In an article that appeared in May’s Scientific American, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Varun Sivaram shows that India’s path of energy development could have a large impact on future greenhouse-gas emissions. Unlike China, which currently pumps out about twice as much carbon into the air as the U. S., India’s infrastructure is largely yet to be built. And in that fact lies both a challenge and an opportunity.
It will help to get things in proportion if we compare greenhouse emissions and populations for China, the U. S., and India. According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2014 the world leader of global carbon dioxide emissions was China, contributing about 30% of the total. Next in line was the U. S., with 15%, and third was India, with 7%. The much-ballyhooed Paris accords of 2015 committed India to an apparently almost meaningless limit, because Sivaram says “its overall commitment to curb emissions was underwhelming. If the government just sat on its hands, emissions would rise rapidly yet stay within the sky-high limits the country set for itself in Paris.”
By many measures, most citizens of India are still living in the same energy environment their ancestors occupied: using dried cow dung, straw, charcoal, and firewood for domestic heating and cooking. The lucky third or so who have access to more advanced fuel sources use either coal or oil. The nation’s electric grid is somewhat of a joke by Western standards, reaching less than a fourth of the population. And those who get electricity can’t count on it: outages (both planned and accidental) are common, and government-inspired policies to keep rates low has resulted in chronic underinvestment that has further contributed to the grid’s rickety status.
Unlike China, India has something approaching a democratic government, although with a heavy dose of socialist-style traditions left over from the Nehru years of the 1950s and 60s. While the economy has improved greatly under more recent governments since the 1990s that have favored private enterprise and privatization of formerly government-owned enterprises, Sivaram points out that investment money is hard to come by.
Examining the two extremes of how things go from here, suppose that India follows the easier path trod already by China, exploiting readily-accessible fossil fuels and building coal-fired power plants to supply its increasing population of about 1.4 billion, which is due to outstrip China’s population in a few years. If that happens, the U. S. will no longer be the world’s No. 2 carbon-dioxide emitter—India will be, and might even surpass China to become No. 1.
Of course, this is a competition that no government wants to win. But zooming down to the micro view of individual citizens, the meaning of drastic global-warming restrictions on future fossil-fuel use becomes more problematic. Most Indian citizens do not drive cars, and the vast majority of motorized vehicles sold even today are motorbikes or three-wheel jitneys. Mobility is something everyone wants, and as more Indians get better jobs and are able to save money to buy larger items, the market for automobiles could grow tremendously. But that development would only exacerbate carbon-dioxide emissions. The same people who want to drive would like to have plentiful, reliable electricity both for domestic uses and for things like agriculture and manufacturing. But if power is generated with coal or oil, there goes more CO2.
In his article, Sivaram holds out an alternative energy future that could become reality, given enough willingness on the part of national and state governments and citizens generally. Solar energy is abundant in the countryside, and the government is already deploying solar panels to power irrigation pumps, but on a small scale. Given enough investment, the desperately-needed expansion of the electric grid could include the latest smart-grid technologies that would enable it to take advantage of wind and solar power, which otherwise would not fit easily into an old-fashioned grid designed for 24-hour-a day power sources. And the nice thing is that little retrofitting will be required, because most of the needed grid does not yet exist today.
While coal and oil will be a large part of India’s energy mix in the near future, another hope Sivaram has is that conservation measures will limit the increase in demand to less than it would be otherwise. Rapid deployment of electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources could help here, as well as an emphasis on energy-efficient appliances and buildings.
The fly in this sweet-smelling ointment of the future, Sivaram admits, is the crying need for investment money. And here is where things get murky. In common with many other countries in Asia, India’s regulatory environment is marred by complexity, delays, and corruption. Even major infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams and grid improvements have been torpedoed by high interest rates, permit delays, and poor fiscal planning, resulting in abandoned projects and even bankruptcies. These are not engineering problems. These are social and government-policy problems, and it will take political courage and intelligence to make much progress in these areas.
With India halfway around the world, it’s easy to ignore internal problems like these, but this academic semester just ending, I taught a graduate class for the first time in many years, and most of the students in it were from the Indian subcontinent. Thirty years ago, most of them would have been from China, but there are plenty of Chinese universities that are as good or better than your average state school in the U. S. now, and so the new-graduate-student pool for middle-ranked U. S. universities has shifted south over the years.
If these students are like most foreign grad students, many of them will try to stay in the U. S. But some will return to their native lands. I hope that what they learn here about the social and political structure of the U. S. will help them realize that in many ways, India has a chance to avoid mistakes others have made before them. Whatever your views on global warming, I think we can agree that it’s a hard problem both to allow millions of people in India to enjoy some of the benefits of advanced technology that we in the U. S. have enjoyed for three generations, while avoiding preventable harm to the planet we all live on. I hope the citizens of India can take advantage of their opportunities to work out this problem in the best way possible.
Sources: The article “The Global Warming Wild Card” by Varun Sivaram appeared on pp. 48-53 of the May 2017 issue of Scientific American. The EPA website from which I obtained 2014 data on carbon-dioxide emissions is at https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data. I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on the demographies of China and India and the history of the Indian republic.
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