May 4, 2023 - A hotter-than-usual spring and summer are putting India’s nascent renewable energy sector to the test. In Karnataka, the Indian state that produces the most renewable energy, temperatures have been around three to four degrees Celsius higher than the average for the season, and that average is already blisteringly hot at 36-40º Celsius (97-104º Fahrenheit). As a result, Karnataka recently recorded its highest daily energy demand ever as residents crank up their air conditioning, at 309 million units. While the punishingly sunny and windless days are good for solar power production, they spell trouble for wind power and hydropower, as water resources dry up.
As a result, India is falling back on coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel and the primary fuel source in the subcontinent. India’s reliance on coal has received increasing scrutiny on the global stage as the world attempts to decarbonize the global economy in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Due to the sheer size of the Indian economy and the coal-heavy makeup of its energy mix, weaning India off of coal is a key component of any feasible pathway toward achieving the goals set in the Paris Agreement, keeping global warming within 1.5º-2º Celsius over pre-industrial averages.
India is the third biggest coal-producing country in the world and has the third biggest coal reserves following the United States and China. But even with the grand scale of its domestic coal production, India is also the world’s eighth-largest coal importer. All told, according to figures from the International Energy Agency, India’s annual coal production is a whopping 310 million tonnes, and annual imports clock in at almost 25 million tonnes. This all spells major trouble for the climate, as coal is more carbon-intensive than any other energy source. Worldwide, coal is responsible for more than a fifth of all carbon dioxide emissions.
“In the three decades since reducing emissions became a discussion point on the global stage, analysts have portrayed the U.S., China, and Europe as the most critical targets for cutting pollution,” Time Magazine reported earlier this year. “But as the curve finally begins to bend in those places, it’s become clear that India will soon be the most important country in the climate change effort.”
India has made some significant inroads into scaling up and scaling out its renewable energy capacity in an effort to end its near-total reliance on coal, but as this summer has already shown, the burgeoning industry is nowhere near ready to provide any semblance of energy security to Indian industry, households, and businesses. Instead, India has ordered its coal plants to run at maximum capacity for the second year in a row. Coal production, too, is at an all time high, and coal mining is rapidly expanding as well. India urgently needs to reverse this growth trend, but the scale of the challenge is daunting: a recent report calculated that the cost of transitioning India away from coal is somewhere in the ballpark of one trillion dollars.
India’s energy transition won’t just require a lot of money; it will also take time. “Unless there is a disruptive technology like hydrogen and it is as economical as coal, we can’t think of replacing coal for at least 20 years,” said Sankar Mukhopadhyay, head of the Asia Institute of Power Management in a quote for the Japan Times. This timeline is concerning, to say the least. And Indian officials are in no rush to speed it up, as coal provides a relatively cheap and reliable pathway for development that the country is loath to let go of. “With India’s coal use not expected to peak until 2030 to 2035, the government has been reluctant to sign up for a Just Energy Transition Partnership with rich nations, which would hinge on it committing to a more rapid coal phaseout,” the Japan Times reported.
Indeed, this reluctance is a common (and understandable) roadblock in green energy expansion in developing countries. India has been a particularly vocal critic of developed countries, who have polluted for decades with impunity, pressuring still-developing countries to decarbonize before they have the same opportunity to develop their own economies. “How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies?” India's environment minister and lead climate negotiator Bhupender Yadav shot back at rich countries at COP26. “Developing countries have still to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication.” Instead, Indian officials have urged rich countries to look in the mirror and scale back their own energy use before pointing the finger. If a single refrigerator in the U.S. uses more energy in a year than the average individual does in a developing country, then maybe that should be the real focus of climate talks.