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India's Green New Deal Making Progress, but Low-Carbon Path is Steep

India beginning to show that pitting climate and development objectives against each other is a false choice

by Manish Bapna,

Nov 29, 2010

India’s climate, population density, and nonelectrified rural areas together provide ideal conditions for deploying solar-power solutions on a grand scale. In recognition of this potential, the National Solar Mission initiative lays the foundation for a clean-energy future. Its stated aim is to achieve 20 gigawatts of solar power by 2022, mostly via large photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal power plants as well as rooftop PV systems. Other goals include replacing the use of kerosene lamps in rural areas with 20 million solar lighting systems, establishing a solar research center, and incentivizing PV manufacturing and skills training to boost the fledgling domestic solar industry. Several Indian states, including Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Haryana, have also taken action by instituting statewide renewable portfolio standards (RPSs). India is expected to establish a national RPS this year, mandating that utilities get a certain amount of their energy supply from limitless natural resources such as solar and wind. Again, with this policy, India would leapfrog ahead of the United States, a country that has long debated, but so far failed to implement, such a market-transforming lever.

The Indian government proved to skeptics that these are not just paper commitments when it allocated financing for the solar mission in the 2010–2011 national budget as part of a 61 percent budget increase for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. Moreover, the budget introduced another bold initiative: a 50 rupee (approximately $1) tax on every ton of domestic and imported coal. The tax will capitalize a new National Clean Energy Fund that will help support solar technology development.

However, it will take a lot of money to attain the ambitious goals contained in the Solar Mission. Indian NGOs are already raising tough questions, for example, about how to ensure that solar subsidies focus sufficiently on the poor, especially those living without electricity. And beyond that is a wider question: to what extent can clean energy be prioritized in a nation where much of the population still lacks clean water, sanitation, and access to basic education and health care?

A Steep Mountain to Climb

While the roadmap Delhi has adopted is impressive, I am not arguing that the agenda described above will alone transform India in short order into a low-carbon economy. It won’t. Nor would I argue that it will significantly reduce India’s poverty levels and its greenhouse gas emissions overnight. It can’t.

It is daunting to think of the sheer costs, the technological know-how, and the hardware that will be required to scale up these solutions to a level where they can truly transform India’s society and economy. Despite Delhi’s policy leadership, experience also highlights the mixed execution capabilities of the Indian government.

There are several key barriers that India must overcome to translate its paradigm shift in climate politics into an on-the-ground shift to a clean-energy economy. First, costs. Not all investments in clean energy and efficiency are win-win. In a country where more people than the entire U.S. population survive on less than a dollar a day, pouring billions into building a future low-carbon economy will be a tough sell. Second, governance. Indian government at all levels is often plagued by mismanagement, corruption, and stifling bureaucracy, making the rollout of complex policies and programs an uphill struggle. Third, technological barriers. In the power sector, the current grid is antiquated and suffers from frequent electricity losses. Electricity tariffs rarely follow a rational pricing scheme. And while the renewables sector is growing, fossil fuels will continue to dominate India’s energy supply for decades, requiring expensive investment in additional alternatives such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) to help hold down greenhouse gas emissions.

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