BY TILAK K DOSHI:

As the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came to an end last week, India became something of a whipping boy in the mass media, accused of being the “last-minute spoiler” by forcing the summit communique to water down language on “phasing out” coal to merely “phasing down.” It also earned notoriety by demanding $1 trillion of public cash for itself before the end of the decade, to be put up by the wealthy countries if they want India to steeply cut emissions in order to avoid the “climate crisis.” Let’s put some context to the hyperbole that has marked much of the popular press coverage as the summit wound down.

Net Zero by 2070

In early 2021, speculation abounded in the Indian media about the government’s plans for a net-zero goal. One report indicated 2047 – the centenary of India’s independence from British colonial rule – as a possible target. With China announcing a net-zero target of 2060, and other large emitters such as the EU, U.S., Japan, and South Korea having made their net-zero-by-2050 pledges, India saw a slow but steady ratcheting of diplomatic pressure to announce a net-zero target in the months leading up to the global climate summit in Glasgow.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry visited India twice in 2021, in April and September. Kerry’s visits focused on raising climate ambitions ahead of COP26. He proposed collaboration on a 2030 agenda for clean and green technologies and met ministers, policymakers, and business and civil society leaders. During his interactions, Kerry tried to pressure India to agree to a net-zero-by-2050 target. In September, Kerry attended the launch of the U.S.–India Climate Action and Finance Mobilization Dialogue as part of the U.S.–India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership, announced by President Biden and Prime Minister Modi during the Leaders’ Summit on Climate 2021. During his visit, Kerry continued to attempt to raise climate ambitions ahead of COP26.

COP26 president Alok Sharma had also visited India for discussions with ministry, industry, and civil society leaders in August 2021. During Modi’s visit to Washington in late September 2021, the White House released a joint statement of the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (called “the Quad”), discussing the aim of achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050.

Just before the start of COP26, India’s environment secretary R.P. Gupta rejected calls for his country to announce a net-zero carbon emissions target. “It is how much carbon you are going to put in the atmosphere before reaching net-zero that is more important,” he said. Earlier, at an April meeting organized by the International Energy Agency to discuss climate ambitions, India’s power minister Raj Kumar Singh called the “net zero by 2050” mantra pushed by the EU and the U.S. “pie in the sky . . . you have 800 million people who don’t have access to electricity. You can’t say that they have to go to net zero, they have the right to develop, they want to build skyscrapers and have a higher standard of living, you can’t stop it.”

However, at the COP26 Summit, Modi surprisingly pledged to cut India’s emissions to net zero by 2070. The pledge was one of five that he made, which included a promise for India to get 50% of its energy from renewable resources by 2030, reduce its total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tons from 2021 till 2030, build 500 GW of non-fossil electricity capacity by 2030, and reduce emissions intensity of  GDP by 45% by 2030.

The mixed international media response to Modi’s net-zero-by-2070 announcement is instructive. Some in the press were scathing, pointing out that the target was two decades behind the 2050 commitments made by the EU, UK, U.S., and Asian OECD members Japan and South Korea, and a decade behind China’s 2060 target. Others found it promising that even recalcitrant India wanted to commit to a net zero target.

To hard-bitten observers of realpolitik in international negotiations, inured to long-term promises by politicians in office (elected or otherwise), the response might well be that “if you can believe that China will be net zero by 2060, then you can believe India will be so by 2070.” In any credible long-term scenario, developing-country governments face the imperative of meeting the aspirations of their citizens to climb out of poverty and deprivation and ascend into the comparative Valhalla of middle-class comfort. India, like China, is decades away from peaking in terms of its emissions, or – what amounts to much the same thing – its use of fossil fuels.

The Limits of Renewable Energy

India’s non-fossil-fuel-installed power-generating capacity (excluding nuclear energy) currently stands at 38.3%, consisting of 149.56 GW of hydro, wind, solar, and other renewable resources. India’s fossil fuel capacity is 234 GW. The country’s target of 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030 was considered easily achievable, with several ministers and industry bodies making confident assessments. However, as renewable energy (primarily solar and wind) is gradually being increased in India’s stretched and under-capitalized electricity grid, challenges have emerged. The scale-up of renewable across the country coupled with the inherent nature of intermittent supply (as a function of weather) has meant that supply curtailment – a purposeful reduction in electricity output below the levels that could otherwise have been produced – to ensure grid stability has been increasingly common.

A study conducted by Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) projected that the grid would have to curtail up to 50% of solar generation in 2030 with 450 GW renewable energy to keep the grid stable. With 500 GW of non-fossil energy, including nuclear and hydro power, being envisaged by 2030, the costs of integrating intermittent solar power would be even higher. The massive costs of integrating unreliable, weather-dependent power into existing grids have already been made apparent in countries or U.S. states that have gone furthest in adopting renewable – such as Germany and California. California’s situation increasingly resembles that of developing countries, with frequent blackouts; it would be ironic if India – no stranger to erratic electricity and blackouts itself, given its creaky, capital-starved power infrastructure – adopted policies leading to more such power shortages.

Indian renewable energy output and generation capacity has been increasing impressively at an annual growth rate of 18% and 22%, respectively, but this growth comes on a very small base. Meeting the 500 GW non-fossil-fuel target may seem to be within the realm of possibility. But given the current near-bankrupt status of many, if not most, state power utilities, the imposition of intermittent power may well prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back of India’s power sector.

Increased dependence on renewable energy, as promised by India’s “nationally-determined contributions” to COP26, would only add to the burdens that have long afflicted the country’s power-distribution companies. These include multiple constraints on cash flow, such as political compulsion to subsidize power (making it “free”) for favored constituencies such as farmers, labor unions’ ability to block privatization, the inability to hike tariffs to reflect input cost increases, and theft and line losses aggravated by poorly maintained infrastructure.  Reflecting these weaknesses of India’s power utilities, renewable-energy developers are currently facing issues of grid access and congestion, land availability, delayed payments for their generation, supply chain issues, and reduced investor confidence.

We Want Real Electricity!

Perhaps the question about what India’s promise to get to net zero by 2070 really means can be answered by a real-life parable from one of India’s multitudinous villages – the village of Dharnai, in the state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. The village lacked access to the country’s electricity grid. In 2014, to much fanfare, Greenpeace activists set up a solar-powered microgrid for the village. Problems emerged almost immediately with the load put on the village solar “grid,” as households began hooking up appliances such as television sets, electric water heaters, irons, and air conditioners. On the day of inauguration of the solar power system in the village, its inhabitants protested with banners saying, “we want real electricity, not fake electricity.” As a reporter explained: “By ‘real,’ they meant power from the central grid, generated mostly using coal. By ‘fake,’ they meant solar.” In a wonderful irony, embarrassed VIPs present for the gala opening of the Greenpeace-promoted solar showpiece ensured that the village was soon connected to the coal-fired power grid.

Having grown up in the small town of Vadnagar in northern Gujarat, the son of a street merchant who struggled to support his family, Prime Minister Modi is well aware of the struggles of the poor to uplift themselves. While visiting Glasgow for COP26, surrounded by the glitz and glamour of the world’s plutocrats – all flying in on fossil-fuel-guzzling private jets to “fight climate change” – the politically savvy prime minister will almost certainly have had the energy needs of villages such as Dharnai, and so many others like it, in the back of his mind.

Tilak K. Doshi is an energy economist, and author of “Singapore in a Post-Kyoto World: Energy, Environment and the Economy.”  This article originally appeared at Real Clear Energy.

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