With one of the fastest growing economies worldwide, India is a nation experiencing the height of its economic boom. This comes with a growing population that is expected to reach 1.4 billion people within the next two years (Joshi & Chen, 2020). With growth comes an increasing demand for energy to provide power for the people and processes driving its economic engine. As a long-time dependent on coal-fired power plants and fossil fuels, India is now facing a need to transition to renewable energy to fulfil climate change targets outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement (Joshi & Chen, 2020). This commitment comes as greenhouse gases (GHGs) and rising temperatures threaten India’s environment- upending agriculture, water supplies, and landforms which sustained a nation(s) for over two thousand years (World Bank Group, 2013; The National Intelligence Council, 2009; Krishnan, 2021). If unaddressed, these issues could cause a loss of livelihood, food and water security, and most concernedly- a widening gap between the impoverished and high-earners in an increasingly stratified society (The National Intelligence Council, 2013; Arjjumend, 2018). Taken together, India is faced with a challenging dilemma: economic gain with an environmental cost. At the heart of this issue is energy, and the ways it can be sustainably achieved. One begs the question, how will the most populous country power its people? This brief article investigates the relationship between economic boom and environmental conservation, and the role of renewable energy in striking a fair balance.
India’s Economic Boom: A Double-Edged Sword
India lies in the southernmost tip of the Asian continent adjacent to Pakistan, Nepal, China, and Bangladesh. In addition to its vast land expanse, the country is flanked by bodies of water on its easterly and westerly borders up to the North Indian Ocean (Gogoi, n.d.). This wide geographic reach and coastal coverage has provided India with a resource rich environment. Such environment serves essential sectors of the Indian economy including agriculture, industry, manufacturing, and energy production. Some resources, such as the country’s cultivar regions, plant and animal products have played an integral role in agricultural production and exports for centuries (see “Status of Agriculture in India” by Mathur et al., for a comprehensive review of agriculture practices in India) (India Brand Equity Foundation, 2017). Other resources, such as iron ore and wool, serve as the backbone of India’s industrial machine-generating material goods and wealth which drive its economic growth (Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.). Textile factories, steel manufacturing plants, and the petrochemical industry have risen as leading sources of employment and prosperity throughout the country; with an upcropping of 15,000 manufacture facilities in the last 5 years alone (Mehta & Rajan, 2017; Inani, 2019). India also possesses large amounts of coal, natural gas, and petroleum (Mehta & Rajan, 2017). The widespread abundance of these non-renewable energy resources is thought to have contributed to the India’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels (coal in particular), which makes up an estimated 82.7% of the national energy supply (The National Intelligence Council, 2009). Taken together, India’s abundance of human and natural resources has contributed to its ranking as the 6th largest economy worldwide (The Indian Express, 2022). Within this context, India is projected to reach a 9.3% gain in GDP, and 1% population growth per year and a declining unemployment rate- with a corresponding increase in quality of life (Magazine, 2022; Pettinger, 2021). These gains come as India’s environment becomes increasingly pressured to provide, support, and sustain the growing demands of its people and practices.
While India’s economic boom has undoubtedly impacted society in positive ways, the exploitation of resources has caused environmental impacts. For example, Inani et al. cite intensive farming practices as a cause of vegetation loss and desertification in the Gurugram region of Greater Delhi. This has resulted in lessening of agricultural yields for pastoral and commercial farmers alike. Pandey et al., report industry and transportation as contributors to air pollution and smog; both of which have been linked to the widespread incidence of respiratory illness and poor health outcomes in the urban workforce. This comes as rising temperatures cause flooding, droughts, and a loss of coastlines and glaciers (see recession of the Gangotri glacier for an excellent example of this) (United Nations, n.d.). If left unchecked, these issues could undermine the security and infrastructure of settlements, factories, and farms which underlie India’s economic engine. Of interest in this article, the energy sector has been cited as a leading cause of climate change in India. A 2018 report by the United States Agency of International Development (USAID), lists the energy sector as the leading contributor of GHG emissions nationwide at 68.7% of total emissions – with more than half of these emissions arising from coal-fired power plants and the burning of fossil fuels. In combination with its agricultural and industrial activities, India presently ranks as the 3rd largest contributor of GHG emissions in the world at 2.65Gt, following China and the United States at 10Gt and 5.41Gt respectively (Greenhouse Gas Emissions Factsheet, 2019; “Innovation and India’s..,” 2020; Union of Concerned Scientists, n.d.). When placed in context with India’s observed environmental changes, this statistic is a stark reminder of the challenges of unsustainable energy production and the pressing need for innovative energy solutions.
Therein lies the double-edged sword of India’s economic boom; resource rich and prosperous, but with an environmental burden. With resources, industry and energy brings promise of employment, GDP, improved infrastructure, livelihood, and quality of life. But as our brief investigation reveals, these gains are not made without a cost. The latter phase of this article explores the importance of renewable energy as a means of buffering this dichotomous relationship. In addition, we will examine the ways India is addressing climate change using energy policy and renewable energy technologies.
Figure 1: Sources of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in India, shares of electricity production for dominant forms of renewable and non-renewable energies, a coal-fired power plant
Figure 1: (a) Source(s) of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2), including the energy sector (blue), agriculture (orange), industry (pink). A majority of energy-derived GHG emissions arise from coal-fired power plants (right b and c). (b) Shares of electricity production in India with dominant forms of renewable and non-renewable energies. (c) a coal-fired power plant. Images taken from (Greenhouse Gas Emissions Factsheet, 2019), (Kottasova et al., 2020) and (Timperley, 2019), respectively.
The Role of Renewable Energy for Sustainable Economic Growth
Given the importance of energy as a driver of economic activity and its role in climate change, efforts are being made to shift to renewable energy sources. India has pledged to cut GHG emissions by 30% in the next two decades- a move which requires adoption of innovative energy policies and technology (Joshi & Chen, 2020). It is thought that renewable energies, such as wind, solar and nuclear have the potential to curb national GHG emissions, and further sustainability efforts in the country (Greenhouse Gas Emissions Factsheet, 2019). Moreover, transitioning to environmentally conscious energy may foster grassroots development of improved practices in industry, agriculture, and other sectors which is serves- without threatening the farming and industrial practices its people currently depend on. India’s current energy mix consists of fossil fuels (coal), hydroelectricity, and to a lesser extent- nuclear, wind, biofuels, and solar (The National Intelligence Council, 2009; “Innovation and India’s..”, 2020). The country’s recent pledge towards the Paris Agreement and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) suggests that changes in the share of the energy mix are on the horizon (United Nations, n.d.). Indeed, India’s self-set Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) pledges 40% power capacity from non-fossil fuels by 2030; an ambitious goal which has been met with the appearance of research, development and deployment (RD & D) initiatives and hefty investments into solar cells, novel biofuels, smart grids, and nuclear programs (Greenhouse Gas Emissions Factsheet, 2019). These endeavors have been furthered by the deployment of national cooperatives, including the Solar Mission (2010), Smart Grid Mission (2015), and Electric Mobility Mission (2012). International diplomacy has also been heightened in lieu of collaborative innovation, with the PACE-R, PACE-D and Indo-Germany Climate and Renewables Alliance (IGCRA) partnerships taking shape with the United States and Germany, respectively (Greenhouse Gas Emissions Factsheet, 2019; Jayaram, 2015). These actions have set the stage for accelerated innovation in the energy sector; a movement which promises environmental sustainability and improved efficiency in India’s industrial and economic activities.
In addition to India’s progress in energy policy, the country has invested in the development and deployment of new technologies. One such development is the expansion of India’s wind power generation grid, which presently extends over 13 states and yields > 67GW of renewable energy capacity (a 25% increase from 2019) (Moran et al, 2018; “Moving on up..”, 2020). This capacity is set to grow in response to ongoing optimization of large-scale vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs) and diffuser augmented wind turbines (DAWTs), which boast increased efficiency and reduced noise pollution (Patel, 2021). Additional progress is being made with solar and nuclear technologies, which presently hold 9.8% and 1.8% of energy shares nationwide (Prasad, 2020; Inn, 2020). Improvements in semiconductors, crystalline silicon (c-Si) and perovskite solar cells promise a lessened price point and higher energy yield compared to contemporary solar cells, making it an increasingly attractive option (Mukhopadhyay, 2020). India’s commitment to nuclear power has since resulted in the establishment of 23 reactors and 7 power plants, with 10 more reactors planned for construction (Nuclear Power in India, 2021). Although not entirely renewable, nuclear energy is high yield and promotes equitable energy access due to its low wattage cost (kWh) (Nuclear Power in India, 2021). Moreover, nuclear plants can sustain long term energy production with relatively low upkeep costs. Recent explorations into small modular reactors (SMRs), thorium, and fission reactors suggest that nuclear power can be further improved to yield lesser building costs and improved safety in the coming decades (Nuclear Power in India, 2021). Hydropower is another crucial technology which presently holds a 12% stake of India’s energy mix (Moran et al, 2021). This percentage is expected to increase in coming years due to its relatively low cost and ease of implementation in India’s wealth of rivers, basins, and lakes (Moran et al, 2021). Other, smaller stakeholders in the energy mix include biogas, geothermal generators, and hydrogen fuel, all of which are promising but require further engineering prior to scaling up to meet high volume energy demands. While not an imminent priority, India has a vested interest in developing these energy modalities for future use.
It should be noted that no energy solution is perfect. In fact, even green solutions like hydropower or solar energy require space and resources to implement. A truly optimal energy solution will require consideration of both environmental and human contexts, and successful accommodation of both entities thereof. Energy adaptation alone will not suffice as a means for environmental sustainability. Dedicated efforts must also be made to reverse environmental damages, improve waste management strategies, and address the broader scale impacts of climate change in the country. While improved energy solutions lie at the heart of India’s green revolution, this endeavor will require further engagement of diverse initiatives and technologies both in the country and abroad.
India’s combination of economic and environmental pressures has created a hotbed of energy innovation. Through its dedication to policy and technology, the country is steadily progressing towards the ideals set forth in the Paris Agreement and INDC target(s). Indeed, economic boom brings environmental costs- but, as we have observed, this could be addressed through green energy practices and an awareness of environmental stewardship. As citizens, our pledge towards open-mindedness and adaptation can prove critical for the deployment of new energy strategies. Looking on to the years ahead, one may wonder how the most populous country will power its people. Our investigation reveals that the answer is not simple; but that energy is at the heart of India’s economic engine and its environmental endeavors. Judging by the present status of India’s pledge to net zero by 2050, it is safe to say these endeavors are already being sought after and developed with current technologies and internationally shared innovations.
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