With more than 1.3 billion people, India is the second most populous country in the world, and ranks as the third largest energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter. But the country also has one of the most ambitious plans to transition to clean energy.
The United Nations recently called on India to speed up its shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy in the COVID-19 recovery process. If this path is pursued, the country could become a global superpower in the fight against climate change, create millions of jobs, and provide electricity access to those who live in poverty.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech that “scaling up clean energy, particularly solar, is the recipe for solving both … poverty alleviation and universal energy access — two of India’s top priorities.”
India has already made significant progress in the transition to clean energy. The country spent more on solar energy than on coal-fired power generation for the first time last year, and has invested in sustainable practices such as clean cooking. India is one of the few countries on track to meet its Paris agreement targets.
The country plans to more than double its renewable energy capacity by 2022, reaching 175 gigawatts (GW), and then nearly triple it again by 2030.
But reaching these ambitious targets is more uncertain than ever as the country’s GDP declines and COVID-19 cases continue to rise. With more than 4.2 million cases, India surpassed Brazil on Monday as the second worst-affected country in the world after the US.
There’s a risk that the country could fall back on coal as the economy declines. India uses coal for half of its commercial primary energy supply, and the dirty energy source remains India’s dominant fuel for power production, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Because of this, the country is home to 14 of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world.
India is home to 176 million poor people, and 64 million Indians remain without electricity access. Because of poor infrastructure, lack of health care access, and widespread food insecurity, those who live in poverty are disproportionately affected by extreme climate events like flooding, droughts, and heat waves.
In May, as the country dealt with thousands of new COVID-19 infections every day, India was simultaneously hit with scorching temperatures and its worst locust invasion in decades. The heat wave posed an additional health hazard for the tens of millions who lack running water and air conditioning, and the locust invasion devastated the country’s farms, which were already struggling economically from the COVID-19 lockdown.
The expansion of renewable energy could help in the fight against poverty as well by providing good-paying jobs, reducing environmental hazards, and increasing access to cheap electricity. The renewable energy sector has seen its workforce rise five-fold since 2015. And in terms of electricity access, India expanded access to all villages in 2018, a significant improvement from four years prior when the country had the world’s largest un-electrified population.
“The fight against climate change is the same fight as against poverty,” Anjali Jaiswal, senior director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s India team, told Global Citizen. “They are so connected, and COVID-19 is just showing all the tremendous cracks in the system in terms of being able to protect people from health risks and the climate crisis.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened an opportunity to shift from reigning economic models, but many countries have simply doubled down on environmentally ruinous policies.
Among G20 nations, twice as much money from COVID-19 recovery packages has been spent on fossil fuels as on clean energy, according to Guterres. Some countries such as China have used the recovery to invest in coal and support new coal-fired power projects.
“This strategy will only lead to further economic contraction and damaging health consequences,” Guterres said. “We have never had more evidence that pollution from fossil fuels and coal emissions severely damages human health and leads to much higher healthcare system costs. Investing in fossil fuels means more deaths and illness, and rising healthcare costs. It is, simply put, a human disaster and bad economics.”
By shifting to renewables, countries can protect public health, while also creating millions of new jobs to revamp the economy. The economic benefits of renewables have already been seen in India. The Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) estimates that the solar and wind sectors currently employ about 50,000 permanent employees and more than 80,000 people in construction and installation activities.
There is also huge economic potential in domestic manufacturing for the renewable sector, Rishabh Jain, market intelligence manager at the CEEW Centre for Energy Finance, told Global Citizen. Despite being one of the largest renewable energy markets, India imports 85% of its solar equipment from other countries. If the country began manufacturing its solar cells and modules domestically, it could not only save money, but also create more jobs.
As India recovers from COVID-19, Guterres calls for a “clean, green transition” by placing a price on carbon pollution, committing to no new coal after this year, and ending fossil fuel subsidies, which are still roughly seven times higher than subsidies for clean energy in India.
So far, India has been able to sustain its progress toward renewable energy throughout the COVID-19 lockdown. In fact, the proportion of its renewable energy rose from 17% just before the pandemic to 24%, and coal-fired power declined from 76% to 66%. With public health, climate resilience, and economic growth on the line, India’s post-pandemic decisions will be crucial in determining the country’s future, and also in setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.
“Today is the time for bold leadership on clean energy and climate action,” Guterres said. “I call on India to be at the helm of the ambitious leadership we need.”