Krishnan Pallassana: Balance growth with climate consequences

Reading time: 6 minutes
24 April 2015

Krishnan Pallassana, India Director, The Climate Group, writes about India's great potential for energy efficiency to sustain social development and curb CO2 emissions.

As an ideal preface to India’s contribution to the COP21 climate talks in Paris this December, in his latest statement Prime Minister Modi clearly reiterated the country’s ambition. During an event in Germany this month he said: “if the problem of climate change were not addressed now, it would hurt for generations to come”.

I couldn’t agree more. Emerging economies like ours must learn from the past mistakes of developed countries, and in realizing this lies the greatest opportunity to lead and show the way.

India is among the top five countries in the world for energy consumption and generation, which is part of the reason the government has moved ahead with driving clean and renewable energy, aiming to generate 175 gigawatt (GW) of electricity from it.

India is already enacting a series of measures, both overt and covert, to demonstrate that it means business.

In particular, the recent high-level panel on power sector reforms, India’s ambitious actions to tap renewables’ potential, new independent research to assess emissions trajectory, the much-anticipated renewable energy act, and the upcoming investors forum on renewable energy - all point to serious and concerted efforts by the Modi government to usher in a new sense of direction and purpose for a cleaner India.

I trust Narendra Modi will seize the opportunity to keep the momentum going ahead of COP21.

An aspiring nation like India will naturally peak carbon emissions. But the argument for doing so should not be based on ‘our right to pollute’ because others have done so in the past. It should be based on sound assumptions around enhanced energy efficiency.

For an aspirational society, economic growth must be translated into equitable national growth. For this to happen, the estimated 300 million Indians earning less than a dollar a day must see the standards of their lives significantly improve. Double that number of people must move a step higher up the social and economic ladder. This calls for massive development investments - be it infrastructure, energy or facilities - so we can sustain such opportunities for all.

But here comes the dilemma. On one hand, we cannot ignore the right to the development of millions. On the other, exercising such rights under a linear economic track will have a detrimental impact on the environment at large.

Are those scientists, activists and environmentalists myopic when it comes to the development aspirations of millions of people? Are the professionals and optimists misplaced in their notions and claims that development can happen without doing much harm to the climate?

So, where will this energy come from? How can the government address the demand and supply equation while keeping risk factors minimal? Can renewables offer a dependable solution to meet the peaks and lows of demand, as well as cater to spikes without pushing the economy into despair?

If the country continues to grow at current levels over the next six years, its electricity demand will be at least twice the current installed capacity. And if people move forward along the social and economic ladder with increasing consumption, the requirements will be even higher.

The renewable energy potential in India has been estimated at close to 300 GW. This means that even if India utilizes 100% of its renewables potential, it will still need to find a way of meeting the huge energy gap, either by conventional fossil burning or through nuclear power.

While we continue to promote renewables, modernizing existing power plants and making them globally competent should be accorded highest priority. That will help the country move away from dependence on coal-powered electricity generation. Pushing for efficiency in productive energy at all levels should be made mandatory.

India’s current thermal power generation plants emit 540 million tons of CO2 every year. This is equivalent to 820 kg of CO2 per megawatt/hour of energy produced. Compare this against a global average 550 kg of emissions by efficient thermal power plants. This means that for the same quantity of energy produced, India emits nearly 60% more toxic gases than the desired levels.

While India remains one of the least carbon-intensive economies with a per capita emission of one-fourth of the global average, it is one of the most carbon-inefficient economies.

A clear picture emerges here. Naturally, the issue is not about a need for generation, it is more about the technique of generation. If the current thermal power plants start producing energy at higher efficiency standards, there will be a huge drop in CO2 emissions. Investing in revamping and tidying up the existing transmission and distribution systems in India will further boost efficiency levels.

And this is only touching on the power sector. But if India manages to control inefficiencies in transport, infrastructure and manufacturing industries too, it will herald a new future.

A combination of tough internal emission targets and increased investments in vulnerability reduction and adaptation, will pave the way for a prosperous low carbon journey for India.

It is a question of cutting and polishing the edges of that rough, dust-covered diamond called India. Spiralling costs of energy inefficiency must be immediately curbed. With ample resources and required manpower, all we need is a firm vision. A planned transition to a low carbon future will boost growth, create new jobs and usher a new wave of clean energy-centric social and economic development.

The time is ripe. The leadership is in place. The willingness is there. And the demand is clear. So let’s just do it.

By Krishnan Pallassana

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