India has a right to energy but does it need to fire more coal plants?

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India has made a commitment to a net-zero target by 2070 at COP26. It may be difficult to pull this off unless necessary steps are taken to shift from coal towards cleaner forms of energy. But, here lies our bind. India has contributed just 3% of cumulative global carbon emissions as opposed to 25% by the US. Since coal is the only fossil fuel we have in abundance, it becomes an easy weapon of resistance against this global climate injustice. Instead of using that weapon, we should channelise our energies in negotiating for monetary compensation and technology transfer from the global North. After all, we need to fight both climate injustice and climate crisis and not privilege one over the other. Five simple charts can explain why India can and should be doing so.

What is the nature of climate injustice and why we need to fight it?

“Those who are least responsible, bear the brunt of it,” said George Monbiot, a leading environmentalist on climate change, capturing the nature of this injustice succinctly. To understand this, we divide the world into four parts — G7 plus EU, South America, Asia, and Africa to construct a climate injustice funnel. If each region were emitting carbon equivalent to its share in the world population, the figure would look like same-size rectangular blocks stacked one over the other. However, if the region at the top emits a significantly larger amount than the ones below, the plot would look like a funnel. The value mentioned for each block in the chart is the climate inequality quotient (CIQ), which is the ratio of their share in emissions to that in world population, and any value greater than one means that region is emitting more than its share. The picture speaks for itself.

But ca

n developed countries fight climate crisis alone?

 

While historical emissions matter a great deal, current ones matter too. After all, nearly half the total carbon stock of nearly three centuries has been emitted in the last three decades alone. India is currently the third-highest and China the highest CO2 emitter in the world. To show the importance of India and other emerging economies in the fight against climate change, we do a simple exercise. We divide the biggest emitters (current as well as past) into two blocs — G7 plus the rest of the EU (developed) and BRICS (emerging). We present two scenarios in chart 2. Scenario 1 is the global emissions if BRICS countries implement their commitments to fight climate crisis while the advanced countries ‘free-ride’ by emitting in the business as usual (BAU) mode. Scenario 2 is the opposite, with the BRICS free-riding efforts of the advanced countries. These two scenarios are contrasted with what is required to meet the 2 degrees C consistent global target in 2030. In both cases, the targets are missed by a significant margin. Countries such as India, because of their tropical climate and high population density along the coast line, have much more to lose if the targets are missed. Only a joint effort can contain this catastrophe.

Will this fight against climate crisis come at the cost of India’s development?

Fortunately, there is no such trade-off, at least not anymore, and the reason is cheaper renewable energy (RE). In the past decade alone, the cost of electricity generation from renewable sources has fallen dramatically and in most instances is already less than that of fossil fuels. Even in the immediate sense, RE generates a lot of savings (in money, energy, and emissions). Furthermore, globally, frontier technologies are moving away from fossil fuels. If it sticks to fossil fuels, India will be stuck in the past. Instead, it could up its game in developing RE technology, especially since its resources are available in plenty in a tropical country.

The stability of RE sources is often questioned because of their variability and limitations in terms of large-scale storage. One, with the rapid development of advanced battery technology, the problem of storage is gradually getting addressed. Two, the electricity from REs can, by connecting it to the main power grid, complement what is generated from more stable sources instead of replacing them altogether. For any of this to work efficiently, people need to pay for electricity, especially that generated from fossil fuels. One way of ensuring this would be to price carbon while subsidising RE. This will help in the energy transition from the demand side and help sort financial viability concerns being faced by discoms currently.

Does an energy transition towards renewables mean job losses?

This is wrong for two reasons. One, for countries such as India, existing thermal power plants do not need to close down even in the sustainable development scenario. It just requires no new ones to be built. So, there is no job displacement on the anvil. Two, our research commissioned by Azim Premji University (available at https://tinyurl.com/vprnunp4) tells us that the green energy programme generates more than double the jobs as the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, the jobs in the RE sector favour rural areas, possibly employing relatively more women, in comparison to fossil fuels. Though this energy transition from coal to RE may lead to some regional variation in the distribution of jobs, with states such as Jharkhand and Bengal suffering more than the others, this can be countered by planning RE-based plants favouring those states which are affected most.

But how big a culprit is coal and why do we need to target it?

All energy sources, including renewables, lead to emissions, either in their usage or during the production process. But coal is the dirtiest. Chart 5 presents a comprehensive picture of greenhouse gas emissions from different energy sources. These are not just emissions from use but are termed life-cycle emissions, which are generated in the production of components of that technology or the disposal of waste in the process of production and consumption. While all fossil fuels have high emissions, coal comes right on the top, so a fight against climate crisis will also have to be against coal.

But how big a culprit is coal and why do we need to target it?

All energy sources, including renewables, lead to emissions, either in their usage or during the production process. But coal is the dirtiest. Chart 5 presents a comprehensive picture of greenhouse gas emissions from different energy sources. These are not just emissions from use but are termed life-cycle emissions, which are generated in the production of components of that technology or the disposal of waste in the process of production and consumption. While all fossil fuels have high emissions, coal comes right on the top, so a fight against climate crisis will also have to be against coal.

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The political strategy of ‘pehle aap’ (you go first) by both the advanced countries and the emerging market economies is not helping, especially when the time is running out. While the North needs to phase oil and coal out, we need to phase coal down.

Rohit Azad is an assistant professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Shouvik Chakraborty is an assistant research professor at the Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst .

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