Himalayan infra, and an avalanche of problems

Newsletter - February 12, 2021

Destructive potential: An aerial view of the destroyed Tapovan-Vishnugad in Uttarakhand's Chamoli after Sunday's flash flood | Photo: Twitter/Maxar

Himalayan infra, and an avalanche of problems

Following Sunday’s flash floods that has left an under-construction NTPC hydropower plant decimated, India’s plans to continue high-altitude hydropower development are once again under the scanner.

On February 7, television channels and mobile devices were inundated with dramatic images of a flash flood caused by a possible glacier collapse in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. A swollen Dhauli Ganga river gave way, causing massive destruction, killing 37 people (at the time of publishing, with 168 people still missing) and washing away the under-construction Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project. Rescue operations continue to search for missing people, who had mere seconds to run to safety. But was this just another glacier break considered commonplace in high mountainous regions or were we witness to the wrath of climate change, as suggested by many experts?

Trigger theories

Scientists are currently piecing together the trigger for the flash flood. Preliminary evidence and satellite images suggest that the sudden increase in the river’s discharge was caused by an avalanche following heavy snowfall near the feeding glacier in the Nandadevi mountain range at an elevation of around 5,000 metres. The mass movement of rock and ice, in turn, caused a glacial overhang near the snout (called a hanging glacier) to collapse into the river around 2,000 metres below, say experts studying the incident.

“Our initial assessments and satellite images suggest the flash flood was triggered by ice-rock fall in the higher altitudes of the range. Currently, it looks like a hanging glacier broke off near the snout of the main glacier and had a free fall into the valley, causing the surge in flow. However, questions regarding the increased volume of water still remain,” explains Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor of Glaciology and Hydrology at IIT Indore. The most probable explanation for this, adds Azam, is an accumulation of melt water from heavy snowfall in January and early February that had collected in a small pond, which was breached as the rock and ice from the hanging glacier crashed into the valley.

A separate analysis conducted at IISc indicates the release of water from an underground glacial lake led to the flash flood. The team based its conclusion on images that suggest a 25 hectare depression in the bedrock near glacial ice in northern Nanda Devi, which is part of the Garhwal Himalayas in Chamoli district. New satellite imagery, however, also points to the possibility that the flash flood was a result of fresh snow falling off the mountain, resulting in an avalanche that is estimated to have released 3-4 million cubic metres of water in the surrounding rivers.

Latest images show a new lake forming due to accumulated debris in the river from Sunday’s incident, setting off fears of the possibility of a second surge in the river.

Is there a climate change link?

While such occurrences are fairly commonplace and natural in high mountain environments, experts feel the imprints of climate change are clear. “Such breakages in hanging glaciers happen a lot in high mountains as overhangs snap periodically under heavy ice loads. However, it is also clear now that the warmer winters being experienced in recent years have negatively impacted the stability of such formations. This could have been an added factor in the recent incident,” says Azam.

The Himalayas still represent one of the largest gaps in knowledge when it comes to studying climate change and its implications. However, increased research interest over the past decade has slowly revealed worrying changes in the region, which has been experiencing above average rates of warming over the past 50 years. The largest and most comprehensive assessment yet of the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH), published in early 2019 by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), found that rates of warming in the HKH region were not only higher, but would continue well into the 21st century even if global warming was limited to 1.5°C. The report also noted that increasing temperature had meant that while extreme cold events were on the decline, extreme warm weather events have become more pronounced. Recent research has not only estimated alarming rates of glacier retreat and reductions in glaciated area in the Himalayan region, it has also revealed rapid fragmentation of glaciers.

The dangers of glacier melt

“With increasing global warming, the upper reaches of the Himalayas are warming faster, leading to more rapid melting of the glaciers. This has resulted in an increasing number of glacier lakes, which are formed by water melting from the ice caps and accumulating at the mouth or snout of the glacier. These lakes also become reservoirs of ice and moraine debris. With an increase in this phenomenon, the breach of glacier lakes poses a severe threat to the communities living downstream,” says AP Dimri, a professor at the School of Environmental Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Glacier melt is a complex process that culminates from not only surface temperatures and meteorology, but also topography, debris cover, depth of ice, bedrock slopes, just to name a few factors. Worryingly, smaller glaciers melt faster than larger ones. The fragmentation of the Himalaya’s glaciated sections implies further acceleration of glacier melt.

Further complicating matters, the loss in glacier ice mass has translated to rapid proliferation of glacier lakes formed from accumulating melt water held back by naturally formed rock and ice walls. According to remote sensing data, there are over 25,600 glacial lakes formed due to meltwater from glaciers across the HKH, covering an area of 1,414 sqkm. Research on these lake formations, especially following the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, have increasingly warned of the progressively worsening risks posed by the growing number of lakes. The high seismicity of the Himalayan region amplifies the risks of glacial lake dam walls breaching and downstream flash flooding.

“There are currently no conclusive causal links between Sunday’s flash flood and the construction downstream. However, it does indicate heightened risks for such projects, which requires a holistic rethink of our planning approach. Big glacial lakes pose a major threat, but it is highly probable that relatively smaller incidents triggered by glacial instability will also increase in the future with potentially devastating consequences,” expounds Azam. 

Backing a fragile nexus

The Himalayan glacier network is responsible for feeding massive perennial river systems in South Asia, which include the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Indus river basins. Apart from the water flowing through these systems, the glaciers represent huge energy generation potential. According to official assessments published by the ministry of power, India’s Himalayan states carry over 104 GW of hydro power potential, of which only about 20 GW have been currently tapped. This massive potential has meant that despite the expanding recognition of the dangers posed by the volatility in the Himalayan ecosystem, India has continued to grow the number of high altitude hydropower projects.

The bad reputation garnered by large dams for mass displacement and pronounced environmental impacts led to the drying up of international finance for such projects in the 1990s. This, accompanied by the privatisation of hydro power in India, led to a pivot in India’s energy planning strategy.

While the 1995 Mega Power Policy paved the way for private investment hydro power, the 50,000 MW Hydro Initiative launched in 2003 started the image makeover of hydro power as a sustainable source of renewable energy. Rather than large earth dams that required enormous amounts of capital, the government decided to tap the energy potential through smaller projects situated higher up in the mountains. In the two decades since, small hydro projects, fed through tunnels bored into mountain ranges have cropped up across all of India’s Himalayan states. With private investments in sight, India’s policy framework for hydropower promoted progressive deregulation of the renewable energy market, minimal state interventions, and relaxations in clearance procedures. Importantly, state governments were given the power to allot and commission projects independently.

Currently, more than 20 GW of hydro power split over 65 projects are in operation across Himalayan states, with Himachal Pradesh representing nearly half of this capacity. A further 29 projects, with a capacity of 9.7 GW, are currently being constructed despite rising evidence of the risks posed by land use change in the region.

The Kedarnath aftermath

Following the devastating 2013 Kedarnath flash floods, the Supreme Court appointed an Expert Appraisal Committee to look into the viability of 24 hydroelectric projects flagged by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) as having significant impacts on the ecosystems of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins. The committee looked into the 24 projects planned at elevations of more than 2,500 metres and recommended an immediate stoppage to 23 of the projects. The committee further recommended a review of all the under-construction and proposed hydro power projects, which entail tunnelling, formation of a barrage or a reservoir.

Source: CEA Monthly Generation December 2020 update

National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project, situated at an altitude of about 1,700 metres, which was all but washed away in Sunday’s flash flood, exemplifies the current underestimation of risks associated with high altitude development projects. The Tapovan-Vishnugad HPP, which was not planned to handle sudden surges in river flow, was not equipped with any early warning systems. This means there was practically no advance warning of the flood. Similar incidents over the past few years reported from Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim show that the under-preparation and poor planning reflected in Sunday’s incident is chronic rather than exceptional.

According to CarbonCopy’s analysis of hydropower project details updated by the Central Electricity Authority in December 2020, projects with over 15 GW of generating capacity currently operate or are currently being built at a height of over 1,500 metres, making them particularly vulnerable to extreme weather and changes in glacier dynamic further upstream. 

A matter of unbalanced risks

The increasing number of accidents associated with infrastructure development in the Himalayan region has not gone unnoticed by locals directly affected by the projects. Sunday’s disaster in Chamoli might have been the tipping point of public opinion when it comes to high-altitude hydropower projects. Residents from at least two panchayats in Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul-Spiti district have now raised demands to scrap planned projects in the district. Closer to the site of the latest incident, residents of Pipalkoti in Uttarakhand have intensified their protests against blasting and tunnelling work being done for THDC’s Vishnugad-Pipalkoti hydro electric project. Similar protests by locals in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh against planned and under-construction hydro electric projects have been reported over the past few years.

India’s Hydropower Policy of 2008, the directive document for India’s hydropower planning, is replete with concessions and exemptions, which insulate operating entities from most of the risks inherent in the sector. These risks, experts have argued, have been shifted onto the public, while margins of profits are maximised. Guaranteed payments for “design generation” and tariff regimes further nullify any incentive to optimise and upgrade designs more in line with environmental thresholds and projected changes.

Studies looking into India’s hydropower development also point out that joint ventures often used to implement projects “reduce the distance between project regulators and implementers.” This has led to compromises in environmental assessment impacts (EIAs), which often exhibit proof of sanitisation by developers to remove problematic aspects.

“Planning and implementing large engineering projects on himalayan rivers is fraught with great risks. Most scholars of Himalayan rivers have been warning about these risks for decades, but the EIA for these projects withhold or underplay this information so that projects get approved. Given that climate change is such a complex phenomenon and is affecting everything in our environments, development and environmental policies should really not be selecting these options that put people at great risk,” says Manju Menon a senior fellow working on climate policy and environmental justice at the Centre for Policy Research.

Provisions made to attract investments currently have culminated in an unequal balance of the risks associated. This in turn has led to India’s hydro-power fleet being grossly misaligned with not only ecological sustainability of projects, but also their capacity to withstand impacts of environmental changes. This issue of unbalanced risks is not only a problem for the hydropower sector, but extends across infrastructure projects.

What India currently needs is a thorough reassessment of its policy and plan regarding hydropower and other infrastructure development to not only gauge the impact of the project, but also their adaptive capacity. Sustainable, after all, is no longer simply a matter of environment-friendliness in design, but also includes the ability to absorb and insulate against impending changes in the Himalayan region.

Climate Science

Searching for survivors: Rescue operations continue almost a week after a flash flood hit Chamoli district in Uttarakhand | Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

Flash flood in Uttarakhand trigger climate change fears

A possible glacier collapse in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand on February 7 led to a flash flood in the area because of the swelling of the Dhauli Ganga river. It caused massive destruction, killing at least 37 people (at the time of publishing, with 168 people still missing) and washing away the under-construction Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project. Initial reports have attributed the flooding to a glacial break, with some experts linking the event to climate change. The experts pointed to the increasing use of concrete cement structures instead of the traditional wood and stone masonry, which is creating a heat-island impact in the sensitive mountainous region. 

An IISc analysis concluded that release of water from an underground glacial lake led to the flash flood. The team based its conclusion on images that suggest a 25 hectare depression in the bedrock near glacial ice in northern Nanda Devi, which is part of the Garhwal Himalayas in Chamoli district.

New satellite imagery, however, also points to the possibility that the flash flood was a result of fresh snow falling off the mountain, resulting in an avalanche that is estimated to have released 3-4 million cubic metres of water in the surrounding rivers. Latest images following the incident show a new lake forming due to accumulated debris in the river from Sunday’s incident, setting off fears of the possibility of a second surge in the river.    

Sea levels likely to rise faster than IPCC estimate: Study

New research revealed the 1.1m sea level rise estimated by the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) through this century is “too low”. The actual rise is likely to be much faster, according to the study published in the journal OS Letters. 

The IPCC predictions are based on models for ice sheets, glaciers and sea warming. But these models make their predictions based on the limited data available for testing. For example, there is scarce data on the melting of ice in the Antarctic before satellites observations that began in the 1990s. The recent study calculated the sea level rise caused by each degree of warming, also known as “transient sea level sensitivity”. Its findings were similar to some other studies that also concluded a faster sea level rise is already being seen and that previous studies have been conservative in their estimates.   

Storm Eloise kills 21 in southern Africa

Storm Eloise, which made landfall in Mozambique, Southern Africa, at the end of January, killed 21 people, according to official data. The storm destroyed crops, homes and infrastructure and left tens of thousands of people displaced. This is the second tropical storm to hit the region in less than a month. Tropical storm Chalane had made landfall in December. The region also had barely recovered from the devastating Cyclone Idai, which had killed more than 1,000 people in 2019.    

Wildfires rage in western Australia; 81 homes destroyed so far

Fires raging in western Australia have destroyed 81 homes so far, officials said. While the origins of the fires remain unknown, strong winds are hampering efforts to extinguish the blazes. This month marks a year since the devastating wildfires that killed 34 people and destroyed 18 million hectares of land in the country’s east coast. While scientists have linked the wildfires to climate change, experts are expressing increasing anger at the government’s failure to introduce any major climate measures.

48 US cities under-counting CO2 pollution by 20%: Study

Even as new US president Joe Biden works to prove his seriousness in tackling climate change, a new study revealed at least 48 of the country’s cities are under-counting their carbon dioxide pollution by nearly 20%. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, arrived at this conclusion after comparing local disclosures with national-level data. About three-quarters of the country’s fossil fuel CO2 emissions comes from its cities. Under-counting of emissions will further complicate the US’ efforts to create targets in an attempt to cut down on its greenhouse gas emissions.  

Noise pollution due to human activity impacting marine life: Scientists

Human noise is affecting the health of marine life, and has a similar impact to overfishing, pollution and the climate crisis, new research revealed. Sound is an important part of the marine ecosystem. This is because marine animals are better at hearing over long distances than they are at seeing or smelling. They use sound to catch prey, attract mates and defend their territory. 

Noise pollution caused by human activities disrupts the natural ocean soundscape and increases the risk of death. The only saving grace, according to the researchers, is that unlike other adverse impacts, noise pollution can be stopped in an instant and therefore, is least likely to have long-term effects. The study recommended ships acquire quieter propellers, electric motors and slow down their speed in order to decrease the levels of noise pollution that they create.

Climate Policy

Not a priority: Schemes such as the National Adaptation Fund face drastic cuts in India’s budget for the next financial year | Photo: India Climate Dialogue

Budget 2021-22: Centre shrinks environment budget, cools off on coal

The Centre slashed the environment ministry’s budget for 2021-2022 to Rs2,869.93 crore, much less than the previously allocated ₹3,100 crore. Schemes such as the Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP), National Adaptation Fund (NAF) and Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats (IDWH) suffered major cuts. The budgetary allocation for ‘Control of pollution’ and the National Coastal mission, however, has been increased.

While finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman made announcements about the government’s push for green hydrogen and increased investments in the renewable sector, there was little mention of how the government plans to strategise public spending on conventional energy sources – coal, petroleum and gas. The new budget did, however, reflect the government’s intentions to decrease the presence of public sector enterprises in the mining arena, to give way to more commercial players. An indicator of this is the decreasing amount this government has been allocating to its exploration of coal and lignite the past couple of years. 

The finance minister’s announcement to extend the Centre’s flagship LPG distribution scheme – Ujwala, to an additional 1 crore beneficiaries received applause from her party colleagues. But the numbers are not adding up. Under LPG subsidies, the new budget slashed the allocation for Direct Bank Transfers (DBT)of subsidies to a third of what it had allocated last year – from ₹35,605 crore in 2020-21 to ₹12,480 crore in 2021-22. 

Budget 2021-22: No cuts in excise duty on petrol, diesel

Despite calls for cuts in excise duty on petrol and diesel prices, which have skyrocketed in recent months, the Centre stuck to its guns and did not announce any cuts. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, instead, tweaked the excise duty structure to accommodate an agriculture infrastructure development cess. The FM also batted for monetisation of oil and gas pipelines owned by GAIL, Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL).

Climate change advisory bodies play key role in climate governance: Study

Are climate change advisory bodies really effective in influencing policy debates on the issue? A new study concluded that such bodies were not only doing what was asked of them, their influence has only grown over the years. The study, published in Taylor & Francis, used the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) as a case study. 

It found the CCC had a growing influence not only on political debates on carbon budgets, but also on broader topics such as energy and flood defence spending. The CCC, without being ‘politicised’ offered trusted information to policymakers and worked as a knowledge broker, the study concluded.   

France not doing enough to combat climate change, rules French court

This past fortnight, a French court ruled the country had to do more to combat climate change. Environmentalists called it a landmark ruling that could put pressure on other EU countries to battle climate change. The court was hearing a case filed by NGOs that accused the government of failing to fulfil its commitments, including those set in the Paris accord. A government spokesperson, while reacting to the ruling, agreed the state had not done much in the past to combat the issue, but that the current administration was working on it.  

China reinstates expert Xie Zhenhua as climate envoy

China reinstated climate expert and broker Xie Zhenhua as its climate envoy, a move seen as a response to the US’ appointment of John Kerry as its special climate envoy. The decision was also seen as China’s willingness to partake in climate talks with the Biden administration, which is significant because China and the US are among the major emitters of greenhouse gas emissions. Xie is known to have first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Chinese government and has a strong personal relationship with Kerry, whom he worked with on the failed 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen and the 2014 US-China deal, which was pivotal in the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement. After the announcement, Kerry called Xie a “leader” and a “capable advocate” for China on global warming issues.

Companies may soon have to follow rules for climate disclosures

Companies may soon have to follow guidelines about their disclosures of climate change risks. An international accounting body, the IFRS Foundation, announced plans to draw out a blueprint by September for global rules that will govern such disclosures. The foundation stated that this would be followed by the announcement of the creation of a global sustainability standards board during COP26 in November this year. 

The move comes amidst growing calls for such rules to avoid ‘greenwashing’, where companies exaggerate their environment credentials in order to gain consumers. A study by the European Commission looked into such ‘green claims’ and found them, mostly from online stores selling clothing and textiles, to be dubious. EU watchdog European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) said it had written to the European Commission, urging it to set new rules to avoid investors being duped by such ‘greenwashing’ claims.

Air Pollution

Clean up act: Following underutilisation of last year's outlay, a Finance Commission of ₹2200 crore was allotted towards fighting air pollution in Indian cities | Photo: Down to Earth

Budget 2021-22: Centre sets aside ₹2217 crore for air pollution control in 42 cities

The Centre allocated Rs2217 crore to fight air pollution in 42 cities with over a million population for the financial year starting April 1. The budget is almost half of the ₹4400 crore that was allocated in last year’s budget. Most of that money was not spent.

Last year’s funds remained largely unutilised by the urban local bodies, reported India Climate Dialogue. The federal finance ministry had released ₹2200 crore as the first installment in November 2020. In a first time, however, the government allocated ₹20 crore for the newly formed statutory body Commission for Air Quality Management for the National Capital Region and adjoining areas.

The ₹407 crore for ‘Control of Pollution’ includes financial assistance provided to pollution control Boards/Committees and funding to the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), launched in January 2019. An allocation of ₹18,000 crore was provided to support public bus transport services. Experts said it is expected to bring down air pollution.

Budget: Vehicle scrappage policy soon, a crore vehicles to go off the road

The Centre announced a voluntary vehicle scrapping policy in the Union budget, which is estimated to remove around one crore old vehicles, currently in circulation. Personal vehicles older than 20 years and commercial vehicles older than 15 years will have to undergo fitness tests in automated vehicle fitness testing centres.

Road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari is expected to issue the policy by the middle of this month. Gadkari told the Indian Express that based on this policy, India will become the world’s top automobile manufacturer in the next five years. He added that after scrapping their vehicles, people will surely buy new ones. That will boost demand, create around 35,000 jobs, and take the size of the automobile industry to around ₹6 lakh crore from the current ₹4.5 lakh crore. Under the policy, anyone scrapping an old vehicle will get a certificate of scrapping and using that might get a discount of up to 5% while purchasing a new vehicle. There are also talks to make the certificate more useful in terms of availing a vehicle loan on easier terms for commercial vehicles.

Burning fossil fuel causes one in five premature deaths globally: study

Burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas is far more deadly than what has been believed so far. A new study found it causes one in five premature deaths globally. Over 30% deaths in India can be attributed to air pollution from fossil fuels. About 2.5 million people die in India annually because of polluted air. 

According to the study published in the journal Environmental Research, China, India, Europe and the northeastern US are among the hardest-hit areas, suffering a disproportionately high share of 8.7 million annual deaths attributed to coal, oil and gas. The study pointed out that although India has imposed control on pollution sources since 2012, there is no evidence of air quality improvements in heavily populated cities like Delhi. While Uttar Pradesh reported the maximum number of premature deaths (0.47 million) in 2012, followed by Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, Sikkim reported the least (359).

The research compares the results to a previous estimate that found 4.2 million deaths could be attributed to pollution caused by fossil fuels. 

Air pollution in south India increased after lockdown: CSE analysis

The air is not safer to breathe in south India compared to north. This was the conclusion of a recent analysis of air pollution in south Indian cities by the Centre For Science and Environment (CSE). 

Air pollution increased in the cities in south India this winter after the COVID-19 lockdown, the new analysis revealed. While particulate concentration reduced during the lockdown, it spiked with the onset of winter, according to a statement. While several bigger cities witnessed a reduction in annual trends in particulate matter or PM2.5, smaller towns and cities experienced an increase. This reflected the trend in local and regional build-up of pollution, the statement said. The average December PM2.5 level was considerably higher in inland cities compared to coastal cities this year.

Even though the average level of PM2.5 for the summer and monsoon months in 2020 was considerably lower than the previous year because of the summer lockdown, the PM2.5 levels this past winter rose beyond that in 2019 in most of the monitored cities. The study said the region cannot rely only on the natural advantage of warmer winters and sea breeze to avoid bad air. 

Hungary ‘systematically & persistently’ breached pollution limits: EU top court

European Union’s top court said Hungary has “systematically and persistently” breached legal limits on air pollution from particulate matter, in some regions for over a decade. Europe has marked air pollution as the top environmental health risk. The EU attributed 379,000 premature deaths in the region to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018.

EU laws have required countries to limit particulate matter since 2005. Hungary is among the nine EU countries found guilty of illegal air pollution since 2011. Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden all breached particulate matter limits, while France had illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.In Hungary, 13,100 premature deaths were attributed to fine particulate matter in 2018, according to the European Environment Agency. 

Germany makes targets for transport sector more ambitious 

Germany approved a draft law that increased the pollution targets for its transport sector. The more ambitious law aims for 2030 levels to be 22% below those in 1990, the current target is just over 6%.

The new target was paired with goals to raise the share of renewable energy used in transport to 28% by 2030, supported by incentives for the use of electric cars, the production of green hydrogen from solar and wind power, and biofuels from waste. The law would provide for the step-by-step reduction in the use of some biofuels, such as palm oil, from food crops or forests.


Looking to recover: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman looked to tackle the recent slump in Indian solar installations with large capital infusins in SECI and IREDA in the Union Budget | Photo: Free Press Journal

Budget 2021-2022: ₹1000 cr for SECI, ₹1500 cr for IREDA can back 19 GW of RE projects annually?

The Centre announced an additional allocation of ₹1,000 crore to the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) in this year’s budget, which would allow it to float 15,000 megawatt (MW) of  tenders on a yearly basis. It added that SECI would attract investments of more than ₹60,000 crore annually and reduce emissions of 28.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. 

The Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA) was allocated ₹1,500 crore. The Centre said this would help IREDA to extend an additional loan facility of ₹12,000 crore, which would be in addition to its existing provision of ₹27,000 crore, finance about 4,500 MW of renewable energy projects worth ₹18,000 crore to ₹19,000 crore and reduce emissions of 8.55 million tonnes of CO2.

The government proposed the launch of the National Hydrogen Mission for generating hydrogen from green power sources. The draft of the Mission document is expected to be finalised in February 2021, after which it would go through an inter-ministerial consultation and a Cabinet approval process.

India’s solar, wind capacity addition lowest in five years in 2020

India added a total solar and wind capacity of only 4,908 megawatt (MW) in 2020, the lowest in the past five years, according to a Bridge to India report. Capacity addition for utility-scale solar and wind was 2,620 MW and 1,309 MW, down 60% and 40% year-on-year, respectively. Rooftop solar installations were down at 979 MW, 36% below previous year installations.

Pandemic induced operational and financial challenges were the main reasons for the slowdown. Increase in solar modules prices as well as metal costs in the past few months, and delayed shipments from China also contributed to the low targets. The researchers expect total capacity addition of about 29 GW in the next two years taking total capacity by the end of 2022 to 123 GW. 

Now Hydropower Purchase Obligation also part of government’s RPO targets

Hydropower will now be included in the renewable power obligation (RPO) targets of discoms. To achieve the target of 30 GW of hydropower by 2029-30, the government has issued a revised trajectory of RPO, including a long-term trajectory for hydropower purchase obligation (HPO) for projects commissioned after March 8, 2019, Mercom reported. 

The new norms calculate RPO in energy terms as a percentage of total electricity consumption, excluding the consumption met from hydropower sources. The solar RPO target may be met by power produced from solar power projects. Other non-solar RPO (excluding HPO) may be met from any renewable source other than solar and large hydropower projects.

IEA: India’s solar energy power to match coal-fired output by 2040, to lead world in battery storage

The International Energy Agency (IEA ) in its India Energy Outlook 2021 said the share of solar energy in India’s power generation could equal coal-fired output by 2040. This will be driven by falling renewable tariffs and a government target to reach 450 GW of renewable capacity by 2030. India has the potential to become a world leader in battery storage, the IEA said, adding the country could add 140-200 GW capacity of battery by 2040.

But the country’s CO2 emissions could rise as much as 50% by 2040, the largest of any country, enough to offset entirely the projected fall in emissions in Europe over the same period, IEA said. That would also make India the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, trailing only China.

China raises minimum renewable power purchase to 40% by 2030

According to a draft policy document, China will force grid companies in its provinces to buy at least 40% of power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 in order to meet the country’s climate targets, Reuters reported. The regional firms will steadily increase the amount of power purchased from clean generation sources from 28.2% in 2020 to 40% by 2030.

China pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060 and said it would boost the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25% by 2030 from a previous commitment of 20%. 

Power procured from non-hydropower renewable sources will reach a minimum of 25.9% by 2030, up from 10.8% last year, according to the draft plan. This means China will rely on solar and wind to meet its renewable goals, and move away from the large-scale hydroelectric projects. China plans to boost its installed capacity of wind and solar power to more than 1,200 gigawatts (GW) by 2030.

Electric Vehicles

Near the end of the line: GM's new announcement will mean that several of its ICE cars may no longer be relaunched as new iterations, as was standard industry practice for decades | Photo: NBC News

GM to go all-electric by 2035, Ford to pump in $29 billion in developing EVs

General Motors (GM) announced that it would stop manufacturing petrol and diesel cars by 2035, and would instead focus only on building zero emission vehicles as part of its plan to go carbon-neutral in its operations by 2040. The mammoth automaker is known for its gas-guzzling trucks and muscle cars, and its decision will likely have wide-ranging repercussions on the ICE vehicle ecosystem across North America. Its CEO Marry Barra has also previously acknowledged that it needs to switch to making EVs to pursue growth and profitability, and the company is launching the Hummer SUV as a 100% electric pick-up truck in 2022. 

GM’s arch rival, Ford Motor Company, will also invest $22 billion by 2025 into developing new EV models that particularly target its largest selling divisions: pick-up trucks, commercial vans and SUVs. Ford’s foray into EVs with its Mustang Mach-E SUV has been successful, and its new funding strategy is part of its $29 billion investment in electric and autonomous vehicles. Its CEO, Jim Farley, claimed that “Ford is all in and will not cede ground to anyone in developing and delivering connected electric vehicles and services”, and it will be re-launching the F-150 — the largest selling vehicle in the US across all categories — as a fully electric pick-up truck in 2022.

India: Delhi CM launches “Switch Delhi” campaign, calls for 500 EV chargers 

The chief minister of Delhi launched the “Switch Delhi” campaign on February 4 to educate the city’s residents on the merits of electric vehicles and to tackle its deadly air pollution. The campaign will encourage malls, market complexes and even RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) to install EV chargers, and the administration has issued a tender to install 500 EV charging points across 100 locations in Delhi. Most importantly, within six months, the Delhi government will only hire electric cars for its several departments. 

IIT startup develops zinc gel batteries as affordable alternative to li-ion

A startup incubated at IIT Kanpur developed a zinc-based battery that has found backing from big names, such as Shell, as a cheaper, non-toxic alternative to li-ion batteries. Known as Offgrid Energy Labs, the group developed a solvent-less zinc gel from salts commonly used in animal feed and agriculture, and it acts as the electrolyte for the battery. Its advantages include being non-flammable, temperature stable and not needing clean and dry rooms (like li-ion batteries do) — which lowers their cost by 35%. The batteries’ modular design also allows them to be customised for various applications. 

The startup has generated a lot of interest and if successful, its batteries could prove to be an affordable alternative to India’s mammoth reliance on overseas imports. 

US biofuel industry reluctant to join oil lobby in opposing Biden’s push for EVs

A report in Reuters suggested that high-ranking members of the US farming and biofuel sectors are reluctant to partner with the country’s oil lobby to oppose the new president’s federal subsidies for electric vehicles. The sectors are hugely influential in US policy making and have previously been at loggerheads with the oil refining industry as biofuels are a low-carbon alternative to gasoline. 

However, the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (AFPM) association has been reaching out to its rivals to ensure that liquid fuels — and the IC engine — have a future in the US. Yet, associations like the National Corn Growers Association (NGCA) are reluctant to be seen as openly hostile to the new president, and have not yet confirmed if they would consider the partnership.

Fossil Fuels

Scampering before the deadline: The UK may rush to approve financing for the Brazilian offshore project before its government bans all fossil fuel financing, possibly before COP26 | Photo: CDN Statistics

UK may rush to finance overseas drilling project in Brazil before COP26

A news investigation suggested that the UK’s export credit agency, UK Export Finance, may rush to finance an offshore oil and gas project in Brazil before the government institutes a ban on all financing for fossil fuel projects — at home or overseas. If financed, the project would release two million tonnes of CO2 every year just from its construction and operations, besides the estimated equivalent emissions of 800,000 cars annually from the burning of its hydrocarbon output. 

The approval has not yet come through, but the proposal itself has drawn heavy criticism because the UK had previously decided to ban the financing of all fossil fuel projects. The country will also host the COP26 later in 2021 to discuss the path forward on the Paris Agreement, even though the UK Export Finance has funded £3.5 billion worth of new fossil fuels projects since the agreement was signed in 2016. The ban itself may be instituted anytime between March to December 2021 — or even later — and climate activists are fearful that overseas funding for fossil fuels may be retained under certain loopholes. 

Greenpeace: UK’s offshore rigs deliberately burned off enough gas to heat 1 million homes 

Greenpeace’s investigative arm released a new report that said UK’s North Sea offshore rigs deliberately burned off enough natural gas in 2019 to heat one million homes in the country. The burning off of the extra gas released from oil wells is known as “flaring”, and the report found that in the past five years, the rigs released 20 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere — or as much as a coal plant. 

However, most importantly, the practice is avoidable as Norway banned it in the 1970s. In response, one of the worst offenders, Shell, said it lowered its flaring by 19% in the past five years, while BP would aim to stop the practice entirely by 2027 after cutting it down by 45% over 2019 levels last year. 

Italy’s Enel to exit natural gas by 2050, pans carbon capture as a decarbonisation tool

Italy’s Enel SpA announced that it would shutter all its natural gas plants to reach its target of carbon neutrality by 2050, and that CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) had “failed to take off” as a viable solution for the power industry because it may not “eliminate 100% of emissions”. Enel is the world’s largest renewable power generator and also Europe’s largest carbon emitter at an average intensity of 254g/kWh in 2020. 

The utility currently runs 15,000 MW worth of gas plants across Europe and South America and the decision comes despite well known consultancy firm Deloitte backing CCS. Enel’s previous CEO had interestingly suggested that it try nature-based solutions to recapture carbon, such as mass reforestation, and the utility currently plans to invest €70 billion in renewables by 2030. 

Dutch court rules against Shell in landmark case, could pave the way for more such litigation

A court in The Netherlands ruled against oil giant Shell in a case that was first filed in 2008, saying that the driller’s Nigerian subsidiary SPDC was indeed responsible for the contamination of the country’s agricultural fields. The case was filed by four Nigerian farmers and activist group Friends of the Earth, and the ruling could set an ominous precedent for other oil drillers. While Shell maintained that the oil leaks that affected the farmers’ fields were as a result of sabotage and not “poor maintenance”, the court ruled that Shell had failed to provide sufficient evidence and instead ordered it to compensate the farmers (the amount remains undisclosed). 

Shell was also ordered to install a leak detection system in its Oruma pipeline (the pipeline at the centre of the legal challenge), and Friends of the Earth’s Netherlands head Donald Pols said the case would help people living in developing countries challenge oil drillers for causing environmental damage. 

Alberta reinstates 1976 policy to keep coal mining out of the Rockies after public outcry

The Canadian province of Alberta reinstated a policy that was first affected in 1976 to keep open-pit coal mining out of sensitive areas in the Rocky Mountains. The policy was abruptly rescinded last year by the incumbent United Conservative Party (UCP) to ease coal mining in Category 2 land — areas that are classified as ecologically sensitive, but are not already protected as national or provincial parks — and Alberta’s premier Jason Kenney had recently called the policy “obsolete”

However, a huge outcry from native populations, small-town councils, ranchers and even celebrities forced the UCP to backpedal and reinstate the policy. Going forward no new mountaintop removal mines will be allowed, and in places where coal exploration is already underway, the policy will ban surface mining.