India’s Tryst with COP21: Deal gets the green light but can we put if off?

October 2016 started off with a bang or a few at least. A few days before, the first of three no-holds-barred US Presidential debates were held, Indian news anchors were busy donning military gear and declaring war on Pakistan (and on anyone who harboured a different opinion) and Kim Kardashian got robbed in Paris. Amidst the incredulous spectacle unfolding, an important scrap of news went relatively unnoticed. One that has far more planet changing consequences. On the birthday of the Mahatma, India ratified the COP21 Paris climate change agreement.

The COP or the Conference of Parties which was the 21st of its kind was held in Paris in December 2015. It aims to unite rich and poor nations to cut back on carbon emissions and to ensure global temperatures do not increase by another 2°C. The Paris agreement required at least 55 Parties to the Convention who accounted for an estimated 55 % of the total global greenhouse gas emissions to ratify. On 5th October, 77 countries deposited their acceptance and ratifications which mean the Paris Agreement will come into effect 30 days later on 4th November 2016.

Two degrees of separation

According to NASA Earth Observatory, the planet has been getting warmer at a faster rate since the industrial revolution. Since 1880, the average global temperature has increased by 0.8°C. Of which an increase of 0.53°C has occurred since the last 40 years.

A 2°C increase in global temperatures may not sound scary due to the human mind localizing the concept. A 2°C increase in a room measuring 500 sq.ft may be described as mildly uncomfortable, but a similar warming over an area of 500 million sq.kms  teeming with oceans, different weather patterns, and diverse ecosystems is catastrophic, to say the least. The impact ranges from ecological damage, decreased food production, coastal flooding, unpredictable weather all of which has dire economic and political repercussions.

Switching gears

Indian PM Modi at the COP21 Paris Summit

Indian PM Modi at the COP21 Paris Summit

At the summit, India indicated a shift in its policies. Traditionally viewed in a negative light at climate change forums due to a deeply flawed narrative of “hindering” reforms, the country had maintained that its emission footprint was minuscule compared to industrialized nations and should share a proportional burden putting the onus on the US and EU. Speaking at the COP21, Narendra Modi said, “‘Climate change is not of our making. It is the result of global warming that came from an industrial age powered by fossil fuel. Yet, we face its consequences today, and that is why the outcome in Paris is so important, and we are here today.”

He went on to outline an ambitious plan for the future of energy in the country. While renewable energy contributes to around 13% of the total installed capacity of 272.5 GW as of September 2016, the state plans to derive 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuels by 2030.

Wait, but how?

However, the question is whether this goal is achievable or just another Indian rope trick.

Below is the data for installed capacities of renewables from 2013-16.

Source: Ministry of New and Renewable Energy

Source: Ministry of New and Renewable Energy

According to the plan, India plans to generate 175 GW from renewables by 2022, of which 100 GW is to be derived from solar. Though the lack of financing can easily derail the plan. The country’s power minister Piyush Goyal in reply to a question posed by a Rajya Sabha member stated that the overall investment required to meet the 2022 target would be Rs 6 lakh crores for solar alone whereas the budget allocation for solar energy the previous fiscal was Rs 2,708 crore ( a mere 0.45% of the actual requirement). On average, India would have  to spend nearly Rs 1 lakh crore per year which is almost half of the defence budget for the next six years to meet this target.

Investments are just one-half of the story. The country hasn’t been fully electrified, and rural households still do not have access to cleaner fuels for cooking relying on traditional biomass. The downstream distribution is still highly inefficient, and the country is plagued with state distributors reeling under massive debt. Despite having policies and regulations in place, there is a strong need for consolidation to ensure execution of policy targets. Enforcing renewable purchase obligations (RPO) remains a distant reality. Simply put, RPOs mandate state discoms and captive power producers to meet a part of their requirement through clean energy sources. If they fail to do so, they can purchase renewable energy certificates (REC) with each certificate representing 1 MW-hour of power from a clean power source. These certificates are also traded on power exchanges as well but hardly done.

While the globally the emphasis is to reduce energy demand, the same cannot be practical for India. With a growing demographic and economic expansion, the country’s energy needs will soar new heights. While India cannot abandon fossil fuels altogether for the foreseeable future, better technology can increase efficiency and cut emissions in existing power plants. With India’s heavy reliance on coal due to vast reserves in the country, the spotlight should be on cleaner coal technologies.

Why we should be concerned

Climate change is not a distant apocalypse waiting to happen. It has already been taking place over the past few decades, and the country has been witnessing its impact with unpredictable rainfall, cyclones, and droughts. The World Bank went a step further and commissioned a study to find out the impact of what a 2°C warming would have on India. The results are not pretty.

  • India’s northwest coast to the southeastern coastal region could see higher than average rainfall.
  • Droughts are expected to be more frequent especially in north-western India, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh.
  • 60% of Indian agriculture relies on groundwater and even without climate change 15% of groundwater resources are overexploited. Change in rainfall will aggravate this further.
  • Melting glaciers in the Himalayas can alter the flow of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra which will impact irrigation, agriculture and ultimately the livelihoods of people.
  • Extremely high temperatures in northern India (above 34°C) – have had an adverse effect on wheat yields. Rising temperatures would further reduce yields and lead to extensive use of fertilizers which changes the soil composition.
  • Mumbai and Kolkata are particularly vulnerable to riverine, coastal flooding and tropical cyclones. Much of Mumbai is reclaimed land with elevations of 10m -15m above sea level, especially the business district.
  • Vector-borne diseases like Malaria and diarrheal infections will increase as the climate gets warmer. Heat waves have already registered a substantial rise in mortality.
  • South Asia is conflict prone and has witnessed massive migrations due to economic and geopolitical reasons. Indus, Ganges, and the Brahmaputra are major trans-boundary rivers and any change in water levels can lead to tensions among countries over water sharing.

Any progress in combating climate change requires a strong political mandate and public awareness. Unlike the US, where climate change skeptics derail important legislations, Indian politicians and policy makers are aware of the grave dangers posed by climate change. What we need is a bottom-up approach in planning and implementation to the biggest challenge our species has ever faced.

Nitish Thomas


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