India's success on fighting air pollution is inextricably linked to how quickly it can ditch fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy | Photo: The Hindu

India’s air pollution battle unwinnable without energy transition

As India attends the UN climate conference in Spain this week, there are multiple things to be proud of. 2019 is on track for the best, or well, least bad year for Delhi’s air quality since 2015. India’s CO2 emissions will post the slowest growth in 15 years. The role of CO2-free energy sources in covering demand growth was the highest on record. The development of renewable energy in the past few years has exceeded expectations. The country has introduced its first ever national action plan on clean air, with strong synergies with the climate effort.

Many of these gains are however temporary or under threat.

Air quality this year has been helped by favorable meteorological conditions, as well as a dramatic slowdown in manufacturing activity – combined with continued growth in clean energy. Reductions in coal and diesel consumption in particular meant lower pollutant emissions.

The implementation of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) has a long way to go as, outside of Delhi, the implementation of action plans for the targeted 102 cities still remains scarce on the ground. Installation of air pollution controls at coal-fired power plants is missing another deadline after missing the first one in December 2017.

RE installation has been sputtering as states have cut tariffs retroactively, hurting investor confidence. 

Slower CO2 emission growth relied largely on a slowdown in manufacturing activity and exceptionally high hydro output – the renewable energy expansion needs to speed up significantly to match electricity demand growth also when the economy rebounds.

India suffers 6-8 lakh deaths per year due to air pollution from fossil fuels – more than half of the total death toll from air pollution. She is also one of the countries most hit by climate change. Hazardous air quality, increasing incidences of floods, droughts and heat waves are a testament to the increasing impacts of fossil fuel burning in India as well as globally.  

With consumption of both coal and oil more than doubling in the past 15 years, fossil fuel consumption is a key driver of the country’s air quality crisis. Growing fossil fuel consumption in India was also responsible for half of global CO2 emission growth in the past five years.

But India is not alone with this challenge – while the health impact numbers and pollution levels are among the worst in the world, much of the developing world faces the same challenges.

The renewable energy targets of 450 GW renewable energy, agricultural solar feeder scheme and national solar mission introduced by the government are a world-leading effort, that have already had a major impact on the global energy outlook. It is not an exaggeration to say that countless people outside India enjoy better and cheaper electricity access today thanks to the country’s pioneering role in bringing down the costs of wind and solar power, and demonstrating that developing countries can deploy these technologies at scale.

With a rapid six-fold increase in installed solar energy capacity from 5 GW in March 2016 to 31 GW in October 2019 India shows promises to progress faster in decarbonising the energy sector. But after the major initial successes of the program, it is now facing roadblocks, just as the energy transition has in every country that has succeeded in rapidly increasing renewable power generation. This year has seen relatively slow development of wind energy and recent developments hurting the investor confidence by cutting tariffs retroactively are dragging the renewable energy sector and it seems to be struggling. 

A failure to speed up the deployment of clean energy would mean that once the economy rebounds, coal and oil will rebound with it, undoing much of the gains in air quality, and further increasing the toll exacted by pollution on the economy.

Success will be essential in cleaning the air, meeting the country’s energy needs without a horrendous public health toll, and meeting India’s international pledges. If the efforts are successful, 2019 will be marked down as the year that India started to reap the fruit of the country’s clean air and clean energy policies.

Lauri Myllyvirta is the Lead Analyst for Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA)

About The Author