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Hailed by the world but ignored in India: PM Modi has taken India far ahead of most nations in tackling climate change

Years ago, it would have been unimaginable that India would be rated at par with some of the Scandinavian nations in terms of climate change action, ahead of the vast majority of G20 countries. That alone deserves a standing ovation.

Modi has done more for the environment than any other PM in recent history. Unfortunately, most journalists and intellectuals do not give him due credit for it. Therefore, it is not surprising that almost all appreciation that Modi gets is from international bodies, including the World Economic Forum (WEF), specifically for the role he played pertaining to the Paris Agreement. Recently, Modi also received the CERAWeek Global Energy and Environment Leadership Award “for his commitment to expanding India’s leadership in sustainable development”, in the words of IHS Markit vice chairman and Pulitzer Prize winning author Daniel Yergin.

What you get instead is cheap wisecracks on Modi’s comments related to global warming when the PM was communicating with school children. Or when he talked about extracting moisture from the air using windmills, a tested technology. Nonetheless, as we will demonstrate in this piece, numbers that highlight India’s progress are overwhelmingly in Modi’s favour.

As an environmentalist, we greatly value the work that the Modi Government has done on this front. To give it some perspective, let us look at this well-known slide from Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. What the slide shows is the carbon emissions can be reduced readily to pre-1970 levels by acting on several achievable fronts. The Modi Government has addressed climate challenge holistically by addressing electricity consumption and generation, household fuel consumption, vehicle emissions, and transport efficiencies.

Slide from Al Gore’s presentation on how to reduce CO2 emissions to below 1970 levels

Before moving on to the constituent factors, we can have an overall look at where India stands on the Climate Change Performance Index. As can be seen below, India is rated very high, at par with some of the Scandinavian nations and Chile. This is even as the vast majority of G20 countries are trailing in the rankings. India’s track record of being the only “2°C compatible” country was flagged in a report released by a coalition of 14 global thinktanks. According to the IEA, India is already on track to exceed the commitments made in its nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

Source: CCPI 2021

To appreciate the steps India took to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases, we can look at the various components that Al Gore talked about.

Electricity Consumption

Progress on electricity end-use efficiency has been achieved primarily through the National UJALA (Unnat Jyoti by Affordable LEDs for All) mission. Over 36 crore LEDs, which are up to 75% more efficient than incandescent bulbs (ICBs) have been distributed, reducing about 38.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum. Effectively, now every household has an LED bulb that has been distributed by the Government.

Importantly, the Central government carried out multiple initiatives to bring down LED bulb prices through bulk purchasing and promoting local production. This, along with other factors, helped bring down the price of an LED to about INR 70 from INR 400 in 2014 in just five years. The scheme has also been successful in bringing about the rapid adoption of LEDs, and as per surveys, most low-income households would go for an LED bulb when the time comes for replacement.

We however do note that while the share of incandescent bulbs (ICBs) in total lighting devices sold had reduced, it still amounted to a sizeable 43% in 2018, with about 46 crore lighting points with ICBs as of 2017, indicating that the program is around halfway through. That said, the share of LEDs is now an impressive 46%, compared with less than 0.4% in 2014. Another area where the scheme can improve is the rural penetration of LEDs, as surveys show that the scheme has so far been urban-centric.

Transport Vehicle Reforms

In this domain, work has mostly concentrated on electric vehicles, cleaner fuel through stringent requirements, and expanding public transportation.

The transport sector is a key contributor to climate change, accounting for 23% of global energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The overall transport sector in India is estimated to emit about 15% of the CO2 emissions, which are increasing at a rapid rate –more than 6% per annum. An analysis of air quality in New Delhi alone shows that transport accounts for 19%, 39%, and 81% share in annual PM10, PM2.5, and NOx (toxic gases causing respiratory ailments) emissions respectively.

To promote cleaner fuels, the Modi government acted proactively by leapfrogging from BS-IV norms to BS-VI, skipping the intermediary stage. As a result, the emission norms of all models of two-wheelers in India are ahead of Europe (2021) and Japan (2022).

The government has also charted an ambitious plan to push for electric vehicles (EVs). NITI Aayog aims to achieve 40% electrification of cars and two-wheelers by 2032 (nearly 100% for commercial applications). While this is an ambitious target, even compared to China (20% by 2025), it demonstrates the Government’s intent to rapidly move to EVs.

The Government’s INR 100 billion programs under the FAME-II (faster adoption and manufacturing of electric vehicles) scheme, which materialized on 1st April 2019, aims to encourage faster adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles by incentivizing the purchase of electric vehicles and establishing the necessary charging infrastructure for EVs. According to the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises (MHIPE), the subsidies allotted by the government under the FAME-India program have benefitted about 285,000 buyers of electric and hybrid vehicles to the tune of INR 3.6 billion.

The GST reduction on EVs from 12% to 5% and the additional income tax deduction of INR 1.5 lakhs on interest paid on loans taken to buy electric vehicles will provide further impetus. The GST framework can, however, be improved by removing the confusion related to hybrids, although the rates indicate an EV-backing stance. India would also need to invest substantial sums to create battery capacity (USD 10bn- USD 30bn), which could be taken up with private players as well. Investments would also be needed in charging infrastructure, going up to USD 20bn for equipment alone. We, therefore, view the high duties on fossil fuels favourably, as they would help shore revenues for this transition, even though they are politically damaging.

Another step taken by the Indian Government focuses on improving transport efficiency by developing a metro train network across India, increasing efficiencies at Indian Railways, and the bullet train project.

When the Modi government was formed in 2014, only five cities had metro services, which has increased to 18 cities in 2021, and will rise to more than 25 by 2025. The length of operational lines also jumped to 760 km in January 2021 as against less than 260 km before 2014. As per the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, by 2024-2025, India will have over 1,700 km of metro network, the second highest after China. Increased metro coverage should not only help reduce urban congestion, but also emissions from 2-and 4-wheelers.

Indian Railways is also taking sustainable efforts to reduce its carbon print by 33% by 2030. There is a target in place for 100% electrification of India’s railways by 2022, up from 51% in 2019. This should significantly reduce diesel consumption, with locomotives driven by power derived largely from solar plants.

Finally, the bullet train project should help shift travelling from aviation to trains, which emit up to 90% fewer greenhouses gases compared to airplanes.

India has also recently launched the National Hydrogen Energy Mission, which will help reduce dependence on fossil fuels for mobility. The policy might also mandate fertilizer, steel and petrochemicals industries to shift to green hydrogen use.

Household Cooking Fuel

The Ujjwala Scheme (PMUY), where families below the poverty line (BPL) are provided free LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) connection has also helped in significantly reducing air pollutants. Ujjwala scheme has been praised profusely by the WHO report on global pollution in 2018.

The success of the scheme can be gauged from the fact that India’s active LPG domestic consumers have almost doubled in the last five years, from 14.86 crores in April 2015 to 27.87 crore in April 2020. LPG gas penetration has now reached an impressive 97.5% in Apr-2020, compared to 56% in the same month in 2015.

Most of the BPL families used coal, wood, crop residuals, dung and kerosene as a cooking fuel. By comparison, LPG is significantly cleaner. Notably, the carbon footprint of LPG is 20% lower than that of fuel oil and 50% lower than coal. LPG therefore helps to reduce CO2 emissions and helps to reduce Black Carbon (BC) emissions, which are not only the second biggest contributor of global warming, but also cause serious health problems.

Moreover, according to the State of Global Air Report 2019, published earlier by the Boston-based Health Effects Institute (an independent global health and air pollution research organization), an estimated 846 million people in India were exposed to household air pollution in 2017. That is 60% of the country’s population. A huge chunk of this number is said to consist of people living in rural areas, where coal, wood, crop waste and other types of biomass are still used for cooking.

That said, one of the major challenges before the government is that the annual average refill by a PMUY consumer is 3.28 cylinders compared to seven for others. To register full gains of Ujjwala, government should now start focusing on refuelling among low-income segments and rural areas, as huge number of households are not refuelling or using LPG as secondary source and still depending on traditional fuels.

Renewable Energy

The milestones achieved by Modi’s dispensation on renewable energy are another example of his distinctive commitment towards environmental goals. Even during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi came up with the ingenious idea of canal-top solar plants, which not only saved the problem of land for solar power but also reduced evaporation of water and increased the efficiency of panels by 2.5-5.0% by keeping them cool.

India emerged from nowhere over the last five years to become the fifth largest country in the world – after China, the US, Japan and Germany – in terms of total installed solar power capacity. In terms of new capacity additions, India ranks second in the world, after China.

Soon after coming to power in 2014, PM Modi had set a target of achieving 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022. The target was considered too ambitious and difficult to achieve. Yet, progress in this domain has proved the critics wrong, and by the end-2020, 136 GW of capacity had already been installed, from merely 2.6 GW in March 2014. It is expected that India’s clean energy capacity will reach 220 GW by 2022 (including hydropower) — surpassing the initial 175 GW target. Even International Energy Agency’s recent report in 2020 highlighted the narrowed gap between coal and renewables significantly in India during the lockdown period.

India has an even more ambitious target of 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030. By that year, the government wants to meet half of the country’s power demand with renewable energy resources. Also, as per IEA, India will add just 25 GW of net coal-fuelled capacity by 2040, compared to an additional 690GW of solar during this period.

To achieve the ambitious target, the Indian government has invested thoughtfully in the entire value chain, along with much-needed policy reforms. These calibrated actions resulted in an 80% drop in setting up Solar PV projects between 2010- 2018, observed by IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency). As per the World Economic Forum, India is now producing the world’s cheapest solar power. Between 2010 and 2018, setup costs in India fell by 80%, the most precipitous decline of any country.

India has also been taking incremental, but important steps towards moving to a solar energy-focused economy. It is the only country in the world that hosts an all-solar airport (Kochi). The Agriculture ministry has also launched an ambitious scheme – Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha Utthan Mahabhiyan (PM KUSUM) – under which 20 lakh farmers would be provided funds to set up standalone solar pumps to replace kerosene-based irrigation pumps.

Conclusion

The above summary of initiatives under Modi leadership are not exhaustive, and merely intends to show the commitment of the Modi government towards climate change. As a leader, he has conceived and executed multiple climate-friendly initiatives, even during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat. He was the first provincial leader to establish a department dedicated to addressing challenges emanating from climate change. Modi stated in 2009 that as an individual, climate change is a moral issue for him, therefore all his policy initiatives across sectors have shown a stamp for climate concerns. By personally leading the tree plantation drive, Namami Ganga, metro rail network across cities, and driving solar and wind energy installations, he has shown climate change is imbibed in the governance DNA of Modi dispensation. While the Modi government’s successful actions to address climate change in India have become a template for various governments globally, especially in the developing world, the achievements have been under-appreciated in India. Critics should evaluate the initiatives without a prejudiced mind. Years ago, it would have been unimaginable that India would be rated at par with some of the Scandinavian nations in terms of climate change action, ahead of the vast majority of G20 countries. That alone deserves a standing ovation.

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