It’s been a year since the words COVID-19 became common parlance. As the pandemic progressed, so did the calls for ‘green recovery’, as experts looked at resetting past behaviour as the only silver lining in a year that was otherwise filled with uncertainty and despair. Since September 2020, Climate Trends conducted a series of webinars that asked experts the tough questions on what such a ‘green recovery’ would look like in India, and what it would mean for the country’s energy mix, especially at a time when a transition towards renewables is already underway. Read on to find out what the experts have to say on the matter in three key areas – agriculture, energy transition and urban mobility.
In recent years, India has pushed for reduced dependence on agriculture and increased its focus on the industrial and service sectors to drive growth. Despite this, the agricultural sector has proved its resilience time and again, registering a growth of 3% during the pandemic, while other parts of the economy continued to suffer. The pandemic, however, did highlight problems that needed to be addressed – especially the agricultural supply chain, which was severely disrupted. While the government did allocate Rs1 lakh crore in its stimulus package to create supporting infrastructure such as warehousing and cold storage, experts believe this is just one part of the problem. Healing the sector would require an entire change in strategy to address the more deep-rooted issues of fertiliser-use imbalances, inefficient cropping patterns and unsustainable water and land use. While experts acknowledged the progressive steps taken by successive governments to promote sustainable agriculture, such as adoption of solar pumps for farmers and fertilisers, and improving water-use efficiency through micro irrigation, they also emphasised on the importance of subsidies for agricultural productivity and sustained economic growth. While the contentious three new farm bills aim to provide greater freedom to farms while selling their produce, concerns have been raised over the impact monocrop contract farming would have on the use of soil and water, biodiversity and food sovereignty. A fine balance would need to be achieved in order to get India’s agricultural sector on a more sustainable track.
The record-low plant load factors of India’s coal-fired power plants, the tepid response to the coal block auctions announced by the government last year and the growing cost-effectiveness of solar and wind energy all point to one trend – coal is no longer the most sensible source of power. According to experts, the installation of pollution-control technology in existing power plants also cannot save the sector from meeting this fate – largely because the resultant rise in tariffs will make them more uncompetitive. Add to that the growing evidence of coal power’s toxic contribution to air pollution and water stress in rural and urban areas, its devastating impact on the health of locals living around coal mining heartlands and the less-than-expected growth in electricity demand – all giving us a clear indication of which way the wind is blowing . With one eye on the solar and wind competitiveness, the country’s largest power producer, NTPC, also declared a 32GW of clean energy capacity by 2032. According to experts, the Indian government has shown its willingness to acknowledge the impact carbon emissions have on climate change and course-correct, as seen in its allotment of Rs188.1 billion for the energy sector out of its Rs20 trillion stimulus package. Experts, however, do believe that the government needs to shake off its support for fossil fuels – the generous subsidies remain a concern – in order to ensure a cleaner future for the country.
India’s increasing air pollution problem is compounded by not only the rapid growth of its urban clusters, but also that of tier-2 and tier-3 cities. While private vehicle ownership continues to grow, the lack of awareness and supporting infrastructure for EV vehicles has failed to stop the growing congestion of ICE vehicles on Indian roads. This is also translating into a growing demand for polluting petroleum – which forms a sizable chunk of government revenue. According to experts, efforts have been made to reduce the dependence on ICE vehicles – through tax incentives and subsidies for EVs. The government has also laid down plans to set up a public network of charging infrastructure in order to achieve its ambitious target of 30% electrification of mobility by 2030. But implementation remains a question with EV ownership making up just 1% of the total market. The dependence on imports from China for raw materials, as well as the complex top-down federal decision-making structure that the transport sector follows also remain substantial roadblocks. Experts believe that despite these impediments, there is growing evidence of localisation of EV supply chains in India, as well as a recent groundswell of manufacturers and investors venturing into electric mobility, particularly in the two- and three-wheel segments. Government needs to balance this with increased investments in the larger EV ecosystem – such as battery manufacturing and charging infrastructure – along with increasing public transport capacity in order to boost India’s slow, but sure progression towards clean mobility.