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Carbon Emissions and Climate Change: The Fundamental Issues Behind India’s Growth Sustainability

Carbon Emissions and Climate Change: The Fundamental Issues Behind India’s Growth Sustainability

By Arunima Chakrabarty

Over the past couple of decades, climate change has moved from being a peripheral policy issue to the centre stage of policy analysis. Having emerged as one of the biggest developmental issues for the planet, its economic impact on the poorest section of the society has earned it the reputation of being a governance issue as well. India, with almost 22% of its population living below the official poverty line, is in an extremely vulnerable position when it comes to climate change. The battle against poverty and the management of climate change are the most important challenges of the 21st century, and it’s important to recognize that a well-constructed response to one can provide direct advantages for the other.

Here is where sustainable growth strategies step in, since these have the ability to address both these challenges. They focus on the responsible management of natural resources, and on the development of appropriate responses to climate change that enable the long term viability of the economy. India must pursue this path in order to ensure decent living standards for its citizens.

Global warming is an anthropogenic phenomenon, owing its existence to years of emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Different countries have had different emission trajectories in the past. Industrialized countries have emitted tons of greenhouse gases – this has led to their current prosperity, and they continue to do so in order to sustain this growth. Meanwhile, countries like India, which have only recently set out on the path to industrialization, are increasing emissions.

Past research has pointed out that per capita CO2 emissions are closely related to a country’s growth and economic development; the more prosperous a country’s economy, the higher its emissions.

Past research has pointed out that per capita CO2 emissions are closely related to a country’s growth and economic development; the more prosperous a country’s economy, the higher its emissions. The primary reason for this is the close link between fossil fuel consumption and higher standards of living. There is no doubt that efficiency has improved – cars today are more fuel efficient than the ones that were driven in the 1980s. But efficiency without sufficiency is meaningless; the number of cars being driven today is much higher than they were in the 1980s. As long as the world is driven by a carbon based economy, growth cannot be delinked from CO2emissions successfully, and this in turn calls for the need to adopt low carbon strategies for economic growth.

How can India achieve this? With its burgeoning need for energy, most of which is set to be met by coal based power plants, it almost seems like an impossible feat.

If only the old saying, “Where there is a will, there is a way” could be true. India has demonstrated the will to adopt strategies that will reduce the adverse effects of economic growth on the climate. However, like other developing countries, it has been involved in a tug of war with developed nations when it comes to reducing emissions. Each side wants a larger share of the rope; an entitlement to more emissions. India requires it to achieve the growth required to lift millions out of poverty, and the biggest advantage that India has is its status of being a ‘developing’ economy. It’s still in the process of building its industrial, transport and energy infrastructures, and investing in new technologies in these areas can go a long way in ensuring sustainability. In other words, India needs to adopt a low carbon development path.

In other words, India needs to adopt a low carbon development path.

India has the opportunity to adopt leapfrog technologies, and can thus avoid going down the carbon-intensive development path that was followed by today’s industrialized nations.  Approaching a low-carbon economy is of critical importance as India evolves its economic development model and strengthens the sustainability of its economy. This requires a radical transformation of the energy sector – a shift to energy-efficient technologies that can meet the rapid growth in electricity demand, whilst maintaining the provision of affordable and reliable services to consumers.

In order to do this, India needs to lay heavy emphasis on the renewable energy sector, which currently meets only 1% of the total energy demand.The ‘Make in India’ campaign led by the current government is a positive step in this direction, as it is inviting investors to invest in the renewable energy sector.The government has also set ambitious targets with regard to India’s manufacturing capacity of solar power components. Along with that, India also needs to encourage R&D in this area; this will allow India to reap economic benefits as a leader in the rapidly growing global green energy markets. Making domestic advances in renewable energy technology will improve energy security and create jobs, giving a further push to economic growth. India needs to take the integration of renewable energy into the mainstream energy provision route seriously, only then will a substantial shift be possible.

Aiming to meet all of the country’s energy needs using renewable energy, although ambitious, isn’t a pragmatic approach. India’s heavy dependence on coal cannot be reduced in a decade or two; it will take a much longer time. Therefore, we also need to address India’s carbon dilemma.

Wind and solar energy capacities are not sufficient to meet the country’s present energy demand, yet burning more and more coal affects the climate adversely. Is there a way to burn coal without releasing CO2 into the atmosphere? Surprisingly, the answer to this question is:Yes! This can be done through a method known as – Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which can capture up to 90% of the CO2 generated during burning coal in power plants.

Capture technologies first separate CO2 from other gases and then transport the captured CO2 to a suitable storage location using pipelines, or by a vessel. Suitable storage locations include porous geological formations that are located several kilometres underneath the earth’s surface, like former oil and gas fields or depleting oil fields where the injected CO2 may increase the amount of oil recovered. However, this method is relatively expensive. It is estimated that storing and transporting the gas from a power plant would increase the cost of electricity from anywhere between 30% to 90%[3] of the original cost.

While an increase in cost is inevitable, the magnitude of the same can be reduced by developing local CCS pipeline networks to transport the gas, leading to CCS clusters where industries that emit high volumes of CO2 could be located. It can also tap global climate funds for the same, since CCS qualifies for carbon credits. It is anticipated that as the technology develops, the cost will fall further. This technology provides a brilliant solution to the problem of global warming, and investing in the same will actually reap a myriad of benefits that will last for years to come.

India’s development plan needs to adapt itself to the challenges that will arise from global climate constraints; these don’t just involve emissions constraints, but also sharpened climate impacts caused due to global warming. By reducing emissions and adopting clean technology, it will have done its share towards decelerating the pace of the rise in temperature, but that doesn’t insulate it from the ill effects of climate change which is determined by a global set of factors.

India should also build its disaster response capacities, strengthen the resilience of its agricultural sector, and improve the habitability of its cities. These will draw significantly on the country’s technical and entrepreneurial capacities, but will also require a strong policy push. India must foster development and economic growth whilst protecting the climate, and this can only be achieved through a low-carbon economy; it is indeed the only sustainable route.

The author is a final year student of Economics at Miranda House, University of Delhi.

  1. Choi et al, IZA, “An Empirical study of the relationships between CO2 emissions, economic growth and openness”
  2. Granados et al, University of Michigan, “Dispelling the smoke: CO2 emissions and economic growth from a global perspective”
  3. Damodaran, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, “Carbon capture and storage: India’s concerns”

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