India needs a strong narrative to push its SDGs in areas of climate change and energy
India was probably right when, a few years ago, it made a statement on foreign aid by closing down most of the bilateral aid programmes in the country. It is right in arguing that the developing world, including India, needs to be compensated for the developmental opportunities lost on account of excessive consumption by the now developed world. However, the developed world is unfortunately unwilling to accept this argument – especially in the context of rapidly emerging economies. As such, faced with necessarily ambitious goals on both climate change and sustainable development, and staring at huge growth needs of a young aspiring population, India largely has to chart its own sustainable development pathway.
The climate change challenge requires us to, sooner or later but within this century, move to a net zero carbon emission level. The more we lock ourselves in to a carbon intensive pathway, the more difficult it would be to transit out. As such, while we have made our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) going up to 2030, under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, it is important that such commitments are aligned to a long term vision going up to the end of the century. Such a long term vision would not only have to define and estimate the impacts of actions on the energy front, but would also have to delineate a clear vision for creating carbon sinks, and visualise the structure of the Indian economy and its infrastructure such that the demand for services by the Indian population are met.
At the same time, India has also ratified the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which defines the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) for the world. While achieving our obligations under both these agreements would require transformative changes in all aspects of life as we have known it, the major common focus area between these two global agreements is around energy and its use. While the Paris Agreement calls upon us to move to cleaner, more efficient energy consumption, the Agenda 2030 agreement requires us to also make energy accessible to all. Given our low levels of energy access and high poverty, the conundrum that we face is to see how we achieve both sets of goals.
The Government of India has announced an ambitious programme for renewable energy expansion and for reducing India’s energy intensity. Driven by the promise of policy support that this announcement held, but supported largely by falling international prices, the growth in committed solar capacity has been impressive. But this growth has to continue. While celebrating the steep fall in utility scale solar energy prices, discovered through the reverse bidding processes adopted by India, we need to recognise the new challenges that are threatening to derail this progress. These include the re-negotiation of existing bids/contracts, the inability to reach financial closures due to a lack of confidence in financial institutions, among others. The policy corrections needed to address the above challenges do take place, sooner or later. However, the frequency of corrections needed and the delays in such corrective responses are costing the private sector in terms of the confidence in the sector, the ability to achieve financial closures and, therefore, their own viability. Additionally, beating down the price of renewable energy (wind energy prices too have declined sharply) cannot be the one silver bullet that will ensure the sustainable growth of renewable energy. Stable purchase obligations, facilitating net-metering, tariff support and other such mechanisms would need to be applied for some time till the sector achieves full maturity.
Renewable energy can also be a game changer in the rural energy situation in India. With all the definitional vagaries about rural electrification, we still have more than 200 million people without access to electricity in their homes. And maybe three times that number using traditional biomass fuels in traditional cook stoves. While we have run many experiments on rural electrification and on improved cook stoves over decades, the successes have been marginal albeit with a huge learning value. The technological progresses now made — integrating IT solutions with energy solutions – opens up a new range of opportunities to meet the rural energy challenge in India. But a concerted effort in this direction requiring an encouragement of markets and market actors, facilitating financial flows and creating a knowledge platform is still not clearly visible.
Having said that, amongst the various measures to reduce India’s carbon footprint, the large scale introduction of renewable energy is possibly the easiest as this lies largely in the domain of government policies. However, goals related to reducing India’s energy intensity and emissions intensity will require the full-scale participation of multiple stakeholders – industry, the services sector, utilities and consumers at large. For bringing about a change in the behaviour of these diverse and dispersed stakeholders, the government has limited policy tools available to them. Historical experience with bringing about energy efficiency improvements have revealed the many barriers to success: Access to technologies/knowledge, opportunity value of capital, capabilities, etc.
The importance of taking a systemic approach to each of the SDG goals has also been highlighted within the Agenda 2030 document, which goes as far as to say that all SDGs “are integrated and indivisible and balance the three pillars of sustainable development…”. These inter-linkages between the SDGs are recognised when we speak of the Food-energy-water nexus or the nexus between energy and health or energy and education etc. But, we are not organised administratively to exploit these inter-linked opportunities. The allocation of business rules and financial resources disempower government functionaries from taking an integrated approach to sustainable development – not to speak about the challenges of translating national policies to local action! If India wants to achieve its Paris Agreement and SDGs commitments, it would need to first and foremost, transform thinking at the highest levels. As Prime Minister Modi stated “The transformation of India cannot happen without a transformation of governance” and “A transformation of Governance cannot happen without a transformation of mindsets”.
(The author is Vice Chancellor, TERI School of Advanced Studies)