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Mr. Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE

13 Jan 2016

Paris agreement a signal to invest in renewable energy.

Chandra Bhushan,Deputy Director General, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) talks to InfralinePlus on what should be India’s energy strategy in the wake of the recently concluded CoP 21 summit in Paris on Climate Change. Excerpts.

In your views, what are the hits and misses from the recently concluded COP 21 summit in Paris, both globally and with reference to India?

The climate change agreement adopted in Paris is a step forward in tackling global warming. However, it is a small step while we need to take giant leaps. The Paris Agreement, though weak, still has some positive aspects to it. First of all, all countries now have to contribute towards mitigating climate change and there is a binding obligation for countries to submit their contributions every five years and subsequently take domestic measures to achieve them.

The other major outcome of the Paris Agreement is the market signal to the renewable energy industry. Almost all countries, in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), have pledged some target on renewable energy. The cumulative pledge exceeds the current market capacity. This is a clear signal to the industry to invest in the entire supply chain of the renewable energy sector – from R&D to manufacturing to smart grids to service sector.

The major problem with the Paris Agreement is that countries are free to choose their climate mitigation targets.These targets are not legally binding. This effectively means that the historical responsibility of developed countries is now erased. No more are they required to significantly cut their emissions because of their past misappropriation of carbon space, or pay for loss and damage suffered by developing countries due to climate change. The Paris Agreement has made sure that from now on the burden of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as well as paying for the impacts of climate change, has decisively shifted to developing countries.

Most importantly, although this agreement promises to keep the temperature rise between 1.5°C and 2°C, it is leading the world towards a temperature trajectory of 3°C and more. The idea of keeping the world safe from the changing climate is now under serious jeopardy.

This problem would have been resolved if under the Paris Agreement, countries would have agreed to operationalize the principles of Equity and Differentiation (CBDR). Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had put forward the concept of equitable sharing of the global carbon budget as a way of operationalizing Equity which could have ensure fair burden sharing among countries in accordance with their responsibility and capability. But the developed countries staunchly opposed this.

What checks and balances, systems and procedures do you suggest to ensure that the commitments at Paris are actually implemented on ground?

The Paris Agreement though largely bottom-up, has some checks and balances.To ensure delivery, the agreement has put in place a transparency framework. Accordingly, countries would provide information on the implementation of their contributions, which would then be subject to a technical expert review process. However, there is no penalty if countries fail to meet their commitments. The entire system is built of the “goodwill” of countries to deliver.

But there is a ray of hope. The agreement envisages a “global stocktake” every five years to assess collective progress towards long-term goals. The language of text says that this global stocktake will also take into account “equity” – this is where the dialogue on global carbon budget approach can again be introduced to ensure fair burden sharing among countries and ensure more effective implementation on ground.

India has pledged to achieve 40% cumulative electricity installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy sources by 2030. Do you think this is doable? What key challenges do you anticipate?

The target undoubtedly is ambitious and in fact more ambitious than some developed countries including the US. But I believe that this target is doable and has multiple benefits for India. This will not only address India’s energy scarcity and security issues, it would also reduce local pollution and make India a major hub for renewable energy.

Though this target includes solar, wind and biomass, hydropower and nuclear, I believe that we will have to rely more on solar and wind to meet this target. For instance, ambitious plans to develop large-scale hydropower will not materialize due issues relating to environmental impacts and land acquisition. There is always a strong opinion against the use of nuclear energy owing to safety, waste disposal and cost issues.

It is time that we start treating renewable energy as the main source of energy to meet our future energy needs. This will require a massive change in mindset of our planners and policy makers. This is the most difficult challenge.

India has also committed to reduce emission intensity to GDP target of about 35% by 2030 from 2005 levels as well as create carbon sinks of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. However, technology and financing remains two key challenges. What are your views?

Emission intensity target will not be difficult to meet. In fact, if we meet our non-fossil fuel based energy target, we will improve our emission intensity by more than 35%. Regarding India’s forestry target, however, I have serious misgivings. First of all, meeting this target would require serious afforestation effort. Unfortunately, our previous afforestation efforts do not give me confidence that we can meet this target without revamping the forestry sector in the country. Secondly, I fear that in the guise of meeting our climate target (and making our forests a source of carbon credits for the developed countries), the government would handover forests to private companies to create monocultures plantations. This will be detrimental to not only the ecology of the country, but will also impact close to 20 million farmers who are involved in farm and social forestry to produce wood for the industry.

I strongly believe that reforms in forestry sector are important. We cannot afford to keep one-fourth of India’s land unproductive. But improving productivity of forests must go hand in hand with ecological security and improving the livelihoods of 100 million people who some way or other depend on forests for their sustenance. Private sector has a major role to play in this. But that role is not to own plantations, but to support communities to grow trees on degraded forests, farmlands and wastelands like any other crop. If we do this, we will truly create an inclusive forestry economy in the country; a true public-private partnership to meet all our objectives – improved productivity, ecological security, carbon sequestration, cheaper forestry products for industry, employment and livelihoods etc.

Do you feel India should have committed more at Paris?

In terms of considering that developed countries should have made much more ambitious target in Paris owing to their higher responsibility for causing climate change and capability in solving it, India’s targets were comparatively more fair and ambitious.

As a fast-growing economy, where coal is the predominant source of power, what should be India’s strategy to achieve energy security based on low carbon growth?

India has fewer options. We do not have huge sources of gas as yet and therefore, our gas supply would largely be dependent on imports. Our coal quality is poor and the remaining reserves are in some of the most ecologically sensitive areas. Apart from thorium-based technology which is not yet at a commercial stage, our nuclear fuel supply is dependent on imports as well. Hydropower is limited by ecological concerns and solar and wind is still an infirm and relatively expensive 24x7 source of energy.

We therefore need to have an “all the above” policy in medium term. Though, we have to maximize on what we have, but we should also develop a long-term vision based on increasing use of renewables and decreasing use of fossils. This means that coal will be important for the next 15 years or so, but after that our dependence on coal should start reducing in favour of other non-coal energy sources.

We already see some movement in that direction. We now have one of the most stringent pollution standards for coal based power plants. We have a cess on coal which is the first explicit tax in the world on coal. We have ambitious targets on renewables. What we need is to weave these initiatives in to a much larger integrated energy policy.

There has been a lot of debate on what should be the right strategy to tackle rising pollution levels in cities like Delhi. What short and long term approach would you suggest to check pollution?

CSE supports and welcomes odd and even formula introduced by the Delhi Government. But odd and even is just one of the strategies to reduce pollution in our cities. We need a comprehensive strategy to reduce air pollution in Delhi and other cities of the country. This would require reducing emissions from all sources – transport, industrial, commercial and residential sector. This will only happen if we have a comprehensive urban plan to make our cities livable and workable spaces. Presently, cities in India are real estates, nothing more.

Transport sector is certainly the main challenge. We need to start setting in place unified public transport infrastructure in our cities to reduce pollution and congestion due to ever-increasing private mode of transport.

Presently our public transport infrastructure is weak, non-integrated and operating at a sub-optimal level. For instance, Delhi probably has the most extensive public transport infrastructure in the country, but we operate it inefficiently. Our estimation shows that just by improving the fleet utilization of all buses, completing all scheduled trips and eliminating missed trips in a day, DTC buses, cluster buses and 2,000 hired buses can carry at least 25 lakh additional passengers daily. This is equivalent to removing 16 lakh cars from roads which would drastically reduce pollution and create more space on the road. Similarly, the existing Metro system in Delhi needs to be further developed and integrated with buses and other forms of public transport for better last-mile connectivity. Thus, augmented bus and metro service, organized autos and taxi service can help in a big way to move people away from cars. Also, cities will have to invest in building infrastructure so that people can walk and use bicycles for short-trips.