The unflattering reality of the lofty plans for India’s forests

Newsletter - November 26, 2020

All trees made equal? India's forest cover statistics present a rosy view of reality even as the country's natural forests continue to shrink | Photo: Tamil Nadu Forest Department

The unflattering reality of India’s lofty plans for its forests

India’s forests represent one of the largest battlegrounds in climate change policy. While the Indian government has repeatedly claimed massive success in its forest conservation and afforestation practices, the reality is that there is an insidious tussle to redefine India’s natural forest landscape which has serious implications on the country’s efforts to tackle climate change

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi grabbed headlines this past week as he implored greater collaboration among the world’s largest economies in the fight against climate change. Modi’s virtual address, on the sidelines of the recently concluded G20 summit being held at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, also touched on India’s successes with respect to its commitments made towards the 2015 Paris Agreement. But while the Prime Minister touted achievements and targets to an international audience, the reality on the ground is more contentious, particularly with regards to India’s forest conservation and afforestation programmes.

Just last month, as India celebrated ‘Wildlife Week’, the country’s National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) recommended the de-notification of 1,000 of protected area to allow for development projects. A few months before that, the Indian environment ministry was on the verge of granting clearance for the felling of 2.7 lakh trees in Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, one of the country’s most biodiverse regions. As this news report stated, according to data from the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and the National Informatics Centre (NIC), since 2015, his government had allotted 409 square kilometres (sqkm) of forest area — the size of the city of Chennai — to various development projects. These examples, marking just the surface of a spate of forest diversions for development projects and industry, along with attempted dilution of Environmental Impact Assessment norms and commercialisation of coal mining, muddy the significance of the Prime Minister’s recent words.

While the Prime Minister and his government are talking the talk, they are clearly far from walking the walk when it comes to protecting India’s forests. As a consequence, India is fast degrading its few remaining safeguards that will provide a robust natural defence against the adverse consequences of global phenomena such as extreme weather and climate change. This despite the Global Climate Risk Index listing India as the country that is among the most vulnerable to climate change.

The gap between policy and practice

Five years after the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015, India is considered to be among the best performing major economies in the world when it comes to keeping its pledge made at Paris. Across the board, it is largely agreed that India is well on its way to meet its 2030 targets for at least two of its three key pledges. India’s key pledges were to reduce carbon emission intensity, produce more electricity through renewable energy and enact the Green India Mission, whose focus is to increase the country’s forest cover by five million hectares as well as improve the quality of the country’s green cover. While the first two pledges have seen movements in the right direction, the GIM has been regularly missing annual targets. It currently stands at a stage where it is impossible to fulfil the commitments made by the 2030 deadline. This despite the biennial Indian State of Forest Report (ISFR) published by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), claiming ever-increasing forest cover.

The latest report, published in 2019, stated that over eight lakh of land is classified as covered by tree and forest cover in India. This is about 24.5% of the country’s entire area and 5,188 sqkm more than the area documented as forests in the previous report published in 2017. At the same time, according to the Global Forest Watch, an open-source web application to monitor global forests, Indian forest cover decreased by 4% from 2010 to 2018. To say the ISFR numbers are debatable is an understatement.  

As another report had pointed out earlier, nearly 30% of the land classified as forests does not have any forest cover. For the purposes of the ISFR report, ‘forest cover’ is defined as land that is more than one hectare and has a tree canopy density of more than 10%. The FSI does not look into the kind of forests they are nor does it factor in forest fragmentation and degradation. Areas that are plantations could also be included in the ISFR report as forest cover.

This discrepancy lies at the heart of India’s exceedingly good performances on paper and real change on the ground. As Abi Tamim Vanak, associate professor, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru says, “There is a fundamental lack of understanding about what constitutes natural vegetation types in India. Therefore, managers and foresters tend to focus on fast-growing species or a few species that they think are hardy or locally useful. There is also a historical legacy of planting exotic species such as eucalyptus, wattle and some of these such as the Prosopis juliflora became invasive. The biggest problem in our experience comes from planting trees in natural open habitats such as deserts, grasslands and savanna ecosystems. This essentially destroys those ecosystems.”

Vanak’s work focuses on the outcome of interactions between species at the interface of humans, domestic animals and wildlife in semi-arid savannas and agro-ecosystems. He adds, “Old growth ecosystems (both forests and savanna grasslands), tend to sequester carbon at higher rates than new plantations. Therefore, by destroying old ecosystems and pretending that these can be ‘compensated’ by planting trees elsewhere, the government is ignoring science and ecological reality.”

Wrong vs right way of increasing forest cover

Across the world, ecologists and environmental scientists agree that planting trees are not the only solution for carbon sequestration. In many cases, planting the wrong tree or planting trees in the wrong region can actively release more carbon into the atmosphere. In India, afforestation efforts have been mired in controversy for a multitude of reasons. Experts also allege that many ‘targets’ set by the MoEF&CC are inexplicable. “The goals of 33% forest cover in non-hilly areas and 66% in hilly areas are unrealistic and have no scientific basis. The right way to increase forest cover is to recognise the rights of local communities to manage their forest under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, then allowing and helping them to create their own community forest management plans as per their wishes, and allowing the tree cover that emerges out of this process to be the object of conservation,” says  Sharachchandra Lele, Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Policy & Governance, also at ATREE.

Professor Lele has been working on issues related to sustainable development and sustainability, and analyses of institutional, economic, ecological, and technological issues in forest, energy, and water resource management for decades now. He feels that instead of this ‘right way’, Indian officials have been directly planting in the name of afforestation without the consent of local communities and without recognising their rights.

The lack of a cohesive afforestation strategy has also been another major issue. As it exists, the three major afforestation schemes in India are the Compensatory Afforestation Act, 2016, various state afforestation schemes, and REDD+, which is an international mechanism developed for afforestation on a global scale to increase carbon sinks.

These schemes are riddled with issues though, at least when they are applied in the Indian context. As Shomona Khanna, a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India and the Delhi high court on a variety of rights-related issues says, “The primary problem with these strategies is that they conflate restoration of forests lost to industrial purposes with tree plantation. A forest, however, is not a collection of trees, it is an ecosystem, comprising the trees and the water sources and the undergrowth and the wildlife, the soil and the aquifers below the earth, and also, as the FRA 2006 categorically acknowledges, the traditional forest dwellers. It has deep social, cultural, spiritual and economic meaning to the Adivasi and forest dwelling communities, and to their very sense of identity.”

Khanna was a former legal advisor to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA). She adds that the afforestation policies of the government de-link these various interconnected components of an ecosystem from each other, and promote tree plantation, that too monoculture plantation or agroforestry, where the needs of industry are prioritised, not of the forest dwelling communities. As she says, “The notion that you can replace a forest here, which is lost to industry or mining, with tree plantation there is completely flawed.”

Affecting climate change mitigation negatively

In a report published way back in 2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO), had already warned that climate change will increase the risk of infectious diseases. Among other factors, the WHO researchers identified deforestation as among the reasons for the spread of zoonotic diseases. This is all too evident now as most of our world has been brought to its knees by the spread of one such disease. Even without the pandemic, various reports have detailed the economic loss India will suffer or is suffering due to the effects of climate change. These include startling figures such as an estimated loss of $37 billion just in the year 2018, because of climate change and significant risk to the country’s GDP because of extreme heat. Even the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), for the first time in its history, warned of the risks posed due to climate change in a report in August this year. In this context, mitigation efforts need to be continuous and cannot just be paper tigers.

A lack of governmental oversight and misplaced priorities add to the issue. Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, says, “The problem is of how these targets are approached, largely through a technocratic and managerial manner. They are also not the primary drivers of governance in India. The result is that emission reduction targets include planting of millions of trees and not reducing the use of coal. It announces large utility solar without a policy level impact assessment on how it will impact common use lands, grasslands. The government’s actions indicate that it is yet to recognise vulnerabilities of coastal areas to climate change. These vulnerabilities are invisible in policies such as Sagarmala or Bharatmala, which propose a network of ports and highways. None of these policies have been reviewed for their climate efficacy and social legitimacy.”

Government policies are in need of serious course correction to tackle the pressing issue of climate change. As Coimbatore-based CR Bijoy of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) says, “Both deforestation [reduced to chopping down of trees] and afforestation [reduced to tree plantation] do not address climate change mitigation in the short- or long-term. In fact, land use and land use changes have to be the basis for understanding carbon emission and mitigation.”

The consequences of such poor planning and implementation is only exacerbating the plight of Indians who are already suffering from extreme weather events. As Bijoy adds, “Carbon sequestration through creation and expansion of carbon sinks via massive tree plantation in the long term is not science. What happens to the carbon sink, the trees and forests in the long term? We are not in control over forests. Forests or natural ecosystems can never be managed by us; at best we can only manage our activities.” The solutions seem to lie in allowing for natural regeneration or considered reconstruction of highly degraded forests. The failure to do so is resulting in and will continue to result in disastrous consequences.

This is the first installment in an in-depth three-part series on India’s forest conservation and afforestation policies. The second part will explore how India’s forest management has remained oblivious to the value of ecosystem services, even as the costs of doing so continue to multiply at an alarming rate.

Climate Science

Pushed to the limits: Cyclone Nivar made landfall in South India, causing a flood-like situation in parts of Tamil Madu, including Chennai | Photo: The Weather Channel

Cyclone Nivar hits Puducherry, weakens after landfall

Cyclone Nivar made landfall near Puducherry late Wednesday night. The region, along with parts of neighbouring Tamil Nadu reported heavy rainfall. My Thursday morning, however, the cyclone had weakened significantly, and was downgraded to a ‘severe cyclonic storm’ by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) as it moved to north coastal Tamil Nadu. No loss of life has been reported so far.

2°C rise could lead to five-fold increase in global exposure to extreme events: Study 

A recent study revealed that global warming has more than doubled the land area and population that is annually exposed to six categories of extreme events – tropical cyclones, droughts, river floods, wildfires, droughts and heatwaves. And it will get worse as global warming increases. The study estimated that a temperature rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels could lead to a five-fold increase in global exposure to such extreme weather events. Tropical and sub-tropical areas would face larger increases than areas in higher latitudes, according to the study. South Asia is likely to be the worst affected, the study predicted. 

Policy intervention, climate education key to encouraging low-carbon behaviour: Study

With nearly two-thirds of global greenhouse gases linked to daily human activities, a new study attempted to delve into changes in individual behaviour that could be key to mitigating climate change. The study, published in ScienceDirect, made four key recommendations that could trigger low-carbon behaviour – policy intervention such as carbon tax or energy tax, upgrading infrastructure geared towards low-carbon activities such as green transportation, improving climate education and implementing better incentive measures.

Climate Policy

Two steps back: The Climate Transparency Report stated that atmospheric concentration of carbon has continued to rise despite the COVID-19 restrictions | Photo: Smart.City_Lab

Climate Transparency Report 2020 indicts G20 nations for falling short on climate

COVID-19 economic recovery packages from the world’s largest economies rely heavily on support and subsidies to fossil fuels and could set back gains made through progressive efforts pre-pandemic. These are the findings of the latest Climate Transparency Report, published last week, just before the recently concluded G20 summit held virtually from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The report states that while pandemic response measures and lockdowns this year would cause annual global carbon emissions to drop 4-9% in 2020 compared to 2019, atmospheric concentration of carbon has continued to rise. Further, the report states that despite a 7.5% dip in emission levels across the G20, emissions are still about 60% higher than 1990 levels. According to the report, any decline in emissions this year would likely be temporary with levels already tracking back normal levels in parts of the world.

With almost 55% of all G20 stimulus spending going towards fossil fuels, much of it unconditional, and just about 30% going towards “green” sectors, the report states that G20 nations have by and large missed the opportunity to use the recovery packages to pave a path to a green recovery and sustainable development.

The report also includes an extensive stocktake on climate action and policies in the G20 with elaborate country profiles and progress reports on different aspects of climate action and finance flows.

India’s environment ministry asks EACs to meet twice a month to fast-track clearance process

India’s Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) asked all Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) granting Environmental Clearances (ECs) to meet twice a month from now on in a bid to speed up the approval-granting process. After conducting a review, the ministry found that ECs, which are given under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006, were ‘delayed due to various reasons that could be avoided’, according to the Office Memorandum (OM) sent by the ministry to all EACs, State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities and State Expert Appraisal Committees. Experts, however, have expressed their concerns with the government move, stating it could dilute the importance of appraisal and a detailed scrutiny of the EC process.  

Modi calls for greater cooperation to deal with climate change in G20 address

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this past Sunday brought focus to India’s achievement in exceeding its commitments to the Paris Agreement and called for greater integration of global efforts. Speaking virtually at the G20 Summit side event, “Safeguarding the Planet – The Circular Carbon Economy Approach”, Modi brought attention to the fact that India had overshot its targets in renewable energy installation and reducing emission intensity, including with LED popularisation drives.

The PM’s address brought attention back to the global long-term challenge of climate change, which had understandably been displaced by public health and pandemic response as the key area of concern during the G20 deliberations this year. Modi also called on G20 nations for more holistic climate action rather than fighting isolated battles. “Inspired by our traditional ethos of living in harmony with the environment, and the commitment of my government, India has adopted low-carbon and climate-resilient development practices,” the PM said.

Megaprojects threatening to push world’s forests past ‘dangerous tipping point’: Study

A new study highlighted the threat that infrastructure megaprojects across the world pose to forests, warning that they are at a risk of being pushed past the ‘dangerous tipping point’. This risk is making climate targets unachievable, the report, by a coalition of 25 research and conservation organisations called the New York Declaration on Forests Assessment Partners, stated. The report found there were tens of thousands of miles of roads and railways being planned alongside dams and mines in regions such as central Africa, South America and south-east Asia. Almost half the world’s mines – 1,500 – are in forests, the study stated.  

After zero-emission target, Japan lawmakers declare climate emergency 

Days after Japan declared its zero emissions goal, the country’s lawmakers voted to declare a climate emergency in a bid to increase global pressure for climate action. Japan joins countries such as Britain, Canada, France and the EU who have also made similar declarations in the recent past. The emergence declaration, which is non-binding, cites “unprecedented damage” from hurricanes, forest fires and flooding, made worse by climate change in Japan and across the world, as reasons for declaring the ‘climate crisis’.

6 green groups sue Trump administration over drilling in Arctic

Six environment groups together sued the Trump administration for pursuing plans to expand drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA). The Willow Project will produce up to 590 million total barrels of oil over the next 30 years. Environmentalists worry that the project is too close to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. According to the lawsuit, the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, which require a detailed review of how a specific project affects local animal and human populations.

Meanwhile, US president-elect Joe Biden named former Secretary of State John Kerry as the special climate envoy. Kerry was at the forefront when the Paris Climate Agreement was being written.

Air Pollution

Just as bad: Latest satellite analysis of 6 regions across India has revealed air pollution in rural India is almost as bad as it is in its cities | Photo: Reuters/Altaf Hussain

Study: Air pollution levels in rural India almost as bad as metros

A new Indo-US study concluded that rural India is no better than the cities when it comes to inhaling toxic air.  The Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay and Colorado State University study calculated the amount of PM 2.5 in six regions across India from satellite data. The Indo-Gangetic plain was the most polluted, with a PM 2.5 level of 100 micrograms per cubic meter throughout the year, while in the non-urban areas of the same zone, the contaminant level was in excess of 90 micrograms. 

Scientists said there was barely any difference between urban and non-urban areas in eastern and southern India. In southern India, PM 2.5 concentrations in rural areas ranged 30–50 micrograms as against the urban average of 50 micrograms. The researchers estimated that air pollution killed over 10.5 lakh people owing to heart and lung diseases every year. Out of this, 69% of the deaths are in non-urban areas. Over seven lakh people die annually due to air pollution in rural areas.

Centre to release budget money to fight air pollution based on performance of states?

The central government will release funds allocated to states to fight air pollution based on ‘performance targets’, reported the Hindu. Last week the centre released half — ₹2,200 crore — of budgetary allotment to states for combating air pollution. According to the report the environment ministry has been setting up the performance parameters while the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs will disburse the funds.  In February, the government announced ₹4,400 crore for large cities having a population of above one million for 2020-2021. 

The second instalment would be released in January 2021 against performance-based outcomes in terms of year-on-year improvement in air quality, the Hindu reported. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) envisages 102 of India’s most polluted cities reducing air pollution by 20-30% by 2024 with a reference year of 2017. 

New central panel meets Delhi govt MLAs, vows to take steps to curb air pollution 

The newly-appointed Commission for Air Quality Management said it will take steps to lessen air pollution in the national capital, including formulation of appropriate policies and strategies, to control stubble burning. The commission met Delhi government representatives, who urged the panel to hold chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana responsible for causing pollution in the Capital city. Meanwhile, the Delhi health minister blamed stubble burning for the spike in COVID-19 deaths in the city.

The Delhi government wants Haryana and Punjab to implement the solution by the Pusa Institute and the Delhi government that can turn crop residue into manure in 15 to 20 days. The 20-member commission, headed by former chief secretary of Delhi, M M Kutty, was formed by the Union environment ministry on November 5, within a week of issuing an ordinance to set it up.

Spike in air pollution increased emergency room visits by children by around 30%: Study

A two-year study in Delhi revealed that rising air pollution levels corresponded to an increase in visits by children to hospital emergency rooms (ER) for treatment of acute respiratory infections. A rise in PM10 and PM2.5, however, was least correlative with emergency room visits for treatment of respiratory illnesses. Researchers said the lower association of particulate matter was because its health effects are not always immediately visible.

The study analysed hospital visits of as many as 19,120 children from June 2017 to February 2019. The study stated that there was a roughly 21%-28% increase in visits by children manifesting symptoms of acute respiratory disease during days of ‘high’ and ‘moderate’ level pollution, compared to days of ‘low pollution’. The pollutants most strongly linked with more ER respiratory visits were sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. 

Official data reveals European governments failing to protect citizens from toxic air 

According to data released by the European Environment Agency, governments across Europe are failing to prevent toxic air pollution, with most Europeans still breathing filthy air in their cities. Pollutants from farming, domestic heating and vehicles are over the safe limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is despite EU legislation, government pledges and years of campaigning. According to data, only Ireland, Iceland, Finland and Estonia showed levels of fine particulate matter – one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution – that were below the WHO guidelines in 2018.

Exposure to such pollution caused about 417,000 premature deaths across Europe – including non-EU member states – in 2018. The EEA found that 60,000 fewer people died prematurely in 2018 than in 2009 from fine particulate matter pollution.


Solar minima: Solar tariffs witnessed 15% deflation in 6 months in India with tariff falling to new all-time low of ₹2 per unit | Photo: Rechargenews

‘Game over’ for coal? India records new low in solar tariff of ₹2 per unit

India recorded a new low in solar tariff at ₹2 per unit that is 15% deflation in six months. The previous low of ₹2.36 per unit was recorded in July. Indian and foreign companies bid aggressively for the 1,070 MW solar auction by the Solar Energy Corporation of India  (SECI). Tim Buckley of IEEFA pointed out that solar energy is now lower than the marginal fuel cost of coal power, and tweeted it was “game over” for coal. Singapore-based Sembcorp Energy and Saudi Arabia-based Aljomaih Energy and Water Company won 400MW and 200MW respectively at a tariff of ₹2 per unit. The remaining 470MW was bagged by NTPC at a tariff of ₹2.01 per unit.

Experts pointed out that the tender received such an aggressive bid because Rajasthan distribution companies have agreed to purchase the power, assuring companies of no usual off-take uncertainty.

Adani faces financial risk, no takers yet for its record 8GW $6 billion solar power project

Adani Green Energy is facing a financial risk, Reuters reported, as the company’s record $6 billion solar power project announced in June has no guaranteed customer.  This was revealed through the deal between Adani and SECI, India’s main solar-adoption agency according to which the agency has no “legal or financial obligation” to support Adani project if it fails to find buyers. SECI sells the power to the grid or to power distribution companies, known as ‘discoms’.  

Adani Green bagged a manufacturing-linked solar contract from SECI to set up 8GW of solar power in June. When SECI awarded the project, it had said a PPA would be assured, but according to Reuters, a year later, it withdrew the clause guaranteeing purchase in the deal. SECI removed the clause from some other renewable energy tenders, too, Reuters reported. 

RE power in India will be comparable to coal by 2025: Moody’s 

Solar and wind energy is expected to be cost-competitive relative to coal power in India in 2025-2030 period, according to credit rating agency Moody’s. The shift would occur if the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCoE) from solar and wind projects declines annually by a high single digit to mid-teen percentage between the first half of 2020 and 2025-30, Moody’s analysis stated. 

Meanwhile, according to ANI, by December-end, India will invite bids for close to 22.5GW of new tenders for solar energy projects. Meanwhile, about 43GW of capacity is at different stages of commissioning by successful bidders, ANI reported. 

Govt reduces performance security deposits for solar tender to 3%

To increase participation amid the ongoing pandemic, the Indian government has revised the performance security deposits for tenders to 3% of the contract value from the previous range of 5%-10%. This will help companies finish contracts and projects on time amid the COVID-19 induced economic slowdown.

This benefit would not apply to contracts under dispute whose proceedings are already underway in court. All tenders and contracts that have been issued or concluded until December 31, 2021, will also be eligible for the reduced performance security benefits.

Leaked draft reveals EU plans 25-fold increase in offshore wind energy, 62,000 new jobs

According to the draft plan of European Commission, the off-shore wind energy capacity of the EU in the North Sea, the Baltic, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea will be increased 25-fold. The draft follows UK’s announcement this year of plans to generate enough electricity to power every home in the UK within a decade from the country’s offshore sites, The Guardian reported. 

The Euractiv website reported that the “very challenging” target for new windfarms would come with an expected price tag of €789 billion, creating 62,000 jobs in the offshore wind industry.

According to the EC plan, the 27 EU member states alone would achieve a capacity of 60GW by 2030 and 300GW by 2050, with Germany set to hugely increase its investment in the sector.

Climate change extremes and photovoltaic power output

A new study published in Nature revealed that an increasing frequency of very warm and cloudy days could affect the output of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. The research showed that during summer, the very low PV power outputs are expected to double in the Arabian Peninsula by mid-century, but could be reduced by half in southern Europe over the same period, even under a “moderate-emission scenario”. Changes for winter — either enhancing or mitigating the impacts on PV output — are projected to be less striking, at least in low- and mid-latitude regions, the study said.

Global investors managing $7 trillion to double RE investments in next 5 years

A survey of global investors revealed they will double their spending on renewable energy from 4.2% of their overall portfolio to 8.3% in the next five years and 10.8% within the next decade to about $742.5 billion.

The global investors, managing nearly $7trillion (£5.2billion) of assets, are concerned over the fossil fuel industry’s climate plans, the report stated. 

The survey of more than 100 investors found that 83% did not believe the plans put forward by oil and gas companies would be enough to meet the Paris climate agreement goals. Experts said renewables have become an attractive asset class amid economic uncertainty arising from the COVID-19 crisis. Investors are also under pressure to invest responsibly, and are looking for long-term sources of yield.

Aus state passes landmark plan after 30 hrs of debate, to build 12GW of RE by 2030 
Australia’s state of New South Wales passed an ambitious energy plan to support the private sector to build AUS$32 billion (£17.6 billion) of renewable energy infrastructure by 2030 as the region “faces the end of coal-fired power generation”, The Sydney Morning Herald reported. The plan is expected to generate 6,300 construction jobs and 2,800 ongoing jobs, as well as deliver 12 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy and 2GW of storage, largely pumped hydropower. The final vote on the Electricity Infrastructure Investment Bill took nearly 31 hours to pass due to a “concerted effort” from the far-right, climate sceptic One Nation party to block it.

Electric Vehicles

Not fake at all: Volvo has refuted claims by Transport and Environment that its XC60 hybrid emits more CO2 than official stated, but the group's allegation may prompt a revision for other hybrid manufacturers | Photo:

Europe environmental group calls for end to subsidies for “fake” hybrid vehicles

European campaign group Transport and Environment (T&E) has called on governments to end subsidies for hybrid vehicles as in their research they have found that these vehicles emit far more CO2 than advertised. Calling the vehicles “fake electric cars built for lab tests and tax breaks”, the group has based its claim on results from testing three popular hybrid cars: the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Volvo XC60 and the BMW X5. 

However, while BMW has so far not responded to the allegation, Volvo has retorted that all its production vehicles meet existing emission standards, while Mitsubishi’s representative has questioned the veracity of such independent tests. 

UK bans the sale of non-electric cars from 2030, to spend £2.8 billion to promote e-mobility

The British government announced that it will ban the sale of all new non-electric cars in the country from 2030, and now joins the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland in their aggressive plans to phase out IC engine cars. The ban will apply to all new petrol and diesel cars and the government will instead spend £1.3 billion in beefing up charging infrastructure for electric cars, and £582 million as incentives for electric car buyers. It will also allocate £500 million in boosting the production of EV batteries, although the new ruling will allow hybrid vans and cars to be driven on the roads till 2035, provided that they can “drive a significant distance” with zero tailpipe emissions. 

GM ups financial commitment to EVs in major realignment, to launch 30 new EVs by 2025

The CEO of General Motors (GM) announced that the automaker will be investing not $20 billion in developing its line of EVs (as promised before the pandemic) but $27 billion, and it will launch 30 new electric models by 2025 as it gears up to be one of the biggest EV manufacturers. GM has been known for producing gas-guzzling cars like the Hummer and its relatively fuel-inefficient line of Buicks and Cadillacs, but its CEO has admitted that “climate change is real”, and that it wanted to “put everyone in an electric vehicle”. 

Incidentally, its $27 billion commitment to its electric line-up will exceed its investment in its petrol and diesel segments, and 40% of its new sales in the US will be battery powered by 2025. The firm’s Ultium line of batteries have also reportedly improved their range from 644 km to 724 km on a single charge. 

Victoria follows New South Wales, to introduce per km tax on EVs 

The Australian state of Victoria has approved the introduction of a per kilometre tax on EVs from July 2021, soon after New South Wales approved a similar measure. The tax is reportedly to ensure that “millionaire” electric car owners, who don’t pay for gasoline pay to use the country’s roads, just as average car owners do. It will impose a tax of 2.5 cents a kilometre (2 cents/km for hybrid vehicles), but the move has been sharply criticised by Australia’s Electric Vehicle Council as a tactic to discourage customers from buying electric cars — whose sales anyway account for less than 0.1% of the country’s car sales. 

The move is also being panned as the tax will apply to used EVs as well, such as the popular second-hand Nissan Leaf, and will add an additional AUD 500 to its annual ownership costs. Other arguments include the observation that the taxes may be a way for the state and central governments to compensate for the eventual loss of revenue from fuel excise duties.

Fossil Fuels

Massive contraction: A 126% drop in India's coal financing in just one year highlights how the fuel seems to have fallen out of favour with most investors and public lenders, while renewable energy attracts steadily more funding | Photo: The Wire

India’s coal financing sees 126% year-on-year drop in 2019

The new coal vs. renewables financial analysis report found that coal financing in India dropped by 126% from 2018 to 2019. The report has been prepared by the Centre for Financial Accountability and studied 43 coal and renewable energy projects that reached financial close between January 1 and December 31, 2019. The report indicates that only ₹1,100 crore ($190 million) was sanctioned for 3.06GW of coal projects during the year, as opposed to ₹6,081 crore ($850 million) in 2018. Of this, ₹700 crore was issued to refinance JSW Energy’s Barmer coal plant in Rajasthan — which was also refinanced in 2018 — while the remaining ₹400 crore was used for NTPC’s upcoming Barh power plant in Bihar. 

On the other hand, 41 renewable energy projects worth 5.15GW in total received financing during the year, which amounted to a cumulative figure of ₹22,971 crore ($3.2 billion). There was a 30% dip in financing for wind power and a 10% uptick in financing for solar (y-o-y), but overall the report indicates a growing shift in India’s investments in clean energy. 

India: Coal plants can now switch quality and source of fuel without environmental clearance

India’s environment ministry amended its rules for thermal power plants and coal mining, and will now allow coal plants to switch their domestic sources of the fuel regardless of the distance from the point of origin or its ash content. The change has apparently been made after requests by coal plants to address their delays in sourcing coal, but under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006, plants were required to seek an amendment to their environmental clearance (EC) before the change to keep their emissions in check. 

The new rule does away with the need for an updated EC and could see the plants sourcing coal from hundreds of kilometres away on trucks that could ply through villages and public roads — all of which was earlier meant to be carried out only through conveyor belts and the railways. However, India’s Association of Power Producers (APP) has justified the request on the grounds that coal plants faced “unnecessary delays” to fuel supplies every time they had to change mines. 

Germany: Automakers’ association insists IC engines will have a place in 2050 climate target

Germany’s national automakers association, VDA, has vehemently argued that the internal combustion engine (ICE), along with hydrogen and synthetic fuels, will play an important part in the country’s 2050 carbon-neutrality target. Germany is planning to slash its transport sector emissions — an industry that is a mainstay of its economy — by 42% below 1990 levels by 2030. The VDA said that even though it will support e-mobility, especially for passenger vehicles and light commercial transport, alternatives like hydrogen and synthetic fuels would help clean up the country’s existing vehicles and therefore “complement electromobility”. 

However, its position is in sharp contrast to one of its largest members, the VW Group, which has been sharply critical of the German auto industry’s continued association with petrol and diesel engines while it reinvents itself to be the world’s largest EV manufacturer by 2028. It is also in a self-proclaimed race with Tesla to build self-driving vehicles. VW has also said that it believes synthetic fuels derived from green hydrogen — hydrogen separated out of natural gas using renewable energy — will be “much too precious for individual mobility” due to the inherent losses in converting the raw material to usable motive power. It has instead recommended that the fuel be used for applications that so far do not have a viable alternative in electric power, such as aviation, shipping and heavy industry. 

South Africa: Eskom plans net zero emissions by 2050, investors request exit from proposed coal plant

South Africa’s giant power developer, Eskom, which has struggled to service its monumental debt and inefficiencies, is reportedly working on a plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The utility relies on coal for almost 90% of its power output and its country’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, but has failed, on several occasions, to maintain a steady supply of power for the country. Its current outstanding payables amount to 484 billion Rand ($31 billion), but its new plan will include a large-scale shift to renewable energy and energy storage, as well the potential to raise around 200 billion Rand in green financing. 

Meanwhile, a group of multinational investors that was backing a new coal plant in Thabametsi has requested the South African Energy Ministry that it be allowed to pull out. The group included prominent coal financiers like Japan’s Marubeni Corp. and South Korea’s KEPCO, but the 630MW plant in question was heavily criticised by local environmentalists as they claimed that it would have been one of the the world’s “most carbon-intensive coal power stations”. The plant would also have come up in Limpopo province (NE South Africa), which has battled severe water shortage.