India’s energy future could tip the scales of global climate change, but the extreme weather is already here.
Grieving family members set fire to shrouded bodies on terrace rooftops in the holy city of Varanasi as a tide of polluted water from the Ganges rolled in around them. Flooded temples could only be reached by boat, and orange Hindu flags were dampened with the rising gray water that filled the city’s streets.
The Varanasi floods in August killed at least 40 people, and tens of thousands more were displaced. Western media barely covered the crisis; flooding can feel commonplace during India’s monsoon season, and perhaps the number of dead didn’t turn many heads in a country of 1.2 billion.
The larger story, however, almost certainly warrants attention, if not a degree of panic: India’s changing climate.
To avert death and displacement in the years ahead, a rapidly developing country dependent on coal is trying to slash its carbon emissions by switching to solar power and other cleaner energy sources. Whether India succeeds in this energy renaissance will likely determine the future of its people–and to a certain degree, the world.
Present and Future Danger
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite his unflattering record on environmental issues, says he understands the immense threat climate change poses—even if he accepts almost no blame for the problem.
“Climate change is not of our making,” Modi said at the United Nations’ 2015 climate change talks in Paris. “It is the result of global warming that came from the prosperity and progress of an industrial age powered by fossil fuel. But we in India face its consequences today. We see it in the risks of our farmers, the changes in weather patterns, and the intensity of natural disasters.”
Modi ratified the Paris agreement on Oct. 2—chosen to coincide with Gandhi’s birthday. The pact seeks to limit the Earth’s warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Unlike other developing nations, India did not agree to cap emissions. Instead Modi pledged to bulk up on renewable power and reduce emissions relative to GDP by roughly a third from 2005’s emissions by 2030.
India accounts for 4.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, so it plays a crucial role in combating climate change. And, because of the risks of flooding and high temperatures, perhaps no country has a greater incentive to slow global warming.
Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer of India’s Council on Energy, Environment and Water, an environmental group, estimated that natural disasters exacerbated by climate change cost the Indian government roughly $30 billion (US dollars) between 2010 and 2015. That number will likely rise along with the global temperature, according to his research.
Ghosh said that floods previously considered to be one-in-100-years events could occur ten times a year by 2020–around the time that India is set to become the world’s most populous country.
Floods already ravaged south India in November and December of 2015, killing over 500, and displacing 1.8 million more, according to charity groups including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The dangers go beyond floods. Record-breaking heat waves have become a regular occurrence in India, killing thousands in each of the last two summers. Drought has damaged crops, causing starvation and a rash of farmer suicides. As global temperatures continue to rise, hot-weather countries like India feel the limits of habitability being stretched.
Another concern for India is its water supply. Much of its water comes from glaciers melting in the Himalayas—a melt that has been expedited in recent years by rising temperatures. Recently scientists have voiced fears that India’s supply could suddenly surge as a result of melting before drying up, creating massive waves of displaced and starving people.
Aditya Satpute, formerly of the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, a think tank that advised Modi’s government on climate change, called India “one of the most vulnerable” countries.
“Flash flooding at Kedarnath was probably the first incident when people really started to talk” about climate change, Satpute said. That flood in north India killed roughly 5700 people.
“The government certainly cannot deny that flooding in Chennai or floods in northern Bihar are more than just the normal course of nature,” he said.
Can Solar Fuel A Growing Population?
An estimated 1.3 billion people in the world live without access to a power grid, and about 300 million of them, or roughly a quarter, live in underdeveloped areas in India, such as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. These are the same people who are most threatened by the natural disasters and the ones that Modi has to consider when balancing development with India’s environmental future.
Small solar devices spread renewable energy in energy-poor parts of India: A solar lamp can illuminate a small hut to help a child study, for example, and a solar-powered fan can help keep a baby cool in Uttar Pradesh’s brutal May heat.
According to the US government’s Energy Information Administration, 44 percent of India’s energy came from coal in 2013 with renewables making up only 3 percent. India will become second to only China in terms of coal production and the largest importer of coal before 2020, according to a report by the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental agency.
Coal produces a higher rate of emissions than other fuel sources. Yet building solar panels is far more expensive than mining and burning coal.
Modi has pledged to invest $100 billion in clean energy over the next five years, and to source 40 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030. India has also helped establish the International Solar Alliance (ISA), a multi-country organization of sun-rich countries focused on solar technology. His most recent budget includes more than a doubling of the government subsidies for solar power.
Whether these investments in solar will catch up with development and reduce carbon emissions is a contentious issue.
Prior to ratifying the Paris agreement, Modi pledged to illuminate 18,000 energy poor villages by 2019 through a mix of fossil fuels and renewable sources.
According to Debajit Palit, an associate director at TERI, a nongovernmental organization specializing in development of renewable energy in India, solar would likely only power 3,000 of those villages, or roughly 15 percent. The other 85 percent would come from the central grid, which is still mostly fueled by coal. That means India will continue to develop its darkened rural pockets with high-carbon energy at the same time it attempts to transition to newer technologies.
Whether or not India can move its power grid to renewable sources fast enough to slow the pace of its natural disasters is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.