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15 Dec, 2023 13:40

Fueling progress: How ‘dirty’ coal will help the world’s most populous country go green

India plans to produce 1.5 billion tons of coal by 2030, but its ambition to embrace renewables like wind and solar power has secured it some leeway
Fueling progress: How ‘dirty’ coal will help the world’s most populous country go green

In the run-up to the United Nations annual climate summit, India was under pressure regarding its increasing coal production; it had repeatedly clarified that the fossil fuel is crucial to its energy security. As experts try to decode what the fine print of what the summit’s outcome means for India, it is clear that the South Asian nation is able to ensure energy growth and energy security.

The recently-concluded 28th Conference of Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had something for everyone, especially the first-ever reference (in CoP outcomes) to transitioning away from fossil fuels. Although it is a far cry from demanding the phase-out of fossil fuel, it is still considered a start by many and, in fact, gives the coal-dependent Indian economy some breathing space.

India is already close to producing 900 million metric tons of coal annually and intends to increase this figure to to 1.5 billion tons by 2030. It also has a target of 500 GW of installed capacity through non-fossil fuel resources (including 450 GW from renewables). However, the increase in coal production is something that has been a contentious point for many, even though India maintains that it is crucial for its energy security and reliability.

Madhura Joshi, a senior associate at E3G, a think tank focused on the political economy of climate change, is in charge of her company's work on India’s energy transition. She noted that “2023 has provided a huge boost to clean energy transitions both in India and globally.”

The CoP text adopted today is historic,” she told RT. “In a first, the text signals a clear global push to triple renewables, and to double energy efficiency by 2030 – both also landmark milestones under India’s G20 presidency this year. In another first, the CoP text highlighted the need to transition away from fossil fuels to achieve net-zero goals by mid-century.”

Speaking at the summit, India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav commented that the “determination shown at CoP is also substantiated" because the country has the "means to bring it to fruition.”

“This must be based on the principles of equity and climate justice, which is respectful of national circumstances, and where developed countries take the lead based on their historical contributions,” Yadav said. “India, under PM Narendra Modi, has already achieved its earlier NDCs set for 2030 and revised them upwards affirming continued commitment. India will continue to walk this path with utmost responsibility, and show how economy and ecology can go hand in hand.”

What does the outcome of CoP 28 mean for India’s energy growth?

Ajay Shankar, a Distinguished Fellow at TERI, told RT that CoP28 resolutions are a forward step in curbing carbon emissions in many ways, but there is a need to do more.

“In India, we are on the right path to meeting energy transition targets as per the announcements made by PM Modi in the past,” he said.

Shankar said coal is a cheap source for generating energy and it would not be possible to make distinctions between coal, gas or oil as all of these are fossil fuels. The developed countries should put in more effort and money to meet carbon emissions targets,” he said, adding that the Indian government's efforts have resulted in carbon intensity going down in the country.

Ulka Kelkar, Executive Director on climate at the World Resources Institute India, a think-tank, emphasized in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter) that “from an Indian perspective, this text displays greater parity between coal and other fossil fuels but appears to absolve developed countries of the responsibility of phasing out their fossil fuel use in this critical decade.”

Regarding India’s approach to green energy, Madhura Joshi said that studies by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) show that most of the projected renewable capacity will come from wind and solar, which she contended are already cheaper than fossil fuel options. India has already established ambitious targets and implemented green manufacturing schemes.

“As a global renewable leader, this is a clear opportunity for India, to both accelerate its domestic renewables growth and support other countries in their clean energy expansions,” Joshi told RT. “But renewable energy growth needs to go hand-in-hand with phasing out fossil fuels, including coal. Otherwise, we risk locking in resources in uncompetitive and unsustainable pathways.”

She said that “what is clear is that we are moving from (asking) where we want to get to, i.e. net-zero, to the meatier but more difficult, how (phasing out fossil fuels and phasing in renewables), what is needed (finance, technology, political will), and by when (accelerated action this decade for net-zero by mid-century).”

What is missing for India?

Experts note that it is a breather for an economy like India, as the outcome of CoP 28 in UAE calls for a timely transition away from all fossil fuels and includes the commitment to tripling renewable energy capacity, something that was adopted during the G20 summit in Delhi.

In addition to increasing its coal production, India is also working on increasing its renewable capacity to bolster energy reliability for its 1.4 billion-plus population. In addition to massive solar and wind power targets, India is also focusing on other solutions like green hydrogen for the decarbonization of its industrial sector.

However, it needs a lot of finance and that is a sore point for India.

Aarti Khosla, Director at Climate Trends, an India-based research agency, said the “Dubai outcome  is positive, however with gaps”.

“This CoP was touted as the one where an evaluation of climate action would be made and marching orders will come for action within this decade,” Khosa said. “In an effort to please the major emitters, the decision gives a free pass to gas and false solutions by terming them as 'transitional' fuel, regardless of emissions contributions which are modelled to come from gas, especially from countries like the US, Russia and the Middle East.”

“With much hype on this CoP being a finance CoP, there isn't any landmark outcome on finance,” she said. “The calls for reforms to multilateral financing and for the World Bank to scale up finance through grants and concessional funding is relevant for India.”