Can India rise to meet Greta Thunberg’s concerns on the issue of climate change?

Transformation of energy sector, decentralised climate actions and mass mobilisation are key issues for India to meet its climate change commitment.


The FridaysforFuture campaign for school strikes led by Swedish climate activist 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and her peers highlight the importance of treating climate change as an urgent issue.

The theme is simple: to abide by scientific evidences that point out that global average temperatures are inching towards dangerous and irreversible thresholds.

For India, climate change is already an existential threat. Coupled with mismanagement of resources and governance, India faces acute repercussions of climate impacts year-round in the form of extreme and unseasonal rainfall, droughts, floods and heatwaves leading to economic and livelihood losses, food and water security threats.

Can India rise to meet Greta Thunberg’s concerns on the issue of climate change?

Greta Thunberg stands with School strike for the climate sign during a strike. Image credit: Wikipedia/Leonhard Lenz

India’s own positioning on climate change issues at global platforms appears impressive. Recently, at the UN Climate Change Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of revised renewable target of 450 GW, stress on issues of adaptation to increase coping capacity of vulnerable communities, which faces relative marginalisation as compared to industry-driven mitigation pathways, drew applause from the global community. Further, his award as the “Global Goalkeeper” for addressing Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) through the flagship Swachh Bharat Mission reiterated India’s commitment and the necessity to rise to the climate crisis in a renewed context.

But the big question is: Is India ready to tackle climate change?

Transformation of the energy sector and shift to renewables

The country faces challenges in the strategic transformation of the power sector. Coal contributes around three-fifths of India’s carbon emissions. India is still the third-largest carbon emitter globally and its power sector is still highly fossilised with around 196 GW of total 347 GW installed power generation capacity by coal and lignite.

During the financial year 2017-18, the country generated around 1228 billion-kWh units (BU) of electricity of which 1044 BU (around 85 percent) was through burning 540 million tonnes of coal and lignite, as per a Central Electricity Authority (CEA) report. The entry of new electric vehicles, clean electric cooking and proliferation of new electrical and electronic equipment is bound to give the Indian thermal power sector a rebound-effect increase.

India’s quest for 450 GW addition of renewables can decarbonise the Indian power sector but will not be an easy task due to massive intermittence and identification for subsequent peak loads.

Suratgarh thermal power plant in Rajjasthan. Image credit: Bhuvantoo/Wikimedia Commons.

Suratgarh thermal power plant in Rajjasthan. Image credit: Bhuvantoo/Wikimedia Commons.

Diffusion of the renewable programme, therefore, requires proper guidance and restructuring. The existing position of renewable programme is also not very satisfactory. India has committed to generating 175 GW which is divided into 100 GW solar, 60 GW wind and 15 GW through other resources towards renewable integration by the year 2022. The solar element which forms the largest segment and political interest is subdivided further into two segments, with 60 GW for utility-scale and 40 GW for solar rooftops.

While the progress on the utility-scale solar, wind and other RE components is steady with 36 GW of installation realised by July 2019, the customer centric decentralised and grid-connected solar rooftop projects have gained least traction. The 40 GW solar rooftop (SRT) programme, mainly focused on domestic households, agriculture sector and commercial establishments, is running much behind its targets with poor adoption rates and an added cumulative capacity of just 4.5 GW.

Moreover, India’s industrial and domestic energy consumption structures have challenges in energy intensity and resource utilisation inefficiency. Every time an industrial entity produces aluminium, steel or any other consumer-oriented product without a strict adherence to recycling and/or emphasis on cleaner fuels for manufacturing process, it adds towards more fossilised economy pathways. An approach towards circular economy with emphasis on resource substitution, efficient and minimal resources utilisation, and thrust towards reusing and recycling can help in addressing climate change goals. This can not only decarbonise the economy but also reduce the challenges of environmental degradation and pollution.

Further, the energy and energy efficiency programmes cannot function optimally when they are only focussed on technical and economic potential without addressing the behavioural patterns of actual target audience. With India’s growing energy demand, energy planning has to be strategically thought within the limits of new technology paradigms, material criticality and human behavioural changes. Such programmes must not only be perceived from an investment-drive perspective but also from a necessity point of view.

Greater focus on decentralised climate actions

In 2009, the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change introduced the State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC) for addressing responses to both Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation. This action represents a proactive stance from the Government of India in decentralising the efforts towards climate change actions. India has adopted the co-benefits approach as a dominant strategy – measures that promote [India’s] development objectives while also yielding co-benefits for addressing climate change effectively. For a country like India, where development goals cannot be compromised, the co-benefits approach has been a strategy to address climate change concerns, while meeting development needs.

A sign from the climate Strike in Delhi. Image credit: Arnold Joyce.

A sign from the climate Strike in Delhi. Image credit: Arnold Joyce.

Strengthening capacities of stakeholders responsible for planning and implementing actions on the ground with enhanced understanding of climate urgency and feasibility in specific local contexts with involvement of communities is essential. This would also help in better coordination of climate actions of line ministries at various levels of governance. Most of the state machinery like public health department, public works department, state pollution control boards and district level committees have issues of sustainable finance, limited capacity and technical know-how on a multi-thematic integrated approach for solutions of complex issues. Along with the states, cities need greater attention and support for climate actions. Towards the goal of capacity building of state and city machinery, India needs dedicated institutions on climate change.

Mass mobilisation

And lastly, mass mobilisation is central to tackle an enormous and encompassing challenge of climate change. In this regard, the role of youth is critical. Even though few have condemned Greta’s action as an example of youth idealism not necessarily directed at results, the message of science-based actions to tackle climate change is expected to maintain her activism as valid and even necessary. It has helped to draw youth attention in India like in other parts of the world. More involvement of youth in school campuses, community programmes such as afforestation, waste management, awareness building will, on one hand, contribute to solving the climate crises while also acting as multipliers for further dissemination of knowledge and learnings. Such actions would also provide wider scope for media coverage.

Children participate in a climate Strike in Delhi. Image credit: Arnold Joyce.

Children participate in a climate Strike in Delhi. Image credit: Arnold Joyce.

For India, addressing climate change no longer remains a matter of choice. It is a question of survival of its communities in millions that face unseasonal rainfall, prolonged droughts and agricultural shortfalls. Climate impacts are anticipated to push further millions into poverty in coming times. Implementing climate solutions are ongoing, work in progress and involve learning by doing. However, what is required is an integrated, ambitious and urgent approach which requires three-tier changes at policy and institutional level; industrial and applied segments; and consumer level behavioural interventions with the community and citizen participation. The transition, of course, will not be simple and without sacrifices.

Nevertheless, science provides basic foundations to design new pathways to address energy transitions and coping with climate change through technological innovations.

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