India’s clean energy transition is concentrated more on accomplishing milestones and announcing broad targets, rather than building a holistic approach towards low-carbon economy.

Unwiring the ‘System’ of India’s Clean Energy Transition

The clarion calls for unhindered and immediate climate action by the successive reports of Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change have added to the pressure on nations around the world to deliver. These reports have clearly underscored the inadequacy of existing efforts and stated policy actions in limiting warming to the 1.5 degree C target. 

At last year’s Conference of Parties (COP) 26, India came out with ambitious and eye-catching energy transition goals as a part of it journey towards low-carbon pathway. Recently, the Union Minister for Power also pushed for states and Union Territories in the country to form an ‘energy transition’ panel. 

While these are welcome steps, however, there are gaping red flags in the way the concept of ‘energy transition’ is being perceived by the policymakers and implementation agencies. 

Firstly, there is an undue importance being accorded to announcing optically pleasing and politically ambitious transition goals sans any credible science-based backing of having such goals and targets in the first place. This is evident from the fact that till date, no justification or emission apportionment and impact assessments have been provided by the Union Government for announcing renewable energy targets such as 175 GW by 2022 or 450 GW & 500 GW by 2030. 

A carbon-budget assessment, which demonstrates the cumulative amount of CO2 emissions permitted to keep temperature rise within a target range, is critical. This implies that projected power sector emissions must adhere to the remaining carbon budget and electricity generation portfolios and energy demand must be adjusted to account for such assessments. Such an assessment is conspicuously missing from the current policy narrative around the low-carbon energy transition. 

The worrying fixation with announcements is also reflected in the implementation phase, as is evident from a progress report released by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy. The report pulled up the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy for failing to meet the financial requirements needed in meeting the 175 GW by 2022 target. This distinctly shows that India’s clean energy transition is concentrated more on accomplishing milestones and announcing broad targets, rather than building a holistic approach towards low-carbon economy.

Secondly, energy transition is widely understood as a linear, zero-sum game when it comes to policymaking. This implies that the transition in its current form is envisaged in a linear trajectory whereby enhancement of renewable energy capacity only will yield in requisite climate benefits. There is a deep focus entirely on renewable energy without concrete efforts towards curtailing fossil-usage in the power sector. This is evident from the fact that parallel to RE enhancement, the Government of India (GoI) is also actively pursuing enhancement of domestic production of coal and increasing the share of oil as well as gas in India’s primary energy mix. Additionally, a linear approach towards policy-making for energy transition ignores the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional and multi-stakeholder impacts of such a transition on the society, economy and ecology. 

Finally, policymakers seem to be conveniently ignoring the premise that the need for energy transition stems from a long list of legacy issues and structural fallacies in the way the energy sector has been developed through the ages. With changed nomenclatures, it appears that similar policy instruments of performance-linked financial incentives are largely being used to weed out structural issues such as inefficiencies in the power sector value-chain, sub-optimal usage of advanced technologies like smart meters and digitisation of grid, questionable independence of regulatory agencies and low levels of effective consumer participation in the regulatory processes in the power sector. This sort of transition is likely to cause more harm as far as effective and ‘just’ energy transition is considered. This is because none of the historically deployed policy instruments acknowledge and envision the need to remove the elements of injustice which have grown over time in the power sector. Be it the employment-based vulnerability, or socio-cultural vulnerability of communities, or economic vulnerability of electrical consumers, in a business-as-usual way of devising and implementing policy solutions, such unjust elements are likely to remain in the equation unless targeted specifically. 

Therefore, institutionalising a fresh and new perspective towards planning, implementing and evaluating clean energy transition is of special importance for India. As a first step, the concept of transition can be re-looked upon as a transformative agenda with three critical elements – transition goals, transition trajectory and transition impact assessment & remediation. 

First, the transition goals and targets need to be set in a scientific manner. This implies carrying out a holistic energy generation mix and demand projection assessment linked with the emission-reductions required in the Indian power sector to optimally utilise the carbon budget at India’s disposal. Ministry of Power with representatives from MNRE, the NITI Aayog, and sector experts can take up this assessment to come up with realistic, effective and science-backed targets, supported by comprehensive carbon-budgeting. 

Second, India’s clean energy transition pathways seem to be devoid of the rich planning, assessments and discussions. Rather, the country seems to be following a business-strategy for attracting investments into renewables without any strong crack-down on emission-intensive fossil-based sources of energy generation. Additionally, India can take a cue from the global community in defining and charting out an effective transition trajectory using credible concepts and proven principles. 

Taxonomy, for instance, is one such instrument that defines economic activities in different sectors as “sustainable”. In this quest, transitional activity is defined by as “activities which are not low-carbon but are critical to the economy and can contribute immensely to a net-zero transition by substantially reducing the GHGs emissions”. In line with such classifications, various transition activities like natural gas, nuclear energy, manufacturing of green hydrogen, manufacturing of electrolysers, battery storage and other necessary technologies for enhancing the climate-friendliness of energy sector can be clearly articulated and pursued. However, a time-bound and emission-linked assessment is required so that dependence of India’s energy sector on fuels like gas and nuclear with proven climate hazards come with a deadline. 

Third, the element of impact assessment and remediation becomes of paramount importance when the issue of ‘just transition’ comes into picture. This implies institutionalising a robust monitoring and evaluation framework and technique which measures and addresses the socio-economic and ecological impacts of any sustainable project in the energy sector. These impacts could be in the form of livelihood and jobs, waste accumulation, pollution, land acquisition, biodiversity conservation amongst others. To address such wide ranging impacts of a clean energy transition, a participatory and bottom-up approach is the best way forward whereby communities facing the brunt of clean energy transition projects are key decision makers in the pursuit of the transition. 

The clean energy transition is indeed a transformative concept, and unless this notion is seeded in policy, planning and implementation, we are bound to remain behind the curve in meeting low-carbon transition goals effectively. 

Sarthak Shukla and Kumer Singh are public policy professionals who are working on issues around sustainable development and just transitions.

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