As the world’s third-largest carbon emitter and a coal-dependent economy, India’s 2070 net-zero target is great news not just for the country itself but for the entire planet. While its renewable energy transition is well underway, with large investments fueling an unprecedented expansion of renewables across the Southeast Asian nation, the record-breaking heatwave that has been crippling the country since March represents a pressing challenge that could compromise all the progress made so far. In order to meet the skyrocketing energy demand and minimise the risk of power outages, India is now stepping up its coal game again after a three-year-long downward trend.

India’s Green Transition

Over the past two decades, India’s economy has undergone a stunning transformation. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, Asia’s third-largest country experienced an unprecedented economic growth of almost 40%, among the fastest in the world. This boom lifted millions of people out of poverty and contributed to an unmatched expansion of urban areas and infrastructure, from buildings and factories to transportation and electricity networks. This rapid industrial expansion was fuelled primarily by oil and coal production. Today, over 80% of the country’s energy needs are still being met by fossil fuels, with coal alone providing more than 40% of its electricity supply. This positions India as the world’s third-largest coal producer – preceded only by the US and China – as well as the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2). 

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Figure 1: World’s Biggest Emitters of Carbon Dioxide, 1750-2020

The looming climate emergency has forced countries around the world to step up their game and come up with a plan to curb global warming and shift to carbon neutrality as soon as possible. Following other nations, at COP26 Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a long-awaited pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2070. Given the economic potential as well as its 1.4 billion population, India’s climate mitigation plan is transformational not only for the country itself but for the entire world.

Along with China, India recently faced backlash for supposedly insisting on changing the phrasing of the final deal that the country signed at the 2021 UN Climate Conference to a pledge to ‘phase down’ instead of ‘phase out’ coal. However, experts agreed that the country did not have any other choice. Indeed, its extremely high dependency on coal – second only to China – makes it impossible to end its coal reliance within the timeframe of western nations. Aiming at drastically reducing it while simultaneously scaling up renewables is the nation’s best strategy, many argued.

Modi’s green transition plan comprises a 50% increase in renewable energy as well as a total projected carbon emission reduction of one billion tonnes by 2030, a 45% reduction of the economy’s carbon intensity. As ambitious as this might sound, achieving these targets is the only way in which the country can hope to reach the net-zero goal in time. Within months after its pledge, India’s green transition was well underway. Clean energy is rapidly rising, with investments in renewables increasing by 250% between 2014 and 2021 and expected to hit USD$15 billion this year. Furthermore, according to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, India is now fourth globally for overall installed renewable energy capacity, which increased from 2.6 gigawatts (GW) to more than 46GW in the last 7.5 years, a staggering growth of 286%. 

Despite the progress made, the fight is far from over. India is now encountering a major, climate change-fuelled challenge that could represent a major setback to the country’s green transition. 

What is Happening in India?

Every year for the past 10 decades, an average of 20 million people have been forced from their homes by extreme weather-related events such as floods, wildfires, and droughts, the number of which has nearly tripled in the last 30 years as global warming worsened. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), India is the country expected to pay the highest price for the impacts of the climate crisis. 

India is also currently experiencing a long-running wave of scorching and record-breaking heat since March 2022 – which was the hottest and driest month recorded in 120 years. For several consecutive days, residents were hit by temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius, while in some areas, surface land temperatures reached even 60C. There is no doubt among experts that this unprecedented heatwave is a direct manifestation of climate change. 

As is always the case during such emergencies, the poor and more vulnerable citizens are the ones suffering the most. Residents living in cramped slums and homes have been experiencing health issues ranging from upset stomachs and fever to heat boils, skin allergies, and dehydration. Cases of malaria have also sparked as mosquitoes breed in the heat and humidity and as of May 2022, 25 people had already succumbed to the deadly heatwave. 

Already among the world’s most water-stressed countries, India is also dealing with water shortages. Even though water tankers are keeping communities hydrated, supply is not enough to cover the needs of all residents. The heatwave has also contributed to an economic slowdown due to a loss of productivity, as thousands of Indians are unable to work in the extreme heat. Farmers are among the worst-hit workers as they struggle to rescue what remains of the country’s wheat crops, piling on existing fears of a global shortage sparked by the war in Ukraine.

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How Does the Heatwave in India Affect the Coal Industry?

Besides the health and environmental consequences, the heatwave in India has sparked extremely high energy demand to power air-conditioning and cooling systems. In April, total power demand rose 13.2% and up to 75% in Northern areas. This has led to a coal shortage which triggered the country’s worst power crisis in more than six years. Millions are left without power for up to nine hours a day and critical services such as hospitals are constantly threatened by blackouts

The fuel crisis and huge pressure on domestic supply have forced the government to ease green rules for coal mines – which are now allowed to expand production by a further 10% without requiring new impact assessment or having to consult local residents. Furthermore, at the beginning of May 2022, the government took an unusual step by ordering coal-fired power plants to operate at full capacity and proceeded to revive production from nearly 100 inoperative mines in order to ensure enough supply to meet current and future demands. Indeed, the monsoon season expected to hit the country around June will slow down production. According to Bloomberg, Prime Minister Modi also sought help from importers to ensure more coal supplies, asking manufacturers to import approximately 19 million tons between April and June. These measures are in a bid to meet the soaring demand and stop the power shortages that have now occurred in more than half of all states, putting India’s coal-dominated energy system under further strain. According to a recent assessment, in April 2022 alone, coal production rose by 29% compared to the same month last year, hitting nearly 52 million tonnes. 

While these extreme measures taken by the government are seen as necessary to tackle the emergency situation caused by the brutal heatwave, ramping up coal production will undoubtedly lead to an increase in emissions, thus threatening India’s hard-earned progress and COP26 commitments – experts argue. While solutions to avoid an energy disaster are there, relying on them inevitably means sacrificing the progress made in terms of emissions reduction. And given that climate change is what is causing this heatwave in the first place, bypassing the problem instead of solving it cannot be considered a sustainable approach. Instead, if India wants to avoid future supply shocks, it should stick to its decarbonisation goals. Because switching to renewables is a daunting task – especially for developing countries – industrialised nations also need to step up and scale up investments and financial support for India’s transition, making good on the promise to deliver USD$100 billion annually to help poorer ones deal with climate change. 

EO’s Position: India has huge potential for renewable energy expansion, the only sustainable path to reach the country’s climate mitigation targets by 2070. Achieving carbon neutrality in India would be transformational for the entire planet and for this reason, the green transition must be on top of the government’s agenda. While coal is being used to ‘temporarily’ address the looming energy crisis amid the record-breaking heatwave, tackling the emergency by bypassing its primary cause is not the solution India needs. Instead, the country must move away from expensive production and importation of fossil fuels and redirect funds to developing the infrastructure needed to build a future based on renewables.      

Featured image by: Aung Chan Thar