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I-Day special: A look at how better tech, policy, and research are evoking optimism in face of historic challenges

India celebrates its 75th Independence Day this weekend. As the country embarks on the final quarter of its centenary as a sovereign nation, India confronts a plethora of issues that require urgent attention- environmental degradation, climate change, crumbling health and education infrastructure, risks of economic stagnation and widening inequality, and historically deep social division. The years ahead will likely be critical in shaping India’s values, her convictions in a rapidly changing global order, and her responsibilities towards her citizenry and the world at large.

The challenge is considerable. But it’s not all doom and gloom, there are green shoots too that provoke hope. As the country looks on at the road ahead at this crucial crossroads, CarbonCopy looks at some trends around energy, water, air quality, and technology that  engender optimism for the direction of changes we could see in the decades to come.

Cleaner air- indoor and outside

According to a recent report, one-fourth of air pollution-linked deaths in India are due to residential emissions where solid biofuel combustion is responsible for contributing to ambient fine particulate matter. It states that 1 million deaths were avoidable in 2017 by eliminating fossil-fuel combustion.

The adoption of better and more efficient cooking fuel in the coming time will likely bring along with it an improvement in the quality of air being breathed. Despite recent setbacks, India’s national LPG coverage has increased from 61.9% on 1 April 2016 to 99.5% as of 1 January 2021. As per the latest count on 1 July 2021, the total number of LPG connections in the country touched 29.11 crore, up from 16.62 crore in 2016. The PM, this week, also launched a sequel to the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, coined Ujjwala 2.0, which aims to also expand the coverage of piped gas connections across the country.

A big reason for urban air pollution in India are vehicular emissions. But this too has shown signs of change as the national and state governments seek to aggressively expand electric vehicle (EV) adoption. In its report, NITI Aayog has clearly pointed out that the penetration of EV could reach around 70% for commercial cars, 30% for private cars, 40% for buses, and 80% for two and three-wheelers by 2030. These targets, if achieved, could save 474 MT of oil equivalent and 846 MT of CO2 emissions over the deployed vehicles’ lifetime.

While the most sweeping efforts to clean up the country’s air through a national action plan is still in its nascency, with activities mostly limited to the foundational work of information collection and planning, India is also in the midst of fundamental shift in the understanding of air quality as a function of airsheds rather than developing in isolated silos. Scientists from IITM Pune recently developed a new model to tackle air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region that aims to give more predictive support at a more granular level to help more efficient decision-making during the smoggy winter months. The ‘Decision Support System’ will not only help identify exact sources contributing to Delhi’s pollution, but also predict practical scenarios in winters to enable the government decide which sector to shut down or where to reduce activity in view of prevailing air quality.

Energy access driven by the clean energy transition

India has already embarked on a journey of energy transition and is progressing rapidly. After the adoption of the Paris Agreement at COP 21, India pledged to reduce the emission intensity of the GDP by 33% to 35% by 2030 from 2005 levels.

It has also committed to increase the share of non-fossil fuels-based electricity to 40% by 2030 with international support on technology transfer and financing. This includes an ambitious target of achieving 175 GW of renewable energy (out of which 100 GW will be from solar) by 2022. With the recent announcement of reaching the landmark of 100GW of installed RE capacity, India is now inches away from meeting its Paris Agreement commitments.

At the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019, India declared that it aims to achieve 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030, planning to go beyond that was committed under the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

According to the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) report, the latest trends of electricity generation from renewables (especially from solar projects), reveal that the cost of electricity from coal is losing its cost advantage, and the supply of affordable 24×7 electricity from solar and wind with battery storage is becoming a reality.

Decentralised renewable energy sources like rooftop solar panels, micro or mini-grids, and rechargeable batteries have shown promising results in securing sustainable and equitable energy access. The latest surge in RE installation has been on the back of strong growth in rooftop solar installations. Experts believe that decentralisation through micro- and mini-grids supported by solar and other RE would be game-changer in reducing energy poverty in the country as transition to clean energy continues to be propelled by strong tailwinds.

Such trends present a clean picture for India. According to India Energy Outlook 2021, the rapid expansion of solar power combined with smart policy-making is transforming India’s electricity sector. It has enabled India to provide clean, affordable, and reliable power to a growing number of households and businesses, the report says.

Tap water connection to every household by 2024

According to the NITI Aayog report, at least 40% of the Indian population will have no access to drinking water by the year 2030. However, the central water commission states that India needs a maximum of 3,000 cubic meters of water a year and what India receives is 4,000 cubic meters of rain per year. This points out that India has water abundance but the problem is in using it judiciously. Only 8% of this water is captured and the rest is being runoff.

Changing the water practices across domestic, industrial, and agricultural sectors will play a pivotal role to fix the water crisis. Implementation of new technologies like smart water purifiers and auto-maintenance systems can pave the way to a better future. The introduction of IoT technology, sensors, and a data-driven approach to water purification presents a silver lining to the problem.

Apart from that proper implementation of government schemes will also pave a path for clean water. UnderJal Jeevan Mission (JJM), nearly 8.4 million rural households have assured piped water supply, an increase from 7% to 31% in 22 months since its inception in 2019. The mission objective is to provide every rural household with a functional tap water connection by 2024.

In July, two districts from Haryana- Bhiwani, and Sonipat became ‘Har Ghar Jal’ districts- every rural household in these districts is now getting tap water supply. Recently Odisha has also achieved a milestone for setting up more than 10,000 rainwater harvesting structures to improve water conservation and groundwater recharge.

Technology for climate resilient agriculture

Agriculture is among the most heavily affected sectors due to the mind-boggling uncertainties tied to climate change. Fortunately, beyond contentious modification of seeds and intensification of inputs, technology is helping the sector shore up its adaptive capacity to deal with prevailing and future vagaries of climate. Investments in the National Monsoon Mission and High-Performance Computing programmes that include real-time advisories for farmers and granular weather predictions for agro-meteorology would yield 50-fold returns through better protection and income potential among farmers, fisherfolk and livestock owners.

Artificial Intelligence too is expected to play a significant role in the growth of Indian agriculture relieving the sector from stressful conditions and catalyzing shift towards data-driven farming. From crop selection to crop monitoring, an AI-based approach can be used to identify the right solutions.

Recently Microsoft India in partnership with Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS) launched phase 2 of its artificial intelligence model ‘Sunny Lives’ for predicting heatwaves risk in India. In phase 1 it piloted predictive risk modeling for cyclones and floods in India’s disaster-prone coastal areas.

The model uses high-resolution satellite imagery interpreted by the system to identify the most vulnerable houses and recommend immediate and long-term actions to reduce the risk. It is a scalable model and can be used to generate predictive multi-hazard risk analysis of earthquakes, storms, forest fires, and biological disasters in the future.

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