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India’s Energy Moment: Ready for a Low-Carbon Future?

This blog post originally appeared in National Geographic.

In the aftermath of the historic joint U.S.-China climate announcement in November, international attention has now swung to India. With new national leadership firmly in place, many are wondering what Prime Minister Narendra Modi will do on energy and climate. Some pundits have called on India, the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter, to announce its own emissions target and take a lead role at the international climate negotiations. While some of these actions are within India’s reach, the pundits miss the point.

India today is a major contributor of greenhouse gases, but it’s not reasonable to put the country in the same class as the United States or China. Looking at per capita emissions, India produces at about 2 tons CO2e per capita—a fraction of the 20 tons CO2e in the U.S. or even the 8 tons CO2e in China. In 2030, India’s projected per capita emissions are expected to be below the world average. In addition, India’s cumulative historical emissions are 3 percent of the world total, far below 11 percent for China and 27 percent for the United States.

It’s not just a sense of obligation to the international community, economic self-interest should motivate India to pursue to a low-carbon trajectory.

India today is an emerging middle-income economy, but 300 million of its people lack access to electricity and, for much of the rest, the supply is infrequent and unreliable. India is also undergoing a rapid urban transformation, with the population living in cities on pace to increase from around 380 million to almost 600 million in the next 15 years. Addressing its electricity access and urbanization challenges will boost India’s economic prospects and improve human welfare.

Early signals indicate that Modi recognizes these opportunities. Last month, the government announced an exceptionally bold goal to increase solar power to 100 GW by 2022—five times above the previous target. Solar energy may soon be the cheapest form of electricity in India, providing a cleaner option than coal and improving energy security. The solar announcement is part of the government’s broader commitment to bring 24-hour electricity to all Indians by 2019.

Shifting to a low-carbon pathway will bring multiple benefits, including energy security. Today, India relies heavily on coal—which provides 72% of India’s electricity. Moving to home-grown solar power would help to reduce India’s risk to overseas market fluctuations and geopolitical tensions.

Modi also launched a major effort to upgrade urban growth, committing to create “100 smart cities.” While the details of the plan still need to be developed, India is well-positioned to design more efficient and livable cities before they are built. Compact and well-connected cities are not only cleaner and safer, but also more economically productive. Better urban development – smarter transport systems, utilities and energy networks—can produce global savings of more than $3 trillion in the next 15 years.

Other benefits of a low-carbon path are also clear. Today, New Delhi has the highest level of PM 2.5 in the world, and half of the top 20 world’s most polluted cities are in India. Air pollution is rapidly becoming a leading cause of premature deaths in the country—up 6 times from 2001 to 2010. In addition to a profound human tragedy, air pollution also causes a major drag on GDP. For instance, new research finds that the cost of premature deaths from air pollution in India is over 6% of GDP.

The direction that the government will take remains uncertain. Concerns are emerging, especially in light of the government’s plans to roll back environmental safeguards that apply to industry, including mining, coal, and other power projects. While the government needs to encourage inclusive economic growth, it should not come at the expense of the environment and human health.

Embracing a cleaner, low-carbon pathway—including investment in renewable energy—can lead India to a healthier and more vibrant economy. India leaders have ample incentives to leapfrog the outdated high-carbon model and move in a modern low-carbon direction. The opportunity is in front of them.

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