India has made important progress in confronting climate change in recent years, with their signing of the Paris Agreement, commitments to reduce carbon emissions and significant investments in clean energy. What is driving this progress? How does the Indian government balance the need to expand access to energy while implementing policies to address air pollution and climate risks? And, how does a shifting policy landscape in the United States impact the policy agenda and international cooperation in India?
To answer these questions and more, EPIC hosted two Indian Members of Parliament, Vandana Chavan and Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo, for a conversation with EPIC-India Director Anant Sudarshan and EPIC Director Michael Greenstone on energy and climate policy in India. Dr. Sanjay Jaiswal, the convener of the Climate Parliament in India, which organized the weeklong visit with EPIC, kicked off the event.
“The approach that we took in the last decade was mostly targeted to safeguarding the rights of developing countries,” Jaiswal said. “Today, these very countries have taken the baton from the developed countries and are playing a leadership role in advancing clean energy technologies. They have managed to strike the right balance between sustainability and development needs.”
Striking that balance—a balance between reducing pollution and climate-forcing greenhouse gas emissions while growing the economy and energy access—is at the heart of the global energy challenge. The panel discussion spent the remaining time taking on the three main pillars of this challenge: reducing pollution, confronting climate change, and expanding reliable access to energy.
Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo, who represents Odisha, laid out what India’s energy landscape looks like. Notably, 237 million people in India don’t have access to electricity. India has high ambitions to electrify the country, Singh Deo noted, making a commitment that every household would be connected to the grid by the end of next year.
But, a key challenge is not just that everyone has wires connecting their home to the grid, but also that there is a reliable flow of electricity passing through those wires, explained Anant Sudarshan, from EPIC. On this, there remain social and economic barriers. One of those barriers is the social norm in India that electricity is a right and government-supplied electricity is not something you need to pay for. As a result, utilities are not being paid what they are owed for the electricity they are supplying, and so they are choosing to not supply that electricity to many areas. Sudarshan noted that EPIC-India researchers are working to find out what incentives can be offered to encourage consumers to pay for electricity and utilities to supply it.
The second challenge the country faces is air pollution, with India being one of the worst polluted countries in the world. Sudarshan pointed to three developments EPIC-India researchers have uncovered about air pollution in India: the health and societal costs are high; the costs are hidden in other sectors instead of being integrated into the energy sector; and, regulations are not providing low-cost solutions. On that last point, Sudarshan explained that the costs of complying with the regulations are very high, and therefore there is a low amount of compliance.
“That is something the government needs to address head on,” Sudarshan said, pointing to market-based mechanisms as a solution that will lower costs and improve environmental outcomes.
“The conversation around pollution seems to focus on a trade-off between economic growth and air pollution. I think that tradeoff is possibly false,” he said.
Sudarshan pointed out that an important co-benefit to reducing pollution is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. “There’s a win-win hidden there. There’s the opportunity to reduce health costs today and also make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions.”
Vandana Chavan, who represents Maharashtra, talked further about India’s efforts on climate change, including setting a national action plan and laying out several missions such as enhancing energy efficiency, water, solar, and sustainable agriculture and habitats.
Additionally, Chavan, who has participated in several climate change deliberations at the national and international levels, including the Paris Climate Accords, said India played a “stellar” role at Paris. There, the country focused on two main issues: the need for equity, and common but differentiated responsibilities—acknowledging that India does not have the same technological advancements that exist in the United States and cannot be expected to contribute the same level of reductions. But, despite needing to make sure developed countries play a prominent role, “developing countries have come up with very ambitious” emissions reduction targets.
Unlike in the United States, where some skepticism about climate change continues to enter into political dialogue, it is a “commonly accepted fact”—Chavan said—even in rural and less educated areas of the country, that climate change is happening, is a problem, and is effecting them.
In fact, India will experience some of the worst impacts from climate change, she said. Those impacts have already started to hit the country—from sea level rise, to an increase in infectious diseases, to a sharp rise in suicides by farmers.
But, India cannot act alone in combating climate, Chavan said, “There has to be a global political will…It cannot be that a few countries are trying to bring down emissions when others are not.”
When asked how the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord might influence India’s thinking, Chavan said, “The world, not just India, but the world wants America and the President to take steps forward…and unfortunately the U.S. has taken a back step.”
If the U.S. took a greater role, Chavan is “one hundred percent sure” that would influence the rest of the world.
Singh Deo added, “India’s commitment will stand firm, irrespective of what happens globally. But I also think if the U.S. is not part of the solution, then will these efforts amount to anything? The Paris Protocol will not achieve the goals it set out to achieve.”
Chavan ended, saying, “We are amongst the major emitters in the world—the U.S. being number one, India being number three. So the major emitters need to commit themselves because it’s not a question of just agreeing to something. It’s a question of our future. It’s a question of our children and grandchildren.”