This is a truly historic moment. India has cast itself in the mould of a responsible player – and that we can be proud of. A rough-hewn path has been laid towards a more secure future for the planet. India must now walk that path.
The Paris Agreement brings countries together in the common cause of responding to climate change and keep the global temperature rise in this century below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
India has outlined its commitments towards this. By 2030, India has said, at least 40% of its power will come from non-fossil sources. Its emissions intensity will reduce by 30-35% below 2005 levels. And it will install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2022.
These are ambitious but vital targets to do our bit to stem climate change. With political will and determination, and the active participation of an enlightened population, there is no reason why we cannot reach or even surpass them.
India, in its ambitious journey towards growth, has the right to ensure development for all citizens, to seek a consistent Gross Domestic Product growth rate of 8%, or to aim to provide electricity by 2030 to the 300 million who currently do not have it. What begs scrutiny is the energy roadmap for getting there.
As India's new energy policy, set to be ready in November, takes shape and numbers are crunched, we have a wonderful opportunity to steer the nation away from emissions-intensive practices of the past. Yes, this will pose challenges – of finance and limitations in technology related to grid integration and storage.
However, given an enabling environment, unexpected breakthroughs in renewable energy technologies are coming our way and rapidly becoming the norm. It will be a balancing act, but one that could inspire the rest of the world
Challenges in India's path
The first roadblock in India's path towards adopting an environmentally friendly energy policy to combat climate change is its heavy reliance on coal.
Coal remains the mainstay of energy production in India, with the country consistently adding coal power capacity year on year. Today, India has 186 gigawatts of operational coal power plants, and an additional 65 gigawatts of plants are under construction.
However, the current industry-wide Plant Load Factor (the actual output of a plant versus the output it can produce) is at a low of 62%. This means that a significant proportion of the country's coal power capacity remains unused, owing to a number of factors – demand for electricity not matching projections, sick distribution companies struggling to purchase and distribute power and challenges regarding coal supply, among others.
The country, therefore, presents the paradox of being both energy hungry and having an overcapacity of power production. Greenpeace India’s report on this overcapacity, released on September 30, shows that by 2022, assuming that the additional 65 gigawatts of plants under construction also start production, around 62 gigawatts of coal power plant capacity will lie idle. Good luck to the investors.
If this is not bad enough, the development of another 178 gigawatts of coal power is in the pipeline. A fuel that is directly linked to high emissions, air pollution, and deforestation, seems set to stay firmly on the government’s energy roadmap, despite evidence pointing to its poor economic and environmental sense, and despite its potential to derail our commitment to the Paris Agreement.
Power Minister Piyush Goyal has blamed the earlier Planning Commission for setting inaccurate targets for power generation. Those mistakes, he said, led to irrational investments by companies in power generation. He deserves credit for recognising the problem – it would be great if he could now do things differently.
Walking the talk
The Paris Agreement must push us towards bringing about that change. Countries have time till 2020 to have in place rules and regulations to implement the agreement.
India could begin by reviewing what’s in the energy pipeline and putting a stop to needless expansion of coal capacity.
India did the right thing by ratifying the Paris Agreement. Now, it must do everything it takes to meet its legally-binding commitment.
The bottom line is that India must reduce its emissions intensity, and this cannot come with fine rhetoric and wishful thinking. We must decisively switch to clean energy sources and technologies – no fudging, no excuses.
Arguments that lead us away from the bottom line are at best disingenuous and politically motivated, at worst suicidal. Our real responsibility now lies in shaping a new energy policy for India that turns the Paris Agreement dream into reality.
The author is a member of Greenpeace India's communications team.