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India searches for right energy mix at COP21 climate talks

Money Sharma, AFP | An Indian engineer walks past solar panels in the western state of Rajasthan on August 23, 2015

India may be saying what is on a lot of minds at the COP21 climate summit: developing countries can't allow the worthy pursuit of reducing CO2 emissions to become an obstacle in increasing overall standards of living.

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special correspondent at the COP 21 climate conference

As negotiators gathered near Paris to begin the complicated task of crafting a new deal to limit global warming, India did not waste any time in signaling the elephant in the room: not only will the subcontinent continue to rely on coal to ensure its energy needs, it will more than double production of the despised fossil fuel over the next several years.

Unlike China, which made a symbolic announcement in June, India has so far refused to nail down a date upon which its CO2 emissions will peak.

"We still need conventional energy," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told world leaders at the opening ceremony of the key UN summit on Monday. "We should make it clean, not impose an end to its use. And, there should be no place for unilateral steps that become economic barriers for others."

That message – that India would pursue ambitious goals to make its energy cleaner, but not at the expense of improving standards of living among its citizens – was echoed on Tuesday by Indian officials and members of civil society.

"We will build up a system where renewables are our first choice, but we need coal to meet the demand of the poor", Dr. Ajay Mathur, director general of India's Bureau of Energy Efficiency told FRANCE 24, adding that India would seek to increase the use of renewable energy sources seven to tenfold while at the same time doubling or tripling the use of coal.

'Tough talks as climate summit likened to war zone'

Coal-dependent India was the third-largest emitter of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases in 2014, accounting for around 7 percent of total emissions, according to scientific estimates. China and the United States were the world's highest emmitters, accounting for 25 percent and 15 percent of greenhouse gases respectively.

However, India's annual per capita CO2 footprint was just 1.6 tonnes per person, compared to 16.4 tonnes per person for the US and 7.1 tonnes per person for China, according to the most recent available data.

In other words, India as a whole is responsible for a significant amount of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, but many of its people are barely consuming any energy.

Mathur repeated government figures showing that around 300 million Indians live without access to electricity, insisting that raising the standard of living among India's poorest would require increased use of fuel to levels closer, but probably still below, those enjoyed by residents of developed nations.

Sunnier days

India has nevertheless committed to taking significant steps to tackling climate change and to leading developing countries along the same path. Prime Minister Modi insisted in Monday's speech that the Asian giant would reduce emissions by 33 to 35 percent of 2005 levels by 2030, and that 40 percent of its installed capacity would be from non-fossil fuels.

Modi also grabbed headlines at the start of the COP21 by launching the International Solar Alliance alongside French President François Hollande. The aim of the group is to promote solar energy in developing countries.

The initiative, which seeks to mobilise $100 billion in investments to rapidly develop solar energy in tropical countries, is consistent with Modi's call for wealthier countries to accelerate the transfer of clean energy technologies to poorer nations.

Dr Mathur confirmed that India would ramp up its use of solar and wind energy, and to a lesser degree hydroelectric and nuclear power, as it seeks to reduce its carbon footprint. But he insisted that those options, at their current state and costs, were not enough to provide India's short- and medium-term energy needs.

Between two worlds

The years 2020 and 2030 are being highlighted at the COP 21 as milestone years for countries to scale back on fossil-fuel consumption, but, here again, India is setting its own agenda.

Srinivas Krishnaswamy, Chief Executive Officer of the Vasudha Foundation, an Indian environmental group, on Tuesday pointed out that 2022 would mark the 75th anniversary of India's independence, with the government racing to meet its own set of welfare goals by that date.

"In terms of electricity, basically India wants everyone to be covered by 2022, so there is a need to ramp up its availability [as soon as possible]". Krishnaswamy told a roomful of reporters. Another member of the same panel representing India's civil society said the government had to build new housing for around 40 million families before the symbolic date.

Dr. Marthur denied that India's strategy, somewhere between leading the transition to solar power and staunchly guarding traditional fossil fuels, was contradictory. He said the Indian perspective was widely shared by developing countries, even if their governments were avoiding a confrontational tone at negotiations in Paris.

"As every country develops it will use more energy. They will use more renewables, but will also use more fossils," he said, as if it were simple math.

India's struggle to find the right energy mix between solar and coal reflects its unique  placement between world powers and the developed world. It's a strategic position that could prove decisive in reaching – or burying – a deal in Paris.

 

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