ratification, along with former Secretary for Environment and Forests Sudipto Ghosh. The sudden ratification forced current Secretary for Environment and Forests Anil Dave to state that these must have been their personal views.

The gap between the flip and the flop appears to have been a maneuver, to gain some sort of a bargain from the outgoing US administration. The Obama administration already supports India’s efforts to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Now this ratification done in a hurry could help gain support for the surgical strikes against terror camps across the line of control, or to snub retaliation from Pakistan, or more.

Some horse trading might have gone on behind the scenes between the US and India in the run up to the COP 21 at Paris, and may be on now in the run up to COP 22 at Marrakesh. With India quiet on its earlier demands of technology transfer free of intellectual property costs or patent and royalty fees, as well as on the need for the west to fund the entire process of change for the developing nations, these could be raked up at Marrakesh. The game to seek favours for not raking these up might be going on right now.

Despite the Indian government’s populist stance and the support of a large majority in the nation, we must underline that the common man or woman may not realize the implications of these commitments and contradictory actions, and that these actions will be inherited by future governments and future generations.