What Was It Like to Be India in 2017 and a Warming World?

India has taken the lead at multilateral fora, asking for stronger commitments to mitigating climate change. At the same time, it has made things easier for King Coal to rule at home. It's a hot mess.

A moment in time of global carbon dioxide emissions as observed by NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 in 2017. Credit: NASA

A moment in time of global carbon dioxide emissions as observed by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 in 2017. Credit: NASA

As we bid farewell to 2017, The Wire looks back at some of the markers of disruption that affected different spheres, from politics and economics to technology and films.

In 2017, weather reports were bumped up to the front page because the impact of climate change was becoming more visible than ever. Devastating cyclones, thousands lost to floods and drought in South Asia, thousands more displaced, infernal heat-waves sweeping cities, air pollution stealing hundreds of days from our lives – the year was officially the poster for a world 1º C warmer than it should be, with the effects felt more acutely in developing countries like India.

It was also a year in which some protectionist governments continued to live in denial, blocking progress of an international clean-energy transition. In June, when Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, all eyes turned to India and China, expecting the two nations to assume leadership of global efforts to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic global warming.

On paper, India is committed to doing more than its fair share to keep global average surface temperature rise below 1.5º C, especially since emissions add up over centuries of oppression and there are also poverty alleviation goals to consider. Under its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, India has committed to increasing the share of renewables to 40% of its energy mix by 2030.

During negotiations of global climate talks this year, India led by arguing for climate action now and not just after 2020 when the Paris Agreement kicks in. It lobbied hard for more finance and reminded the world of its commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, the first legally binding treaty on climate change, by virtue of which developed countries were supposed to cough up more for the damage they’d caused to the environment.

But the task ahead is onerous in a country of 1.2 billion. A fourth of India’s rural households still don’t have access to electricity. Bringing power to the poor had been a key electoral promise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. However, in May, the power ministry admitted that only 8% of the 13,000 villages they’d identified had been electrified. Meanwhile, the country’s middle class has continued to grow, and with it, its vehicular emissions and electricity needs.

King coal’s clearance raj

However, despite its climate leadership, India was also the world’s third largest producer of coal in 2017. Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser, underlined the country’s stance against ‘carbon imperialism’ and said coal would continue to be India’s chief source of power beyond 2047 because of the high “social costs of renewables”. So even when 20 countries, followed by 20 companies, signed up to kick their coal habit at the UN climate talks in November, India’s representatives made it clear the nation had no such plans.

Back home, this choice has been hard to miss. Laws have continued to be diluted through 2017 to serve Big Coal’s interests. Mines operated by Coal India Ltd., the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, remained on track to producing 1.5 billion tonnes by 2020. Its subsidiaries continued to take advantage of lax “national interest” land acquisition laws and loopholes in environmental laws to kill all dialogue – whether in Parliament or in villages, where resistance is on the rise in response to this silencing. For example, in August, the coal ministry allowed Coal India’s mines to expand by 40% without having to conduct environmental public hearings, often the only means of consultation with locally affected communities.

Its subsidiaries were quick to take further advantage. In November, an expert panel of India’s environment ministry green-lit two of the country’s biggest mines, Gevra and Dipka, to become bigger and extract 45 million and 35 million tonnes of coal a year, respectively. And this was allowed to happen without either mine having to consult Adivasi communities since 2008 and forcibly evicting them on multiple occasions.

In all, 16 coal mining projects were this year cleared by India’s environment ministry; 11 were able to get exemptions. Most were Coal India subsidiaries expanding. The only exception was Garjanbahal, a new mine in Sundargarh, Odisha, a protected Adivasi district that is also the constituency of tribal affairs minister Jual Oram.

According to the PMO’s project monitoring group, nearly 200 thermal projects are in various stages of completion. One to watch out for in particular is Adani Power’s 1,600 MW unit in Godda, Jharkhand, that will supply power to Bangladesh. It’s situated on indigenous land and has constitutional guarantees against land transfers to private players, and was granted an environmental clearance in August this year. It is currently being challenged on environmental and human rights grounds at the National Green Tribunal.

Could there possibly be a light at the end of this long, dark mineshaft?

Probably: There’s reason to consider the plummeting price of power generated from renewable energy sources is it. As things stand, coal power costs thrice as much as renewable power on average. In 2017, solar accounted for the most capacity added, with new players giving the usual biggies a run for their money. In May, ACME Solar and SBG Cleantech bid Rs 2.44 and Rs 2.46 a unit respectively in auctions conducted by the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) in May. These numbers smashed all records. On December 21, one company bid Rs 2.43 per kWh for a planned wind power plant in Gujarat.

On the flipside, however, tariff drops have begun to affect competitiveness. In states like Karnataka, power-purchase agreements were cancelled for wind power projects commissioned before March 2017, calling for a reduction of tariffs by a further 17%. The deployment of solar panels on ground was hit by an import duty imposed by the finance ministry on tempered glass in August. The material, a key part of solar panels, now has a duty fee of $52.85-136.21 per tonne on it. This happened after Gujarat Borosil, the sole Indian producer of this material, filed a petition challenging Chinese imports.

According to experts, the race to help India reach its 100-GW solar target by 2022 has seen relatively low subsidies. Private players hedged their bets aggressively on a clean energy future this year at solar auctions, which they’ve argued are few and far between. While this is testament to forward-thinking policies and private finance wanting to tap into India’s solar boom, there’s actually plenty of starter fuel to go around.

However, India diverted $890 million it had earned from a carbon tax, levied for every tonne of coal mined, away from renewable energy R&D and climate change mitigation and towards states to offset potential losses after implementing the Modi government’s new Goods and Services Tax. Similarly, Rs 3,500 crore earned from mining watersheds in eastern and central India was diverted to Modi’s Ganga rejuvenation scheme – just as mining towns with chronic malnutrition and pollution were bypassed for investments in the ‘Smart Cities’ programme.

According to a Carbon Brief report, India received $745 million from four of the world’s main multilateral climate funds between 2013 and 2016 – the highest in the world. While as a whole this works out to just $0.56 (Rs 35.92) per Indian, it doesn’t take away from the fact that India received a monumental $378 million from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) for a private sector sustainable energy financing programme.

Preparing for the new normal

As part of its current NDC, India has committed to reducing its emissions by 35% by 2030. This isn’t easy at all. For example, according to a World Meteorological Organisation bulletin, carbon dioxide levels in 2017 were building in Earth’s atmosphere at a rate last observed over three million years ago. India contributed about 7% of this, and remains the world’s third-most emitter of greenhouse gases.

India also has the more immediate, and less avoidable, problem of air pollution epidemic to deal with. Air quality levels have been going off the charts – and in its national and state capitals and in industrial hubs quite literally. The south wasn’t exempt either: this Deepavali, one place in Chennai registered particulate matter levels of 1,055 ug/m3. Many parts of the country remain in monitoring blind spots even though the government had upped the ante at which these devices were installed in 2017. As of November this year, the coal-producing states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh lacked a single realtime air quality monitor.

And inside these blind spots, India is likelier than not to find not just a carbon problem but also sulphur and nitrogen pollution problems. But instead of reining the crisis in, the environment ministry buckled under pressure from the Central Electricity Authority and the power ministry. It is now challenging its own December 7 deadline for coal power plants to comply with new pollution norms green-lit by the Supreme Court, pleading that industry will need a five-year leash.

At this point, the picture that emerges of India’s climate change game is bound to be confused. It took the lead at multilateral fora and argued for states to do more right now instead of postponing action until beyond 2020. Then it made it easier for coal power plants to set up shop within its own borders. It adopted solar energy in a big way and allowed for unit costs to fall to record lows, almost to a third of where coal currently is. Then it dropped the ball on monitoring its air pollution and let indigenous communities be treated like dust.

If it’s really a mixed bag, if the scales are really even, then what strikes the decisive blow has to be India’s preparedness – which doesn’t exist. The country continues to not have a national adaptation plan for climate change. No initiatives have been launched as part of its National Action Plan on Climate Change, either. And with the government responding to Cyclone Ockhi, flooding and drought only in terms of compensation and not by becoming more prepared for the next disaster, there’s a long way to go before anyone can expect Indians to feel safe in a Brave New World.

Come 2018, India will have an opportunity to do more and do better before the world heads to Katowice, Poland, for the next round of climate talks. Hope can’t ride on a list of varying assessments and commitments while signing counterproductive memoranda, dismantling protections and drafting contradictory power-purchase agreements. Finance must be directed to the worst-hit communities and towards building resilience and adaptation – while the government strictly enforces thermal power production standards. This would go a longer way than, say, signing on to Trump’s ‘clean-coal’ alliance.

What’s at stake is the world – and an opportunity like no other to show the way.

Aruna Chandrasekhar is a researcher and photojournalist working on issues of development, land alienation, indigenous rights and corporate accountability in India for the last six years. She tweets at @aruna_sekhar.