India seeks to balance development with need for clean energy

“Climate change is not of our making,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Monday at the climate conference in France.
“Climate change is not of our making,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Monday at the climate conference in France.
(Alain Jocard / AFP/Getty Images)

In rural India, the onset of dusk frequently means a fade to black. Typically, kerosene lanterns, synonymous with darkened lungs and ominous clouds of air pollution, provide light for the country’s 300 million residents who live without any reliable access to power.

It is the future of India’s energy-poor residents, and an additional 800 million who rely on wood and coal for cooking, that leader Narendra Modi aims to reconcile with the demands of a global community facing an ecological crisis.

How he balances the country’s need to support development while curbing its increasing output of carbon emissions will define not only his role at the United Nations climate change conference but conceivably also his tenure as prime minister.

Modi returned to Delhi on Tuesday from a two-day visit to Paris marked by tones of defiance, acknowledging the threat climate change poses but placing the majority of blame on Western countries.

“Climate change is not of our making,” Modi said in his Monday address at the conference. “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.”


The balance Modi seeks between pursuing India’s rural development while simultaneously switching over to renewable energy is complex, and littered with potential setbacks. In a speech he gave at Wembley Stadium in London on Nov. 13, he laid out a plan to bring basic energy to 18,000 energy-poor villages in 1,000 days, or by 2019, through a confluence of renewable energy and fossil fuels.

“Of the 18,000 villages he spoke about, 3,000 will be powered by solar micro-grids, which is great,” said Debajit Palit, an associate director at TERI, a nongovernmental organization specializing in the development of renewable energy in India. “The other 15,000 will receive power from the central grid, which right now is primarily fueled by coal. So the goal must be to make the central grid less reliant on fossil fuel and more focused on renewable sources, or our output of carbon emissions will continue to rise.”

Government corruption at the state level, as well as other weakened areas of infrastructure such as railways, roads and bridges, presents substantial obstacles in providing energy to those who need it, even without the additional cost of switching to solar or wind power.

“To move the country off of coal and onto solar will require considerable foreign investment,” Palit said in a phone interview. “It will be hard to achieve these goals alone.”

Michael Grubb, professor of international energy and climate change policy at University College London and an advisor to Britain at the Paris conference, said a hard cap on India’s carbon emissions, as requested by Western countries, is essentially “out of the question” based on Modi’s rhetoric and the developmental needs of the country.

“India wants an acknowledgment of the different roles each country plays in climate change, because while they make up nearly a fifth of the world’s population, they release significantly lower amounts of carbon emissions per person compared to China and America, even if that number is likely to increase going forward,” Grubb said in a phone interview. “They are highly dependent on stable food production and on water runoff from Himalayas, so you can certainly paint the picture that climate change is a serious threat to the Indian way of life. But then at the same time they make the point that they are not the creators of this problem, so we have a deadlock.”

Grubb said India may require not just foreign investment, but also a significant pledge of financial assistance to reach an agreement in Paris. Modi struck an emotional note Monday when he called for “climate justice,” referring to the need for other countries to acknowledge the uniquely compromised position in which India and other developing nations find themselves in these negotiations.

“India will accelerate the renewable energy only if they receive assistance from developed countries, because right now renewable energy is far more expensive for them than using coal,” Grubb said. “It’s understandable that they want to get their population away from lanterns and biomass cooking.”

The requirements from the Western side for a deal are considerably more vague, given the high stakes created by climate change, and the general understanding that India will not agree to put a cap on its projected carbon emissions before 2030.

“America and Europe want a sign from India that they are willing to take action against the country’s rising levels of carbon emissions,” said Joanna Lewis, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who specializes in climate change. “They want to see any kind of slowing of growth.”

Dr. Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer of India’s Council on Energy, Environment, and Water, a nongovernmental organization that is frequently called upon to advise the Modi government on environmental policy matters, said the damage done to India by man-made climate change has reached a total exceeding $30 billion during the last five years, a figure that signals an urgent need to take action based upon financial incentive alone.



Dec. 2, 7:20 a.m.: An earlier version of this article indicated that the damage done to India by man-made climate change has exceeded $600 billion during the last five years. It has exceeded $30 billion.


Ghosh said if temperatures continue to rise at the current pace in India, what previously would have been considered a “one-in-100-years flood” could occur 10 times a year — as soon as the next decade. He pointed to the southern Indian city of Chennai, where heavy rains Tuesday caused hundreds of deaths as well as the collapse of transportation services.

“Our scientific community is united in acknowledging the dangers of climate change. We don’t have deniers here about what’s happening in Chennai,” Ghosh said in a phone interview. “Nevertheless, in a country of 1.2 billion people, our first priority must be to provide energy access to all. No country has historically achieved a high rate of human development without an increase of energy per capita, and that is the goal that the prime minister hopes to achieve.”

Hayden is a special correspondent.