With a rapidly growing population and an economy growing even faster, India’s energy demand is set to double by 2030. If this increased demand is met with coal or other fossil fuels, it could make reaching global climate targets all but impossible. Recently, India has begun making historic investments in clean energy, and it has committed to meeting 50 percent of its energy requirements through renewables by 2030, including an additional 500 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity. Yet, affordability and reliability remain major concerns.
The opportunity ahead is enormous. If India succeeds in providing reliable and affordable clean energy to feed its economy, it has the opportunity to not only change the global climate trajectory, but also to become a model for the growing Global South. The stakes could hardly be higher.
On May 17, EPIC hosted a conversation with Indian Members of Parliament Smt. Mahua Moitra, Shri. Rahul Kaswan, US diplomat Vinay Chawla, and EPIC’s Michael Greenstone. The conversation was moderated by EPIC Journalism Fellow and TIME reporter Justin Worland.
In the event’s opening remarks, Smt. Moitra set the scene for what the climate and energy challenge means in India: “When we talk about the West and developed countries, we are more concentrated on climate. But in India, our challenge is to make sure that we meet the energy demands of our people,” Moitra said.
She continued to explain, “Keeping that in mind, then the climate comes next. It is very easy to say to move away from coal, but we’ve just seen from the Russia-Ukraine crisis that at the first instance of crisis, people jump back into coal. But if you think about India—we are in a perennial state of crisis, so it’s more of a tightrope walk for us. We have to deal with energy needs as well as what is happening around us when it comes to the climate.”
Michael Greenstone, Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, the College and the Harris School, and the Director of EPIC and the Becker Friedman Institute added: “India in some ways is the most interesting and important place in the world with respect to the climate and energy challenge. First, it’s a place where electricity and energy consumption remain far below most of the rest of the world. So, the need for more energy is absolutely paramount. It is also the place where the current sources of energy are producing air pollution that are causing terrible health problems and causing people to lead shorter and sicker lives, and that problem cannot be thought of in isolation to the electricity problem. And on the climate side, it still remains a very small polluter of CO2 historically and per capita today, and it’s also in the total bullseye of where climate damages are going to be located.”
The discussants agreed that India faces a series of complicated challenges and tradeoffs when considering both the climate and energy challenge—with the country needing to chart its own path forward to achieve their goals.
Vinay Chawla, Senior Advisor of Climate Finance in the Office for the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, pointed to the importance of investments: “India matters critically as an investment opportunity, and as a model for the rest of the world…it is the third largest producer of renewables in the world, 11 to 12 gigawatts a year. But the pace that the prime minister and country has set for itself—it wants to be at 50. So how do we help India go from 11 to 50 gigawatts, and how then do we make that a model?”
Worland drove the panelists to look at India’s climate and energy targets, and what needs to be done to achieve them. Shri. Kaswan responded, “The government has been exploring all the possible opportunities we have in front of us. We launched the Green Hydrogen Mission…we are on the right path of being net-zero by 2070.”
Smt. Moitra added “Our challenge right now is not only solar demand, it is also storage. We have a huge storage deficiency that we need to fill and at a very local level.”
With demand for energy only growing, Worland asked the discussants what possibilities there are for getting more climate finance to India. Chawla responded: “More finance is needed…a lot of countries feel that not enough money is moving…India is banking on renewables from a money market policy perspective, and I think the money needs to match that,” Chawla said. He went on to speak about various ways to unlock potential investments in renewables and hydrogen, such as through philanthropy and the National Investment Fund (NIF).
Smt. Moitra noted that “One challenge for investors is the lack of policy consistency across the country. As an investor or developer coming into India, they may also run the risk of policies changing every five years.”
Beyond finance, Greenstone emphasized the importance of innovation, research and development: “Fossil fuels are less expensive than non-fossils. What the developed world should be doing is investing tons of money into research and development of new energy technologies…until that delta—the difference between the cost of fossil fuels and non-fossils—shrinks or disappears, it is going to be very hard to convince India and other countries around the world that it is a good idea to switch to non-fossils.”
Worland questioned how policies like the Inflation Reduction Act might affect India—and what discussants think industrial policy should look like in the country.
Chawla responded: “The IRA is a monumental moment for the United States and our commitment to fight climate change. One of the things that was unexpected were the concerns raised not only by countries in Europe but in India as well, that were we having an inadvertent negative impact? By creating programs meant to drive jobs and the fight on climate change here in the United States by making green hydrogen subsidized at $3 per kilogram, that it was actually going to hurt the possibility to do the same thing in India,” Chawla said. He noted that coordination and US support to India in making industrial policy is a great investment opportunity, and the States should be supporting research and development in the country.
Smt. Moitra added to the discussion by explaining the country’s current commitments: “India has definitely made a commitment to move towards renewables. What we have is coal—we are committed to moving away from coal by 2050, and we are meeting our renewable sector goals.”
Shri. Kaswan added that “The Green Hydrogen Project is offering greater capacity to store cleaner sources of energy. There is a great amount of investment for this project and job creation in India for future generations,” he said, noting other projects in consideration in his constituency such as converting waste into energy.
“India has very rich renewable sources and you just need the capital and storage solutions to manage that,” Worland said.
Greenstone agreed, and emphasized the need to drive down the cost of renewable energy sources: “The use of coal without environmental controls is a problem for India. It doesn’t receive enough attention—it is a key threat to the climate and energy challenge. There is an unlevel playing field in the Indian electricity system. Coal gets a free pass for the conventional air pollution it provides.”
Smt. Moitra recalled a session on the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) during her time in the India Legislators Program, noting that reducing PM2.5 levels to the WHO standard could increase the average life expectancy of people in India by up to five years.
In closing remarks, Worland asked Smt. Moitra and Shri. Kaswan to comment on where their constituents—citizens of India—stand on the issues of the energy and climate challenge: “Global warming and climate change is impacting people in my constituency…we have temperatures as high as 51 degrees Celsius. The usage of electricity has given people a chance to use coolers and A/Cs… right now, the issue in my state is that we are growing, and people want power,” Shri. Kaswan said.
Smt. Moitra added: “When your primary interest is 100% electrification and you need to meet energy needs…yes, people are aware [of climate change]…there is awareness based on what they can feel. But the link between that and using more power is still a tenuous link for most people.”