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'India has no choice but to increase emissions'

By Richard Mahapatra

Given India's limited energy options, its dependence on fossil fuels and the reality of global warming, nuclear energy and hydropower are serious options for India in future, says R K Pachauri, director-general of TERI and chairperson of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They just need the right policy back-up

R K Pachauri'Development versus Environment' was the big challenge of the 1980s. The biggest challenge of the new millennium is 'Energy versus Emissions'. India's economic growth is energy-intensive while its energy profile is dominantly fossil fuel-based. Naturally, India's growing energy consumption is perceived as a major future source of global warming. As global pressure mounts on India to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, India is faced with the dilemma: how do you cut back emissions when you have very few options other than fossil fuels?

India's per capita emissions are still relatively low at 0.25 tonnes of carbon in 2001, which is less than a quarter of the world average and many times less than the United States. At the same time, India's contribution to world carbon emissions is expected to grow at an average of 3% per year until 2025, compared with 1.5% in the United States, because of ambitious expansion plans in the energy sector. According to industry estimates, India's oil consumption is expected to grow to 2.8 million barrels per day by 2010, from 2.65 million barrels per day in 2004.

"Emission is a compulsion for India and we need to emit to grow," says Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, director-general of the Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "Nobody can deprive India of its freedom to grow. But at the same time we should be conscious of global warming as it affects us all."

'Energy versus Emissions' seems to be the biggest challenge for India in the face of global warming. How do you foresee India's energy scenario in this context? 

India doesn't have any choice except to increase emissions. India's energy consumption is largely fossil fuel-based. We are importing oil to sustain our consumption. In future it may become difficult to sustain such imports due to rising global oil prices. So we are left with the choice of using coal for power. This is all the more so because we are slow in developing alternative clean fuels. So we will continue using high-emission fuels.

At the same time, given the threat of global warming, we have to make a conscious shift in our energy strategy. Here India can make a diversion from the energy consumption pattern of developed countries by focusing on alternative energy sources. It will be in our favour, and at the same time will help reduce GHG emissions.

As pressure on India to contain its carbon emissions increases, don't you think we should have the freedom to choose an energy policy that is sustainable and socially equitable?

Developed countries have attained a level of economic development from which they can afford to reduce emissions. India can't be deprived of development due to that. We have to increase our emissions certainly, to some extent.

I think India has the freedom to choose its energy sources and there is no pressure not to do so. As we have large reserves of coal, we have to depend on that for our energy security. This will lead to global warming. What we need to focus on is how to use the source productively and emit less GHGs. This involves the use of new technologies. By doing so we are not only helping reduce emissions but also maximising the use of our resources.

Pro-nuclear bodies are hitchhiking on the bogey of global warming to push nuclear energy as a 'clean' energy. Do you think it really qualifies as clean energy? Should India adopt it for its energy security?

Yes, I believe that nuclear power is clean as far as GHG emissions is concerned. Nuclear power has literally no emissions. Given the constraints of limited options and the wider threat of global warming, nuclear is a serious option for India in future. Though currently we produce just 3% of our commercial energy from this source, being a viable source it has to go up in future. In this context I think the Indo-US nuclear deal is an important step forward. This will enable India to access better technologies and also fuel to generate electricity from nuclear technology.

But the risk factors are high in the case of nuclear power generation. What about waste management and the threat of radiation?

I am told that the new breed of nuclear reactors is quite safe in operations. Of course we have to take care of the environmental factors. But to turn it into an important mode of energy, we need proper public policy deliberation. It is for the government to do so.

Nuclear energy is also expensive and may not be suitable for the Indian market.

I don't think it is that much more expensive, or will become so. Various studies have shown that nuclear energy is quite competitive and cheaper than a few other sources. It is a very viable option.

But you said that India would have to continue with fossil fuels. The reality is that 70% of our population is in rural India and their energy source is primarily biomass. If this section of the population is to be brought under the fossil fuel mode, don’t you think it will be a huge economic as well as environmental burden?

That is what I told you in the beginning. We can’t deprive a large section of the population of modern energy. At the same time, we have limited sources. Fossil fuel has to be an important component. So emissions is the reality. That is the price we have to pay for development.

But the rural sector has huge opportunities for renewable energy. We need to spread the use of modern cooking fuels in rural areas, and for electricity purposes we need to depend on renewables. We simply can't deprive a major section of people of modern facilities. But for this again we need a change in energy policy targeted at the rural section.

If renewables have such potential why doesn't the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) have many projects related to renewable energy?

CDM is a market-driven mechanism. Its in-built design is such that people who want to reduce emissions will go for low-cost projects. Renewable energy projects are really expensive, thus they do not feature prominently under the CDM. Also, there are problems of scale. CDM projects are small and limited in scope, thus raising the administrative cost. A large-scale project will become cheaper.

One way out is to adopt a cluster approach. Under this, one entity is given charge of an area under which it can take up projects to reduce GHG emissions. This will substantially bring down the cost thus making it lucrative for the client.

Hydropower is considered safe and has been included under the CDM. Don't you think big hydropower dams are a threat to the local ecology? Isn't it like solving a problem by creating another problem?

There is nothing like ‘big dams are bad’. I’ll put it this way: there are good dams and bad dams. With the right policy back-up, big dams can reduce the damage and also benefit people a lot. So the idea is to correct the problems of big dams.

There is the question of rehabilitation and resettlement. Don’t you think our track record on this has been poor?

Yes, as far as rehabilitation and resettlement is concerned it is not so good. But over a period of time, due to civil society concerns and campaigns, the government has learnt lessons on how to correct the (lapses). Hydropower is a clean option and can be generated safely, taking care of everybody's concerns.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006