Millennium Post

Paris climate conference offers India chance at redemption

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) meeting to be held in Paris (COP-21) in December 2015 is expected to establish a new international agreement on climate change. The main bone of contention lies in the differentiation and sharing of the remaining carbon space in order to avoid catastrophic warming. China and the US, which are the world’s largest CO2 emitters, have recently announced an agreement to restrict emissions by 2030.

What could be India’s strategy in the Paris negotiations? Most recent discussions on the subject appear to assume that India’s development aspirations go hand in hand with increasing carbon emissions.

Development aspirations
In a recent study, we (at Bengaluru’s Centre for Study of Science Technology and Policy - CSTEP) have framed the question differently. We have assumed that the overall vision of the country is “sustainable development”. Can we achieve our vision of providing equitable access to energy, clean air and water, food, health and livelihoods, while expanding the economy? We further assume that there are no restrictions on CO2 emissions in achieving our developmental aspirations. In the initial analysis towards such a long-term study, we have used inclusivity, energy security, efficiency, and health as the cornerstones of a future energy policy.

Inclusivity means that all rural and urban households would have access to modern energy sources and electricity. In addition, there should be a minimum threshold supply to all households.

Energy security implies that our energy system should not be vulnerable to potential disruptions in fuel supply due to geopolitical reasons. At present, India imports most of its oil and we may not have any significant alternatives in the near future. Moreover, even our electricity production is increasingly dependent on imported fuel as imports of coal, uranium and natural gas are increasing continuously.

The price of imported coal is volatile and at least two to three times more than that of domestic coal. The government has recently announced plans to double coal production capacity to 1,000 million tonnes by 2020. Our estimates suggest that even this will not be sufficient to meet our power sector’s demand by 2030 if it stays as coal-heavy as it has been so far. While it may not be possible to eliminate imports, it would be prudent to keep imports within limits.

In our scramble for energy generation, we tend to underestimate the health impact of pollutants emitted from thermal power plants, vehicles and biomass. Thermal power generation, from coal in particular, leads to emissions of particulate matter (PM), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). At present, India has standards for regulating PM emissions. However, there are no regulations for SO2 and NOx. In the absence of future regulations, emissions of these pollutants are set to increase by at least three-to-four fold by 2030 - and this will have disastrous effects on urban and rural air quality. Sooner or later, we will have to impose stricter regulations for emissions from thermal power plants and motor vehicles. We cannot afford to go China’s way in air quality.

Benefits of Developing Sustainably
CSTEP has developed future energy trajectories that show that if we want to achieve the four cornerstone policy objectives mentioned above, 40-50 percent of our electricity generation would have to come from fossil-free sources by 2030. For comparison, at present, about 23 percent of our electricity comes from fossil-free sources. Further, the share of renewable sources, excluding large hydro projects, will increase to about 20 percent in 2030 from about six percent at present.

Similarly, for the energy sector as a whole, about 13-15 percent of the total energy would have to come from fossil-free sources (excluding non-commercial biomass), as against four percent at present. The economy becomes much more efficient and it requires lower energy to make one unit of GDP.

Interestingly, the pathways that achieve these societal objectives also turn out to generate lower CO2 emissions. It is important to realise that these transformations happen without imposing any restrictions on CO2 emissions. Instead, these are driven by the aspirations of inclusivity, energy security, cleaner air, and a shift to sustainable development.

India’s Position: A Unique Opportunity
India, therefore, has the opportunity to carve a unique developmental trajectory that ensures quality of life to its citizens without locking itself into a high-emissions pathway. The question is not whether India should target its per capita CO2 emissions to be comparable with those of China or the US. Instead, we should ask what India should do to achieve a sustainable and good quality of life for all its citizens. This could serve as an alternative development paradigm for other developing countries as well. And this could be India’s distinctive contribution at COP-21.
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