Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opening address to the Paris climate change summit and subsequent remarks are a welcome departure from the confrontational language of “carbon imperialism” used by some of his advisors and evidently favoured by a segment of Indian politicians. These remarks signal a new spirit of cooperation on climate change. However, the truth is that all India needs to do, and all the world should expect, is for India to follow basic self-interest in regard to climate change. This self-interest is to address a fundamental need of its most impoverished citizens as well as its rising middle class — the need for clean, breathable air.
While climate change will adversely affect India perhaps more than any other major country in the long run, the immediate need is to fight air pollution. In doing so, India will take the lead on climate change.
The city with the worst air quality in the world in not Beijing, it’s Delhi. By 2025, Germany’s Max Planck Institute predicts that 32,000 residents of Delhi will die each year from air pollution alone. According to the World Health Organisation, 13 out of 20 of the world’s most air polluted cities are in India. Air pollution sickens many hundreds of thousands of Indians every year and is the country’s fifth biggest killer. The same type of dirty fuels — most notably coal, diesel, and biomass — that produce deadly particulate matter also produce the greenhouse gases that are the subject of the Paris climate change meeting. If India will simply follow its self-interest in cleaning up the air pollution which is sickening and killing its citizens, meeting its climate change goals will follow.
Some Indian opinion makers posit a conflict between human development and fighting climate change. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people who suffer the most from air pollution are those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Lessening pollution that brings sickness and death, especially to the poor, should be a vital part of any human development strategy. This is the very essence of sustainability. A prosperity that lifts citizens out of poverty only to have them choke on air pollution simply is not sustainable.
While other factors are involved, a root of the problem is coal. Coal produces by far more pollution in the production of electricity than any other fuel. Some argue that India must rely indefinitely on burning dirty coal for the bulk of its power because it is cheap. This is no longer a valid argument. In a recent Andhra Pradesh auction, a US-based company won an auction for a 500 megawatt project at Rs 4.63 per kilowatt hour. In comparison, electricity from burning coal in India is estimated to cost anywhere between Rs 1.5-5 per kilowatt hour. When the price in healthcare, lost efficiency and human suffering from pollution is added to the cost for burning coal, the competitiveness of solar is obvious. India’s movement from coal will not take place immediately and, in the interim, an emphasis on energy efficiency, lessening the pollution from the coal that is burned and even the substitution of cleaner natural gas will play a role. However, a switch to renewables such as solar for largely tropical India is clearly in the national interest to fight air pollution, if for no other reason.
Modi’s remarks, along with those of French President Francois Hollande, in launching the international solar alliance in Paris, were extremely encouraging. With 121 countries participating in the solar alliance and a strong reliance on mobilising capital through a public-private partnership, the way forward is plain. This public/private approach was also a theme of Modi’s Mission Innovation speech and participation in the launching of twin initiatives by 20 countries and 29 billionaires, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to spur research and development on clean energy. Going forward, India is assuming its rightful place of leadership on energy and climate change by following what is in its own self- interest.