The notion that ‘Cheap energy trumps clean energy’ has fueled Asia’s obsessive addiction to coal and other fossil fuels (CFF) and has become ingrained in the mindset of the people. The harsh reality is that many countries in Asia, especially least developed countries (LDCs) like Bangladesh continue to believe that CFF remains the cheapest source of energy and will continue to do so.
However, this belief is far from the truth in today’s day and age. CFF are limited resources and are fast depleting, hence their prices will steeply increase in the future. On the other hand, renewable energy (RE) is unlimited and due to rapidly evolving technology and global efforts, it is becoming increasingly affordable and accessible. Further, although CFF may look cheaper on paper, it is actually several times costlier than RE, once you take into account the cost of the negative externalities. As per a 2015 UN Report, natural disasters induced by climate change cost India 10 billion USD per year. “In the near future, RE will prove to be the most cost effective source of energy; which is why it makes sense to invest in it now,” opines Dr. Saleemul Haq, an award winning climate change scientist from Bangladesh.
While the world’s largest polluter, the US has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and reneged on its international commitments to reduce carbon emissions and has even reduced its contribution to the UN Climate Fund, developing countries (DCs) like India and China have emerged as regional leaders by doubling their efforts to combat climate change. Other Asian nations like Vietnam and Malaysia have also joined the RE revolution.
Although it is an arduous undertaking for these coal addicted nations, they have taken laudable measures to reduce carbon emissions and switch to RE. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, India has decided to halt further CFF extraction projects for energy requirements and instead; increase dependency on RE through concerted efforts in R&D and government policies. Due to these efforts, RE such as solar and wind energy is becoming increasingly affordable and accessible. Further, due to fiscal and tariff incentives provided by the Government, India has become a hub for foreign investment in RE. Among other measures, India has liberalized the RE sector in recent years to facilitate transfer of foreign technology to hasten the shift from dirty energy to RE.
Despite being crippled with numerous socio-economic problems in addition to population explosion, need for rapid industrialization and historical dependency on coal, India adopted the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) as early as 2008 to unilaterally reduce emission intensity although it did not have any commitments to reduce carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. The NAPCC, recognizing India’s need for development, adopted the sustainable development approach, i.e. envisaged measures that will aid in carbon mitigation as well as achieve other socio-economic objectives.
In 2016, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled against India in the solar dispute, thereby favoring the US. An analysis of the WTO’s ruling in light of impending climate change sends a clear message- in international trade, monetary interests trump climate change considerations. It is also apparent that in regulating international trade, the WTO can have an adverse environmental impact. Despite its crushing defeat in the WTO, India has emerged as a global leader in solar power.
Today, India boasts of some of the world’s largest solar plants which are located in the States of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Recently, India built the world’s first canal top solar power park in Gujarat which not only generates RE, but also saves land area (a scarce resource in an overpopulated country like India). India has built the world’s first fully solar powered international airport. Private sector participation in RE via public- private partnerships has also witnessed an upsurge as evidenced by Adani Group’s investment in the world’s largest single location solar plant in Tamil Nadu. Apart from grid solar power installations, India has transformed millions of lives by providing non-grid solar lamps throughout rural India.
Other non-conventional sources of renewable energy in India include ‘waste to energy’ which serves dual purposes. It reduces the quantity of solid wastes disposed (thereby mitigating environmental degradation) while simultaneously generating electricity. “Although it is costlier than solar/ wind energy, its dual efficiency makes it an attractive investment option” argues India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) while promoting R&D in this area to make it more affordable.
However, not all Asian nations are RE giants like India and China. Bangladesh, an LDC is still vastly dependent on CFF and is still undertaking environmentally fatal coal power plant projects to desperately push economic development.
Bangladesh has entered into a joint venture funded by Indian Exim Bank with Indian state owned energy companies-NTPC and BHEL to build a coal fired plant in Rampal, an area 14kms from the world’s largest mangrove forest delta and biodiversity hotspot- the Sunderbans (home to several endemic species of flora and fauna including the critically endangered Bengal Tiger). Since the Indian legal framework and judicial bodies will not allow India to build and operate a new coal plant in this ecologically sensitive area containing vast deposits of fossil fuels underground; India has decided to exploit Bangladesh’s economic weakness and lack of environmental regulations by jointly building it in the Bangladesh territory of Sunderbans. On the one hand, India attempts to overcome its CFF addiction and shift to RE, on the other hand, it aids and abets ecocide in its neighboring country; thereby negating its positive efforts.
What India has failed to grasp in this instance is the internationally recognized principle of transboundary damage. Sunderbans is a shared ecological resource between India and Bangladesh and the adverse transboundary effects of the power plant will not only harm Bangladesh but also West Bengal (India).
The multi-billion-dollar project is in its 7th year now and the protests of the local community have been suppressed by the selfish corporate interests and Bangladesh’s myopic vision of economic growth. The project has already cost local communities valuable agricultural land and fishing grounds and in addition to this, they have been undercompensated for their loss.
The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Report prepared by the Bangladesh Government is purposely flawed and fails to account for several negative externalities. The sensitive, complex and unique web of life that is Sunderbans faces destruction as it will be exposed to millions of hazardous, radioactive substances and environmental degradation on several fronts.
To go forward with this project would unnecessarily and irreparably damage a shared natural heritage and expose millions of poor, vulnerable local communities to the vagaries of climate change. Although, India is valiantly trying to establish itself as a global leader in fighting climate change, it owes a responsibility under international law to ensure that its activities do not cause harm to other countries.
India must not use Bangladesh territory as a polluting ground because climate change is a global issue and carbon emissions are not restricted within political territories but have transboundary impact. Instead, India must spur Bangladesh towards RE by sharing knowledge and technology.
DCs need to overcome their coal addiction in a phased yet time bound manner by implementing long term transition plans to move towards sustainable development. For instance, they should levy high taxes on CFF and use the funds thus generated to subsidize RE and make it more accessible.
In the context of measures to counter climate change, regional alliances among DCs assumes extreme importance. Lowering regional carbon emissions is much more important than lowering national carbon emissions. Regional leaders like India and China must not only strive to counter climate change within their own territories but must also encourage and assist regional countries to adopt similar measures.
International organizations like the WTO must be more empathetic towards climate change because although their primary aim may be to discipline global trade, it will become increasingly redundant if half the globe is under the sea.
*Srinivas Raman is a law student at National Law University Jodhpur (India).