India, the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, formally joined the Paris agreement on tackling climate change on October 2. In a deal that US president Barack Obama said was carrying on the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and his belief “in a world worthy of our children,” Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s government promised to do its bit to tackle the biggest environmental issue of our age.
In some respects, the evidence certainly points to India taking its responsibilities seriously. Green investment is growing rapidly: attracted by the massive potential demand and impressed by the “fantastic” quality of wind and solar radiation, French company EDF has projects worth $2 billion in the pipeline in India. Similarly, Swiss power-electronics company ABB has installed a 600KW rooftop solar power array at its production facility in Vadodara.
These firms are not alone in seeing India as a prime growth market for renewable energy. India’s Minister of New & Renewable Energy, Piyush Goyal, recently told the parliament that India had attracted a cool $14 billion in renewable energy investments over the last three years. The country is not just supinely accepting renewable investments but is also doing its bit to stimulate the growth of the renewables industry. During the same period, the government provided around $1 billion in capital costs support for new renewable projects, as well as incentives for sustainable power generation.
The country is also taking an active role on the international sustainability scene. Along with Francois Hollande, Modi launched the International Solar Alliance to enable the “scaling up” of the deployment of solar energy in the sunny countries situated between the tropics. India has also signed up to participate in the Future Energy Expo taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan next year, where the Indian delegation plans to show off its homegrown green energy innovations. The three month long expo is expected to attract more than 100 countries and scores of international organizations.
New Delhi is no stranger to sustainability expos: for the past 10 years, the capital region has hosted the Renewable Energy India, which boasts of its status as Asia’s largest energy trade expo: more than a thousand delegates and 40 participating countries took part in September.
Despite this, the journey towards making sustainable energy India’s main source of power is nowhere near complete. One publication has suggested that the Modi government’s action on climate change owes more to ‘showmanship and symbolism’ than reality. Certainly, India is not always putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to renewables: after all, the country is still the third biggest polluter in the world. It is not just the ozone layer that is suffering, but the populace as well. Air pollution in India could be contributing to more than half a million premature deaths from conditions such as ischemic heart disease, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, stroke, and cancer each year.
This is unsurprising. A report by Greenpeace exploring fine particulate matter pollution around the world found that the citizens of New Delhi were exposed to around 128 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to Beijing’s 81 and Washington DC.’s 12. Those numbers should be closer to 10 micrograms per cubic meter, by the World Health Organization’s measure.
Despite this, India’s dirty energy production industry, especially coal, is still growing with aplomb. Greenpeace’s Energy Desk suggests that India’s government is intending to increase its coal generating capacity by 300 GW by 2030, with approximately 65 GW of new coal capacity already under construction, and another 178 GW of coal projects already in the permitting pipeline. India might have one foot in the renewable energy camp, but it is certainly not ready to completely relocate just yet. Ironically, many of these plants will remain idle due to huge overcapacity in the coal power sector. According to Jai Krishna, research consultant for Greenpeace India: “to continue building, at enormous expense, an additional 65GW of coal plants that will not be utilized, is shocking evidence of poor planning in the infrastructure sector.”
More poor planning can be observed in the fact that even while the country is making significant strides with regards to the use of renewable energy, as much as 20% of this is going to waste due to infrastructure not yet being geared towards wind and solar rather than fossil fuels.
India is at a crossroads. The government clearly knows that the ‘right’ and indeed sustainable thing to do is to focus its energies on renewables in order to reduce emissions, and yet the allure of more ‘dirty’ ways of fuelling the considerable appetite for energy remains undiminished.
In spite of these contradictory actions and promises, the appetite for “going green” is there, and the Indian government is willingly engaging on this issue internationally on a level far beyond even a few years ago. Modi and his ministers may not always make the right decisions, but renewable power is at the very minimum an undeniable component of their energy policy.
*Carrie Winters is a British environmental research officer currently residing in Singapore with extensive knowledge of the Southeast Asia region.