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The long transition to renewable energy

By Aseem Shrivastava

Greenpeace states that the share of renewable forms of energy in India must be mandated to increase from 4% presently to 20% by 2020 and 65% by 2050. China is one of the first countries, certainly in the developing world, to have passed and implemented a strong renewable energy law. Why can’t we?

Something very new happened recently. India witnessed what was perhaps the very first public demonstration demanding a renewable energy law for the country. Thousands of people congregated in Alibag, Maharashtra, to mark the occasion. On a meadow greened by the late monsoon, they sat in a pattern which suggested a windmill, under which was ‘written’ – in human chain formation – ‘No Coal’. (Well over half of India’s energy supply comes from coal.) 

Why is this a significant moment?  

It is obvious that modern, industrialised economies need to have secure energy supplies in order to be viable. Moreover, the generation and use of power have to be increasingly less polluting. Our globalised world is in the throes of growing climate change and vanishing non-renewable energy resources. As time begins to run out for timely action on climate change (global carbon emissions cannot be allowed to peak beyond 2015 and must plateau out by 2050), there is already plenty of conflict between countries over how the global burden of the rapid reduction of emissions is to be borne.  

The affluent countries, especially the US, are unwilling to stint on their energy consumption, arguing that growing economic powers like China and India are actually the real concern in the future unless they rapidly shift the dependence of their economic growth away from fossil fuels towards renewable forms of energy. This is especially so since energy in developing countries is often generated through environmentally dated methods which are more polluting. China, India and other developing nations retort that the problem of climate change has been precipitated by the enormous (and still growing) affluence of the rich countries. Thus, it is for them to take the lead when it comes to emission reductions or, for that matter, the transfer of cleaner technology for energy production to the developing world.  

It is not the first time that both the rich and the poor countries are right about identifying each other’s responsibilities. If only they were so good about accepting their own! While affluent countries justify their logic by dwelling on the likely – if uncertain – patterns of energy consumption in the developing world (yet to emerge fully), developing countries do so by taking recourse to established facts about the developed West. One emphasises the future, the other the past. And that is where the debate is deadlocked. One awaits the outcome of the Copenhagen conference in December 2009. 

The oil crunch  

There is also the question of depletion of fossil fuels, though oil is a far more pressing issue than coal, at least as far as China and India are concerned. Many observers are apprehensive about how conflicts over access to energy resources are likely to be resolved in the future. War clouds are already visible to some. Writers like John Gray of the London School of Economics foresee the emergence of a new “Great Game” over energy resources involving not just the US, Canada, the EU and Japan but also China, India, Russia, Latin America and the Middle East. And unlike the previous great game, played in Central Asia, largely between Russia and Britain, this one is likely to have theatres as far-flung across the surface of the earth as Equatorial Africa and the poles. The geopolitical risks are all too real if countries cannot cooperate and arrive at sustainable answers to the energy crisis.   

One way to minimise the chances of international conflict and war over resources is to work in the direction of energy self-sufficiency. This is not even on the distant horizons of possibility for the affluent countries, dependent as they already are on massive daily, round-the-clock international shipments of energy supplies and on the oil and gas pipelines that have been laid across the surface of the earth, one big reason they are so consistently ardent about international trade, ‘free’ or otherwise. But for countries like China and India, self-sufficiency may still be possible to a remarkable degree if the right policy decisions are made before it is too late to change tracks.  

A renewable energy law 

It is in this context that the enactment of a strong renewable energy law makes so much sense. China is one of the first countries, certainly in the developing world, to have already passed and implemented (in 2006) such legislation. Why are Indian policymakers dragging their feet on it? 

Greenpeace is one of the organisations leading the campaign for such a law in India. A 2007 report it produced in cooperation with the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) lays out the path through which India’s overall carbon emissions can be reduced by 4% by 2050 while still providing  secure, affordable energy supplies to maintain a reasonable rate of economic growth, and without relying on hazardous nuclear technologies. Under a business-as-usual scenario, India’s carbon emissions are expected to grow by a factor of three from their present level of 1.8 billion tonnes a year, contributing almost 9% of global carbon emissions by 2050. If the path advocated by Greenpeace is followed (and other countries do nothing to change their ways) India will almost quarter its contribution to carbon emissions by that date. At present India’s share is 8%. 

The reason why renewable energy assumes such significance today is that coal supplies well over half of the total commercial energy generated in India. It is true that India has a lot of coal which some have argued could last for a few centuries if managed properly. But the binding constraint in this case may not be the availability of the fuel so much as the pollution and climate change it is contributing to. (This of course also assumes that the pattern of resource exploitation of those parts of the country where coal is abundant – the mineral-belt states of Central India – will continue to tolerate what is tantamount to a form of internal colonialism, that insurgencies will not precipitate deeper conflicts with the Indian state.) 

There is a tendency among our policy elites to be petulant – familiar from many other contexts – when asked by the West to reduce our emissions. Sometimes good advice can come from less-than-good motivations. This may be the case in the context of emissions reductions. 

It is clear even to a child that the affluent countries wish to pass the burden of emissions-reduction to those who are also going to suffer most from climate change. In this sense, the poorer parts of the world will suffer twice over – in terms of a setback to their survival and developmental needs, as much as in terms of their environmental health. Things are so set up in our world that ecological imperialism is ‘the default setting’. 

And yet India and China must heed the advice they are getting from the rich countries. Why is it reasonable to say so?  

There is a tendency for the debate over climate change to deal in numerical abstractions. The reason perhaps has to do with the fact that those who suffer its effects are thus far largely confined to disempowered classes and peoples the world over. It’s the forest-dwellers of the Sunderbans or the fishing communities of South East Asia that tend to suffer from the excesses of the world’s wealthy. The lack of concrete fears as a reference point in the debates means that experts fail to see the obvious, and adopt morally charged hyper-nationalist positions or even engage in ad hominem accusations levelled against the rich countries. All along they are least mindful of the sufferings their own countrymen will have to go through as a consequence of their policy decisions. 

What is the obvious fact being missed in the reasoning being put forward by Indian policymakers? It is this: global climate change has very local (and uneven) consequences around the earth. Bundelkhand, even Mumbai, feels the impact of monsoon vagaries not just on account of climate change originating in distant lands. They are suffering even more from what our own superthermals are cavalierly hurling into the atmosphere. Global warming is all too local in India. The paltry and capricious monsoon this year is, at least in part, evidence of that.  

In this sense the position of our policymakers is irrational, certainly from a populist point of view, even from a statist or a nationalist one. It is as though a smoker (heading for almost certain addiction) in a house dominated by chain-smokers was to refuse to give up smoking unless and until the latter did so first. She harbours the delusion that the others will die of cancer earlier than she would, that she might even escape the disease. Aren’t her chances of contracting cancer greatly increased if she not only continues to smoke but in fact falls into addiction herself? It might take some time for the fumes from her neighbour’s rooms to drift into her own. But if she increases her own quota she is surely likely to have to face the music much sooner?  

Another reason why our policymakers are able to distance themselves from this obvious fate is the same as the one that allows leaders in the rich countries to imagine that they can postpone the Day of Judgement indefinitely, or even entirely pass on the pain and suffering to suckers in far-flung corners of the earth. They themselves live air-conditioned global lives, well-insulated for the time being from the consequences of the exhausts and wastes their lifestyle inescapably involves.  

Also, in this day of impatient short-termism, few have the imaginative sympathy to consider the conditions of life they would leave behind for their own progeny. Finally, the overriding policy priority is economic growth – that old handmaiden of state and corporate power (it enriches the corporations and swells the tax collections of the government), leading nations to do everything within their reach to retain or ensure dominance. It serves as a terrific smokescreen and a successful distraction, especially when it can cite ‘development’ as the underlying goal. Everything, from the scouring of the Himalayas and the ocean floors to an expanded neo-colonial scramble for Africa, is game. Amoral market forces are the only determinant in this 21st century version of “the great game”.  

Such are the blinders behind which energy policies are being made in India today. The inertia is thus easy to understand. 

What might we expect from a renewable energy law to address the great difficulties we are in? Greenpeace emphasises the following salient points: 

  • The demand for energy is likely to grow from the present level of 120 gigawatts (2007) to 880 gigawatts in 2050. A 50% reduction in emissions can be brought about by 2050 by legally mandating energy efficiency measures like fuel efficiency in cars and efficient lighting in streets, commercial spaces and homes. This would attack the demand side of the problem, instead of merely tackling supply, with which demand normally catches up in short order.
  • The share of renewable forms of energy – principally solar, wind, hydro and biomass – must be mandated to increase from the present 4% to 20% by 2020 and finally to 65% (a bit more than the present share of coal) by 2050. Later in the century, geothermal and tidal sources of power can be expected to make a contribution.
  • Decentralised co-generation, both linked to and independent of the grid, must find legal backing. This would encourage the adoption of all forms of renewable energy, since they are all linked to natural cycles. Thus, they are decentralised of their very nature, unlike power generation through the burning of fossil fuels, which can be (and typically is) centralised (because it can be stocked more readily).
  • Given the enormous ecological harm and social consequences of big dams, two-thirds of the hydroelectric energy supply must come from small, mini and micro-hydel projects. Surviving (unsilted) big dams will of course continue to provide the power that they will still be generating in 2050.
  • Natural gas, being a non-polluting source of energy, and still abundant, must serve as the ‘bridging fuel’, absorbing over 20% of the energy supply load during certain periods between now and 2050.
  • By 2050, coal must have only 6% share in the production of electricity.
  • Solar photovoltaics must contribute 25%, wind turbines 20%, hydroelectric sources 11% and biomass 6% of the overall energy supply in 2050.
  • The use of biomass or bio-diesel for the production of power must not come at the cost of food security, loss of biodiversity or the natural habitat of many species. Thus, biomass for power must come from the development of wastelands, which constitute over 20% of the land area of the country.
  • Agriculture must avoid the use of polluting or high energy-consuming inputs if it is to be sustainable and allow adequate production of biofuels.

Importantly, the envisaged Greenpeace scenario does not assume that hydrogen fuel cells or hybrid technology innovations will eliminate fossil-fuel-driven cars from the streets in 2050. Fuel efficiency and the growing replacement of private motorised transport by mass transit systems, bicycles, rickshaws and walking will be enough to bring about the desired energy change in the realm of transport. 

Towards an ecological economy 

All the above proposals imply a radical change in the nature of the economic system, as much as in the very way we live. The present model of growth and development in India (as much as in China or elsewhere) relies on a pattern of industrialisation which has evolved in the West since the days of the industrial revolution in 18th century Britain. Among many other pre-requisites (and consequences), it has a growing and voracious appetite for water and non-renewable resources. It is pivotally anchored in technologies and systems of production which are dependent on fossil fuels, especially since the discovery of petroleum in the late-19th century.  

The sheer size and scale of modern infrastructure, industrial units and mining ventures is such as to demand energy which is generated in centralised, sometimes captive, units. Decentralised co-generation (through, say, solar units) can’t be expected to supply power for modern industry. So if there is to be a reduction in the share of fossil fuels, and a corresponding increase in the share of renewable energy, as Greenpeace is campaigning for, it implies a somewhat matching change in the relative importance of large-scale modern industry, mining and infrastructure (compared to its alternatives).  

Its place will have to be taken by altogether different models of industrialisation. They will be light, dispersed, small-scale, decentralised, relying as far as possible on resources available in the region, even if they are selling their produce in far-off markets. Most importantly, their energy base will be renewable, more in sync with natural cycles.  

Such a pattern of industrialisation could well be sustainable. We do not know its potential as yet because there has been too little policy-backed experimentation in the area. The competitive pressures of globalisation have further put off serious consideration of ecological alternatives as far as our policy elites are concerned. It appears that their consideration now rests upon prior cooperation and agreements in the international arena. 

Much is to be undone from our time of reckless production and consumption if we are to negotiate the enormous, long transition towards an ecologically sensitive economy. Our predicament is so absurd today that only the unsustainable and the inequitable appears practical to most people. This is the nature of corporate industrial hegemony – sustained by a mass media never too tired to persist with the necessary brainwashing. What is easily missed is that many other forms of energy production and industry would be commercially viable with active support from law and state policies. And that only these will in the long run be sustainable and in the interests of our people.  

Nor is India alone in this battle for decent survival. Every country on earth today is saddled with an ecologically outmoded industrial system which is wreaking havoc on nature. This system grew to maturity in the Western world in exceptional circumstances – of practically inexhaustible resources and finite overall pollution, not to forget the enormous political and economic advantages of colonialism and ongoing imperialism. These conditions have altered frightfully fast during the past half-century, but the system remains and continues to exact tribute from human and non-human nature alike. 

It is said all around us today that the planet is in peril. What is left unsaid was enunciated with stark clarity by the American anthropologist Gregory Bateson over a generation ago in his famous essay The Roots of Ecological Crisis:  

“The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.” 

The idea of the “survival of the fittest” is a deadly prejudice. The unit of survival is not the organism at all. “The unit of survival is organism plus environment…We are not outside the ecology for which we plan – we are always and inevitably part of it”, Bateson added. 

So how are we to think? We are back to a “small is beautiful”, quasi-Gandhian model of industry. The sooner we accept this as a compulsion for our time and people, the less painful the massive transition is likely to prove. The more vested interests are allowed to control and shape state policies to the narrow, short-term ends of private profit and unsustainable forms of economic growth, the more violence and destruction the desired changes are likely to bring about in the course of their maturation. 

In Copenhagen this coming winter, when it negotiates with the big powers, India must not only accede to the demands being placed on it for the reduction of emissions. It must argue forcefully for the wealthy nations to follow suit. It must by example actually lead the way to an ecological revolution that the world as a whole, and each country in it, small or large, will have to accept sooner or later as the very precondition for survival as the century of reckoning unfolds.  

Infochange News & Features, August 2009