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Why India Must Join Industrialised Nations In Becoming Net Carbon Neutral

With solar and wind now being the cheapest sources of electricity, India must take leadership to join industrialised nations in becoming net carbon neutral

Climate change is now a reality. People across the world are experiencing extreme weather occurrences that seemed unimaginable a few decades ago. Time is running out for mankind. Getting to zero carbon emissions at the earliest is imperative. The UK and France have, by legislation, decided to become net carbon neutral by 2050. The EU, too, is moving in that direction.

Prime minister Modi has shown leadership in facilitating the Paris agreement, and making what then appeared a highly ambitious voluntary national commitment. This was followed by setting up the International Solar Alliance. The National Solar Mission was launched in 2010 with the target of generating 20,000 MW of solar power by 2020-22. This has already been achieved, and the goal is not to set up 100,000 MW of solar power by 2022 is now there. The prime minister has recently announced that India would take renewable energy capacity to 450,000 MW.

It is time for India to move on to achieving net carbon neutrality. From the outset, India’s position on climate change has emphasised the per capita principle; on grounds of equity, every human being should have the same right to emit carbon dioxide. Further, India would pursue a low carbon growth trajectory in relation to industrialised countries and ensure that its per capita emissions does not exceed theirs. Now that developed countries are aiming to achieve zero per capita carbon emission by 2050, by extrapolation, India’s position should be that it would also achieve this around the same time. Can India do it? Can it afford to do so? Would it moderate the achievement of its development goals? These are issues that need analysis and discussion.

Electricity generation is the largest source of carbon emissions in India, with 72% of electricity being generated by burning coal. India’s per capita electricity consumption needs to go up. The issue is whether this should take place by using more coal, as has been the case, or is a different trajectory feasible. Electricity from solar and wind is now cheaper than all other sources. It, therefore, makes commercial sense to exploit the full wind power potential, and not to burn any coal for electricity. Germany is already getting 46% of its electricity from renewable sources. India should be able to raise its share of renewables from sub-10% at present to Germany’s level of over 45% easily.

The real challenge is to get electricity when the sun is not shining. Storage is the answer. Technologies for storage exist and are being deployed. Their costs are falling rapidly. The oldest one in use is pump storage in a hydropower plant, where electricity generated in the day is used to pump water up into the reservoir of the dam, and this flows down at night to generate electricity. A 1,000 MW pump storage plant is under construction at the Tehri dam. The development of all pump storage sites would be a good starting point. Sardar Sarovar and Indira Sagar dams on the Narmada could be potential sites. Then, other hydro power plants could be examined to see whether, with modest investments, they could be run only at night.

Solar thermal power with storage offers great promise. Heat from the rays of the sun are reflected through giant mirrors, and concentrated to heat molten salt. The heat trapped in the molten salt is then used to generate electricity at night through a conventional turbine. The cost, which may at present be, say, twice that of a normal coal-based plant, would gradually come down with larger volumes. The Chinese, having commissioned one large plant, are building 5,000 MW of these. India could start building a few such plants, with competitive tariff bids, which have helped lower costs for conventional solar power. The same could be done with battery storage. A good beginning is being made in Andaman. With experience in running such storage plants, and their declining costs, India would become well-poised to scale up and produce all its electricity with zero carbon emissions.

Transport is the next largest contributor to carbon emissions in India. Electric vehicles have zero carbon emission of their own. As the carbon emission per unit of electricity declines, and finally becomes zero, carbon emissions from electric vehicles, too, would become zero. Electric two-wheelers, three-wheelers, and cars are already cost competitive. They would gain market share rapidly as the charging network, including in residential apartments and office complexes, is laid out. For trucks and buses moving on highways, Germany is doing a pilot project with overhead electric cables on the highways so that hybrid trucks can run on electricity on the highway and as a normal hybrid otherwise. India would be well advised to go this route rather than putting up a CNG network on the highways as some have been advocating. The Railways are, fortunately, moving towards full electrification as it makes good commercial sense. Thus, surface transport in the country could, as of now, become nearly carbon neutral with no significant additional cost.

The major industrial sectors, such as steel, cement, and petrochemicals, pose technological challenges along with cost and competitiveness issues in moving towards zero carbon emissions. Indian industry is becoming more energy efficient, and would be well poised to move towards lower carbon emissions along with global industry. For India to be among the first countries to become net carbon neutral may not be all that difficult. It should take leadership and consider becoming one.

Source - Financial Express 

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