India caught between Energy Security and Climate Action

Of the many declarations made at the COP 28, the one that has caught significant attention is the pledge that over 130 countries took to triple renewable energy capacity, and double the global rate of energy efficiency by 2030.


Set against the premise that “the pace and scale of deployment of renewables and energy efficiency must increase significantly between now and 2030,” the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge eyes achieving renewable energy generation of 11,000 GW, and improvement in energy efficiency from 2% to more than 4% each year until 2030.

What does this pledge mean to the global efforts towards energy transition?
Besides getting so many countries to sign up for ramping up renewable energy production and improving energy efficiency, the pledge harps on international collaboration for expanding financial support, making financing mechanisms accessible and enhancing technical support and capacity building. It also brings to the forefront the possibility of accelerating cross-border grid interconnections. 

In all of this, the pledge gives a nudge for a “high-level political and collective action” and committing to “put the principle of energy efficiency as the ‘first fuel’ at the core of policymaking, planning, and major investment decisions.” This, to most experts, is the urgent need of the hour but has not received the due attention up until now.

Why did India refrain?
Despite the pledge being seen as forward-thinking and ambitious, India decided not to commit to it. What was there in the pledge that India could not espouse? According to experts, what must have appeared problematic is the call for “ending the continued investment in unabated new coal-fired power plants.” This makes the tension between energy security and climate action more obvious. 

Before we go deep into the rationale behind India’s decision, we must look at some facts about the country’s current energy and emission scenario: India is the world's second-largest producer of coal and depends on coal for about 70% of its power generation. The country ranks third in global emissions from coal mining. In fact, coal combustion in India generated 1.85 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2022, a five percent increase from 2021. Moreover, the country’s coal-based power sector contributes around 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and one-third of India's GHG emissions.

Then why did the government resist the call for restricting new and unabated coal power generation? India recently explained its stand when Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said that a country’s decarbonization efforts should be seen considering its national circumstances and the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities. 

The Minister referred to a slew of milestones that India achieved in the space of energy transition. Reduction in GDP emission intensity by 33% between 2005 and 2019, is certainly one of them. Emission intensity is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted for every unit increase in gross domestic product. India has also done well to achieve 45 percent non-fossil fuel production in the energy mix and reduce its fossil fuel subsidies by 76 percent from 2014 to 2022.

Coal is a compulsion, not a natural choice
The challenge that India is up against is the rapidly growing demand for energy. India is likely to account for 25% of global energy demand growth over the next two decades, with the country experiencing about 8 percent yearly growth in energy demand.  What we have seen in the last few years is the utilities struggling to keep pace with the country's energy demand growth, and the government going ahead with plans to triple underground coal mining to meet energy demand. 

India may have wriggled out of the pledge by arguing that is difficult to completely turn away from coal, but this argument will not be seen as legitimate for too long, especially if it does not plug the gaps in the integration of natural gas into the energy mix. India had plans to augment the use of natural gas (a cleaner fuel), however, the plan has not taken off well due to issues with the development of gas pipeline networks and regasification terminals for liquefied natural gas imports.

Reduced availability of natural gas in recent years has forced the utilities to burn more coal to meet rising energy demand needs. Recent reports suggest that India is likely to burn 292 million tonnes (MT) more coal each year as new thermal power plants with a capacity of 25-30 gigawatts will be implemented on top of the 49 GW of coal-based units, which are under construction.

Not to the world, but India needs to make a pledge to itself that it will plug the systemic gaps and take a leadership role in phasing down coal, just as it has done in enhancing the production of renewables. 

Written By:

Subhojit Goswami

A communications professional with 15+ years of cumulative experience in journalism and communications, envisioning and creating digital content, and designing and spearheading communication strategy for both nonprofits and corporations. Subhojit holds a Master’s Degree in English, with an inclination for anything literary! He has 15+ years of experience in journalism and communications, designing and spearheading communication strategy for both nonprofits and corporations. He is fond of traveling, reviewing books and plays, and watching parallel films.

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