Targeting the sun?

Not only has India signed the Paris Agreement, but in 2015, during the meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Conference of the Parties (COP21), Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a point to be part of the solution (and not part of the problem as was the case – according to some observers – in previous COPs). Just before the COP21 began, together with President François Hollande, he launched the International Solar Alliance (ISA), designed to help countries located in the intertropical zone to access solar energy technology more easily. The ISA is headquartered in India.

Just before the Paris meeting, India had submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), under which it had pledged to improve the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% below 2005 levels, by 2030. It has also committed itself to increasing the share of non-fossil fuel-based electricity to 40% by 2030 and to create a cumulative carbon sink, by enhancing its forest cover in order to absorb 2.5-3 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2030.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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India’s objectives remain the same today. The strategy to achieve the first two relies primarily on the development of renewable energy. (Incidentally, India has had a Ministry of New and Renewable Energy since 1992). Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reiterated recently that India was aiming for 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity by the year 2022 and 450 GW by 2030. Today, renewable energy accounts for about 90 GW of the total installed capacity – 369 GW.

The Indian government wants to use its 7,500 km-long coastal area to develop offshore wind energy. The objective is to reach a 30 GW large capacity by 2030. However, solar energy remains the priority, given the fact that India’s potential, with 300 sunny days a year, is huge. In 2015, India’s target was to achieve a 100 GW solar capacity by 2022. Since then, 42 solar parks have been opened to make land available for solar plants – aided by the fact that India has the lowest capital per MW of installing solar plants in the world. In July 2020, the installed capacity has reached 35.12 GW.

The impact of these policies is obvious in the graph below which shows that solar energy output rose by over a quarter while wind energy generation rose by 5%. The contribution of solar and wind energy to Indiaʼs overall energy generation rose to 8.8%, more than double their share of 3.6% in 2015.

The impact of these policies is obvious in the graph below which shows that solar energy output rose by over a quarter while wind energy generation rose by 5%. The contribution of solar and wind energy to Indiaʼs overall energy generation rose to 8.8%, more than double their share of 3.6% in 2015.

As for its forest cover objective, in July 2016 India enacted the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, allocating $6.2 billion for the expansion of India’s forest cover from 21.34 percent to 33 percent by 2030. Five years later, 25% of India's total land area is officially under forest and tree cover. According to the India State of Forest Report (ISFR 2019) released by the environment minister Prakash Javadekar on December 30, 2019, the total forest and tree cover of the country is now 807,276 square km (which is 24.56% of the geographical area of the country) compared to 802,088 sq km (24.39%) in the ISFR 2017 - an increase of 5,188 sq. km. (The recorded increase had been of 8,021 sq. km. between the ISFR 2017 and the ISFR 2015).

However, the data is debatable because what is considered as "forests" by the Forest Survey is gauged by satellite imagery of inadequate resolution. Indian remote-sensing satellites produce images with a resolution of 23.5 metres per pixel, too coarse to unequivocally identify small-scale deforestation and to distinguish forests from plantations. Instead, officials of the FSI acknowledge that it should use imagery with resolution of 5.8 m per pixel. Note that of the 21.5% of India categorized as "forest cover", 9.3% and 9.1% is under "moderately dense" and "open forest", respectively, as per the ISFR report. Only 2.9% is "dense forest".

All in all, India’s forests are critical for its ecosystem because they absorb 11.25% of the country’s greenhouse gases, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

Civil society: a green awakening?

In spite of air pollution being a huge public health problem in India, political parties do not mention environmental challenges in their electoral programs. In 2019, during the general elections campaign, the Congress was the only national party to address this problem substantially. It continues to do so, as is evident from the recent article by its President, Sonia Gandhi, against the erosion of the rules protecting the Indian environment.

Things are changing in some states where regional parties are also paying more attention to environmental issues. In Maharashtra, Aditya Thackeray, the son of the Shiv Sena President and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, and the State’s Environment Minister, opposed the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Draft (see below) and stayed the Aarey metro project that would have had devastating ecological consequences. In Jharkhand, Chief Minister Hemant Soren has recently moved the Supreme Court challenging the central government’s decision to auction coal blocks for commercial mining.

Yet, mobilization around environmental issues came first from civil society organizations - much before political parties paid attention to them. NGOs play a major role there. The most famous ones have been lobbying the government for years. Greenpeace India and the Centre for Science and Environment are cases in point. But new organizations have been created recently, including Let India Breathe, Fridays For Future India and There is No Earth B, all launched by young environmentalists. These organizations have been very active, lately, on two fronts. Firstly, they took part in the global climate strike inspired by Greta Thunberg. Secondly, they have held online campaigns during the recent lockdown to mobilize public support to protest against Indian government’s proposed draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020.

These organizations have worked under pressure. In 2014, the Intelligence Bureau of India submitted a report to the Prime Minister’s Office on foreign funded NGOs. The report alleged that Greenpeace was spearheading a campaign that negatively impacted economic development in India because it focused on "ways to create obstacles in India’s energy plans" – an oblique reference to its opposition to nuclear plants - and to "pressure India to use only renewable energy." The Indian government ever since has cracked down on Greenpeace with accusations of law violations related to foreign funding and, as a result, the organization has been forced to shut down two offices and considerably reduce staff in 2019 while it was conducting campaigns against India’s coal-fired power plants.

More recently the three young organizations mentioned above have been targeted too. Following the Minister’s complaint, the Cyber Crime Unit of the Delhi Police issued a notice on July 8 to Fridays For Future India, under India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The use of this law in this particular case drew criticism for its severity. The police then claimed inadvertent error and withdrew that notice on July 16.

Mobilization around environmental issues came first from civil society organizations, before political parties paid attention to them.

As for the corporate sector, it is usually hostile to the ecological rules which constrain industrial activities, especially in the mining sector. But there have been some initiatives worth mentioning, sometimes taken in the framework of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) plans. For instance, Mahindra Sanyo Special Steel, a steel company, has committed itself to reducing by 35% CO2 emissions per ton of steel produced by 2030, from a 2016 base-year. Through the Tata Solar Initiative, the company plans to expand its renewable energy capacity base from 4.1 GW to 15 GW by Fiscal Year 2024-25.

Between coal and solar: a foggy future

India can still do more in the domain of solar energy. In the 2015 target of 100 GW of solar capacity, 40 MW were supposed to come from rooftop solar. This dimension of the plan is today lagging behind as it accounts for only 2.1 GW. Rooftop solar, as a proportion of total solar installations, is much less developed in India than in other leading solar countries. And on the top of it 70% of rooftop solar in 2018 was in the industrial and commercial sectors, with just 20% as residential rooftop solar. Developing rooftop solar is important as land is scarce (and land price costly) and the installation of solar arrays must compete with other needs, including agriculture production.

Off-grid solar is also still marginal (919 MW), whereas it could help villages and dwellings without access to the national grid. India has sold/distributed about 1.2 million solar home-lighting systems and 3.2 million solar lanterns, but it could do more – also because solar photovoltaic water-pumping systems could be used more extensively for irrigation and drinking water.

Secondly, India’s electricity generation continues to rely a lot on coal. In 2019, 55% of the electricity consumed and more than 77% of the electricity generated were produced by coal-fired utilities. Certainly, for the first time in a decade, Indiaʼs annual electricity generation from coal-fired utilities has fallen in 2019 - by 2.5%. But the good news was not only due to an increased use of renewable energy, it was also due to the economic slowdown which turned into a recession in 2020, a year during which the economy should contract by 7%, largely because of the Covid-19 crisis. But in the name of relaunching the economy, the government is precisely relaxing some of the rules protecting the environment, and is diluting its attempt at replacing coal by cleaner sources of energy.

Not only a recent report shows that coal continues to be subsidized more than renewable energies in India, but last June, for the first time ever, the government decided to open 41 coal blocks for commercial mining to the private sector. This aims not only at relaunching the economy, but also at addressing Indiaʼs energy security issue of excessive reliance on imported coal (India imports 30% of its coal today). The policy will allow foreign investors - non-mining entities and large-scale miners - to mine coal commercially, without any restrictions on end-use or price. Unfortunately, many of these coal blocks are located in forest areas. As mentioned above, the state of Jharkhand - where several coal blocks are located - has filed a legal suit, claiming that the move is "unilateral, high-handed, arbitrary and illegal". Similarly, the state of Maharashtra has also objected due to the projected inclusion of a coal mine that falls in a natural reserve.

Even more controversially, the government of India has prepared the draft of new EIA norms in 2020 in order to replace the 2006 ones. Environmentalists point out that, if this draft is not amended, a long list of projects would be exempted from public consultation, including all inland waterways projects and the expansion/widening of national highways, as well as the projects which may be declared as "strategic" by the government. Two other provisions are particularly discussed in India today. First, the one regarding post-facto project clearance according to which projects violating the Environment Act would be allowed to continue, but in compensation the violator would have to disburse 1.5-2 times the amount of ecological damage. The Delhi High Court has declared this provision "contrary to both the precautionary principle as well as the need for sustainable development" – but it is still in the draft. Second, violations of the Environment Act can only be reported by the violator or a government authority. There is no scope for any public complaint – a clear indication of the government’s apprehensions regarding NGOs’ interventions.

The EIA draft and the government’s decision to auction coal blocks for commercial mining are particularly problematic as projections are rather pessimistic. According to a BP study, for instance, in 2040, coal will still represent 48% of the primary energy consumption of commercial fuels in India, and renewable energy, only 16%. This means, if the growth rate of the economy remains the same, that the country’s carbon dioxide emissions will have doubled to 5Gt by 2040. India’s share of global emissions will have increased, then, from 7% today to 14% by 2040. Other studies suggest that the doubling would occur by 2030. However, the Covid-19 economic crisis that is beginning will slow down the industrial activity and affect the purchasing power of Indians for quite some time – making these projections probably a little bit too alarmist.

Rooftop solar, as a proportion of total solar installations, is much less developed in India than in other leading solar countries. And on the top of it 70% of rooftop solar in 2018 was in the industrial and commercial sectors, with just 20% as residential rooftop solar.

This article was originally published by Institut Montaigne.