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India should rapidly increase renewable energy deployment: Arunabha Ghosh

India will need a mindset and manpower skills change to attain net zero target by 2070, set by Prime minister Narendra Modi, says Arunabha Ghosh, founder of the New Delhi based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) think tank. CEEW in a recent study had projected that India’s total installed solar power capacity would need to increase to over 5,600 gigawatts to achieve net-zero by 2070. Further, usage of coal, especially for power generation, would need to drop by 99% by 2060, for India to achieve net-zero by 2070.  Also, consumption of crude oil, across sectors, would need to peak by 2050 and fall substantially by 90% between 2050 and 2070. Edited excerpts from an interview with Ghosh.  

The prime minister Narendra  Modi has outlined  very ambitious goals for India at the Glasgow meet. How are we planning to accomplish this because this means shutting down coal plants, reducing the use of oil, etc. What are the things that we need to do? 

First we have to rapidly increase the renewable energy deployment in the country. Already we are looking at the 500GW non fossil capacity. If you look at the amount of nuclear and hydro we have, it is primarily going to be renewables and therefore we basically have to deploy about 10MW-11MW of renewables every single working hour for the next nine years.  

The second thing that has to happen is the rapid electrification of the industrial sector. Right now less than 20% of our industrial energy comes from electricity. That is why the small, medium businesses are using dirtier fuels for their industrial energy. So rapid electrification of the industrial sector combined with the electricity coming from the renewable energy.      

The third has to be the big push on alternative fuels for heavy industry that is steel, cement, petrochemicals and fertilizers. These amount to about 75% of our industrial emissions. So these are high intensity sectors, you need a lot of energy to produce steel or to produce cement. Thats where the green hydrogen mission (announced by Prime Minister Modi on 15 August) becomes extremely important. Because being able to produce hydrogen from renewable energy and then using that hydrogen as a substitute for coal or gas is what will start moving the industrial energy equation. 

Then there is transport. We have to rapidly electrify the two wheeler, three wheeler and passenger car market but for long distance transport is that the great thing is that prime minister has already declared net zero for the Indian Railways by 2030. It will be the first major railway system in the world that will be net zero. And for long distance freight we will also probably need green hydrogen.  

So these are the components of what it will take to start moving but at the end of the day all of this will also require overall carbon price. Because now we have to recognise that we have to set a completely new direction of travel for the economy for the next half century. And everybody – corporate titan, small business, farmer, politician, policy maker, investor, technology developer – everyone needs to internalize that whatever they do – making cloth it has to be sustainable. You are making candy it has to be sustainable. This is where investment will go, where new businesses will emerge, this is where venture capital needs to head. And it will all require a signal from carbon price.       

This calls for a complete mindset change but also more than that also right? 

It’s a mindset change, it’s a lifestyle change, it is a materials change – the kind of minerals we use, the materials we use for different kinds of technologies that we will be using, its different from what we have done so far.  

Are we really ready to accomplish all this in a country of 1.3 billion people? It’s a tall order. 

I don’t think any country is prepared for this because very few politicians have the courage to tell the people that the future is going to look different from the past and that is why the statement from the prime minister, the statement has not been pulled out of thin air. There is a huge amount of analytical work that has gone in to make these commitments. So this is not something that is infeasible but it takes political courage to make that statement that very few political leaders have demonstrated. China for example has not said anything about how it plans to get to net zero whereas India has outlined it very clearly what the short term targets are going to be not just long term. In the last 12 years, the developed world overall has consumed excess carbon budget by 25 billion tonnes and we are saying that in the coming decade we will reduce our emissions intensity. So it is very important for people to realize inside and outside India the scale of the ambition but also the courage behind the ambition.  

We have some policies in place – the EV policy for example. What are the next steps we need to take? 

We will now need clear policies for each of these elements, whatever is there for renewables, the EV (electric vehicles) policy – the ambition should be clearly defined. We also need some indication that there will be a carbon pricing emerging in the economy because that will help businesses to have clarity because there are a lot of businesses that are using internal carbon prices. So when you have an explicit carbon price then it’s a level playing field for businesses so that gives regulatory clarity and then back all of this up with legislative change. India should have a law that says this is the ambition. Because legal backing gives it even more credibility and then we measure ourselves in terms of our progress.    

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