`Climate change: Those creating problems least willing to take action`

Prodipto Ghosh, Distinguished Fellow, TERI, underlines the role of nuclear energy for development.

Poorva Sagar/ OneWorld South Asia

Talking to OneWorld South Asia, Prodipto Ghosh, Distinguished Fellow, TERI, underlines the critical role of nuclear energy for development and how DSDS forum provides an essential platform for youth to exchange their views.

Prodipto Ghosh is Member, Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, and former Secretary, Environment and Forest in the Union Government from 2003 to 2007. He specialises at the interface of science, economics, and public policy. He was a Member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) from 1969 to 2007.

As a distinguished fellow at Earth Sciences and Climate Change, TERI, he works on climate change and sustainable development policy. Prior to the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2012, Ghosh talks to OneWorld South Asia. Read below the excerpts of his interview.

OWSA: Are the fears about India`s carbon emissions true? Or is it that we get clubbed with China, just because both countries are rising fast. China stands at number one in emissions while India is at three, but much much behind.

Prodipto Ghosh: India is the second largest country in the world. It also happens to be an extremely poor country. India’s per capita and historical GHG emissions are a fraction of the global average. Even if you talk about China, again characterising this as the biggest emitter is a travesty of the truth. Because again China’s per capita GHG emissions are just about one-third or maybe one-fourth of the US.

India and China are big countries. Therefore the aggregate will be bigger. But the point is not the aggregate. The point is, what is the level of development and the level of output that the GHG emissions of India and China support, and are they using it in an efficient way?

In purchasing power parity terms, India has one of the least energy intensities of the world. So what exactly is this concern or fear about India’s emissions? So I consider that not only are these fears overblown, but the fears are also not legitimate at all.

OWSA: Coal accounts for more than half of India`s power generation. How can India address its demand for energy and how serious is it about making a transition to clean energy?

PG: As of now the only serious large-scale and affordable energy source India has is coal. You can also make an argument that India can make a transition given the present state of technology development and our energy needs; it can make a transition to nuclear energy. So far, the growth of nuclear energy has been hobbled by international restrictions. Now, these restrictions are gradually being eased.

Even Australia has come around to accepting that it should sell uranium to India. And so this easing of the restrictions on uranium in the context of our utilisation of thorium resources through the 3-stage nuclear power cycle – that over time, over the next three to four decades can enable us to completely replace coal.

But in the interim, if you ask about solar, if you ask about wind, if you ask about biomass, their scale is too small. In the case of solar, the cost is still roughly three times than that of conventional electricity power generation. So in the near term, I don’t think it is possible to look very seriously beyond coal. There is one possibility which may come up. It has come up certainly in the United States. It is rapidly coming about in China. And that is shale gas. Now natural gas is about one half for each unit of energy, the CO2 emissions of coal.

India could possibly have also large scale shale gas reserves. And if these could be exploited, we would have to acquire the technology, we’d have to set up the land acquisition policies, we would have to set up the regulatory framework. It is possible that in the course of a decade or so we could seriously move into shale gas as an alternative to coal. But absent that development I think it is way too premature for us to premise meeting our energy demands, and thereby premising our development prospects on renewable energy. They have a place, but it would take time.

As far as whether India is serious about making the transition – of course, India has invested very heavily in the 3-stage nuclear cycle. India is committing some 16 or 17 billion dollars to promoting solar power through the Jawahar Lal Nehru National Solar Mission. The installed wind power capacity exceeds that of our current nuclear capacity.

So if we look at India’s policies in terms of what it has actually done on the ground we can find that it has in fact done a great deal. But the problem lies in precisely this. That there is no renewable energy technology which has so far emerged in the same way, for example, mobile phones’ technologies or computer technologies have developed. That kind of rapid dissemination, and rapid bringing down of costs – that has not happened.

And there is little evidence to suggest that that kind of a turn-around can happen anytime soon. If the costs and reliability come to the level of conventional technologies, I have no doubt that India would very enthusiastically scale up its user friendly renewable energy. But as of now there are serious drawbacks and challenges to that prospect.

OWSA: Is it possible to reduce carbon emissions without jeopardizing economic growth? How and how far have we been able to work towards this end?

PG: If we were to move large scale into renewable energy, it will be a huge hemorrhage of investment resources away from other developing sectors, infrastructure, roads, railways, housing, schools into providing energy. If we are forced into premature restrictions on the use of fossil fuels, there will be a huge developmental impact.

Like I said, India is one of the least energy intensive economies in the world in terms of purchasing power parity. We have, in addition, taken upon ourselves a voluntary target of further 20-25% of reductions of the GHG intensity in the economy in relation to 2005. India is a serious economy; it will make that voluntary commitment. But beyond that, it is not feasible to do anything at this stage. With the present state of technology development, we are likely to encounter severe constraints to our growth.

OWSA: As a Member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, what are your views on India’s climate policy?

PG: India has put in the National Action Plan for Climate Change, which is quite comprehensive with eight missions and several other initiatives. The final mission documents have been approved by the Prime Minister’s Council and they are in the stage of implementation. Serious budgetary provisions have been made in the 12th five year plan. Sixteen states have submitted their state Action Plans for Climate Change to MoEF for review. The policy structure which existed in India has resulted in the very benign profile of energy intensity in India and thereby, very low GHG emissions per unit of GDP.

OWSA: How do you see the stalemate in climate change talks being resolved in the near future, particularly when Canada has taken two steps back and set an unusual, escapist and worrisome precedent?

PG: It’s not only Canada, US has never been a part of any serious international effort starting Kyoto protocol. It also failed to get its domestic legislation passed to address energy and climate change. Also, Australia has said that it will wait and watch before it takes any step to ratify the second commitment to Kyoto protocol. Ultimately, the number of parties going to make nay commitments for Kyoto protocol is going to be very limited.

The stalemate, if any, rises from the fact the developed countries have not lived upto their commitments in the Kyoto protocol are unlikely to fulfil their pledges under the Copenhagen Accord and have no intention to take up seriously legally binding commitments as opposed to trivially legally binding commitments under the Durban platform. The source of stalemate is there. Those who create problems are least willing to take action against climate change.

OWSA: Can the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit play a role in making India/the world have less carbon footprint?

PG: The DSDS is essentially a forum for free exchange of views. On the one hand there are the formal multilateral trustees, international negotiations, government to government meetings, where the atmosphere is generally supercharged. The summit provides a forum by which not only the government representatives, but representatives from corporate, academia, civil society, they have a platform to air their views in a more informal and friendlier atmosphere, to the extent that these exchanges help to build confidence and they will contribute to international outcomes.

But it is not possible to say that DSDS generated ‘a’ particular idea that was accepted in the negotiations. If you are looking for one-to-one outcome, I doubt that is going to happen. But DSDS is generally a forum where there is greater confidence building.

OWSA: How do we scale up technology and practices in climate change across the country? Is our research up to the mark in this field?

PG: We scale up, first of all, if it makes sense to scale up. Key to scale is two-fold. Firstly, through increased R&D, technology can be made more reliable and cost-effective. Secondly, through sheer economies of scale, costs come down. As of now, only a limited amount of scale up is possible with fiscal support and fiscal easements for renewables. But having said that there are feed-in tariffs and renewable energy portfolios for the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission.

Whether the industry would actually respond, we have to wait and see. We can provide incentives for the industry to respond, but there are no instruments for the government to force them to respond. There are certain technological uncertainties with the best of R&D.

Despite decades of research, we still have not come down to a situation where most R&Ds are reliable and competitive as fossil fuel-based power. This is the unfortunate but the whole truth of the matter. We should continue with these efforts and hope for the best, but we cannot seek guarantees and bondage a future to the optimistic outcome in this area. What we have seen in Indian corporate R&D, if we look in the context of CDM, certainly there are lot of innovation around technologies which are otherwise available commercially, which is why it has enabled India to have such a large number of CDM projects.

If we talk about government R&D, the governmental systems have yielded the mother of all clean technologies. It has developed to a commercial scale the 3-stage nuclear cycle that is based on the thorium. Thorium reserves are proliferation resistant than the conventional and are much more abundant globally, particularly in India than uranium reserves. This will enable the global system to move on a clean energy path, but provided all the existing restrictions on trading nuclear materials are made rationalised and are focused on the proliferation and not try to attain the collateral objectives.

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