India has often been seen as an awkward customer in international processes. While this is indubitably true in the climate negotiations, it is not merely because of negotiating style. Rather, it is down to India’s complex national interests, which are no less pressing and from a political perspective arguably more knife-edge critical than those faced by the US.
There is no other country quite like India. As the World Bank’s country overview shows, while poverty rates have been reduced in the past two decades, more than one quarter of the rural and urban population remain poor in absolute terms.
The other big story at the macro level in India is inequality. In the same World Bank data set, it is noted that the country’s richest states have average incomes five times higher than its poorest states. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (known pejoratively as BIMARU) have human and economic development data more akin to least developed countries than to one of the world’s major economies.
As noted elsewhere on this blog, decarbonisation is primarily an energy challenge. In India, 400 million people regularly lose power in outages and less than half (44 per cent) of rural households have access to electricity. A very good Wikipedia page has all the relevant data and links. India’s political economy is thus much about energy; the challenge, which is of importance to the current government whose mandate comes particularly from rural voters, is to ensure that its rural poor have access to electricity (or at least that the job is in hand).
According to Dr. Ritu Mathur at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), who sits on the 26-member expert group advising India’s Planning Commission, India must expand electricity generation from its current installed capacity of less than 150GW to around 800GW by 2030. TERI’s recent submission to the Indian PM on energy security (apparently not available online) is well worth tracking down. This and other recent work on energy supply and security in India pose a mighty elephant of a question: Is it possible for India to find the energy it requires from conventional, fossil sources?
TERI’s answer to this question is an effective ‘no’. Its submission to the PM suggests that under a business as usual scenario, by 2031/32, India would be almost 80 per cent reliant on imports of fossil fuels. Alternatively, the report argues, under a highly ambitious renewable energy-based scenario (which would also reduce India’s per capita carbon emissions to 1.24 tonnes), India could constrain its fossil fuel import dependency to around 30 per cent. However, this scenario is around two-thirds reliant on solar power.
TERI has used the MARKAL model to crunch its scenarios. The credibility of this model notwithstanding, it would be fair to say we simply cannot fully know the impact that such a huge demand for fossil fuels (especially when multiplied several times due to equivalent demand growth elsewhere in Asia and perhaps also in Africa and Latin-America) would have on world prices. Equally at current costs, such an immense amount of solar in India’s energy mix would take domestic energy prices way beyond the reach of the very people the expansion of supply is intended to serve. The national and geo-politics of this are mind-boggling.
PM Singh recently launched India’s solar mission, which has a not-to-be-sniffed-at ambition to install 20GW of solar power by 2022; equivalent to more than one-quarter of the entire installed electricity generating capacity of the UK. For understandable energy security reasons and to reach the places the grid will not reach, India is already going for solar in a big way. However, India’s electricity production cost, also according to TERI (2007), is between 2 and 6 Rupees per unit and solar electricity’s unit costs are between 15 and 30 Rupees. The Government estimates the solar mission will cost $19 billion (India solar geeks should check this Wikipedia page).
Climate negotiations tend to focus on whether countries such as India (and to reiterate, apart from India, there is no country such as India) can be persuaded to take on some form of quasi-binding emissions limitation target. Political Climate’s view – especially after our few days in Delhi – is that it would be far better to engage in a technology-specific negotiation. With 300 clear sunny days per calendar year, solar is the obvious priority (although there would and should be others). So the key India question is; what can international cooperation achieve in dramatically reducing the unit cost of electricity from solar?
Until the climate negotiations or other global processes focus in on the aspects of the debate that really matter to the political economy of major emitters (and those with the potential to become so, which is how India would see itself) countries ‘such as India’ are unlikely to be moved. Why would they be?