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The UN Secretary General António Guterres has called upon India to move away from coal and invest more in renewable energy. (File Photo by MICHAEL TEWELDE / AFP) (AFP)
The UN Secretary General António Guterres has called upon India to move away from coal and invest more in renewable energy. (File Photo by MICHAEL TEWELDE / AFP) (AFP)

UN Secretary General urges India to phase out coal and embrace renewable energy

UN Secretary General António Guterres says India should end fossil fuel subsidies and that the country can be a global leader in fighting climate change

UN Secretary General António Guterres today called on the Indian government to move away from coal and other fossil fuel-based economic growth and fully embrace renewable energy (RE). Guterres’s remarks were a part of his Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture speech, delivered online at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). He cautioned that new coal auctions, in a bid to kick-start a post-covid economic recovery, would be counterproductive, since coal has no future economic viability. It would rather lead to greater pollution, add to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and place a burden on India’s healthcare system. Guterres praised India’s achievements in RE investments and the country’s 2030 target of increasing its share of RE capacity to 500 gigawatts. On 18 June, prime minister Narendra Modi had launched the auction of 41 coal blocks to the private sector. On 21 July, power and new & renewable energy minister RK Singh said that India’s RE capacity would reach 510 gigawatts by 2030.

“In some cases, we are seeing countries doubling down on domestic coal and opening up coal auctions. This strategy will only lead to further economic contraction and damaging health consequences," Guterres said, adding, “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." He said that in India 50% of coal would become uncompetitive by 2022, and this would rise to 85% by 2025. “This is why the world’s largest investors are increasingly abandoning coal. They see the writing on the wall. It spells stranded assets and makes no commercial sense. The coal business is going up in smoke."

The covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a global economic meltdown, and Guterres has been calling on countries use this for a clean energy transition. The cornerstone for that would be a ‘green’ economic recovery, where countries would drastically reduce their reliance on fossil fuels like coal. Guterres said that investments in RE, clean transport and energy efficiency could create 9 million jobs annually for the next three years. “Investments in renewable energy generate three times more jobs than investments in polluting fossil fuels," he said, adding that such job creation is vital since the pandemic’s economic impact could push many people back into poverty.

This is compounded by climate change, since India will be among the worst-hit countries due to the impacts of global warming. Guterres referred to this in his speech, saying that if the 1.5 degree Celsius goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement is breached, then India will face the brunt of the climate crisis. “With its vast size and ecological diversity, India is already experiencing many of the worst impacts of climate change, he said, adding, “The country will endure more intense heatwaves, floods and droughts, increased water stress and reduced food production, all undermining progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals."

Climate change scholar and policy expert Navroz Dubash from the Centre for Policy Research, says that given the cost trajectory of RE and that of storage, Guterres is correct that coal does not have much of a future. “This is a reason to be very cautious about investing much more, if any, in new coal fired power plants. But it does not mean India will stop burning coal tomorrow. The transition is inevitable but not immediate. India should use the time to prepare, ensuring new forms of employment in coal (producing) states, because new solar jobs are unlikely to be in the same place as old coal jobs. But trying to prop up and promote coal may be a wasted effort," he says.

Dubash also says that Guterres acknowledged India’s advances in managing the clean transition, especially since many of the other G20 nations are lagging behind India in this regard. “Real action on climate change will rest on concrete and here and now plans to accelerate clean energy while meeting India's energy needs for development and the needs of the poorest. This means grappling with the complexities of our discoms, the links between electricity and the banking sector and other such challenges," says Dubash.

For Anjal Prakash, professor and research director at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Guterres’s remarks are in sync with issues raised by scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). An IPCC author, Prakash cites the immediate risks to India from climate change, and says that with strong political will, investments in RE sources can and should pick up much faster than before. “Green growth model of development as an adaptation option also has mitigation as co-benefits. We must pay heed to the voices emerging from scientific and policy communities to chart a course of green growth. Shifting to renewables and green energy is one amongst the many such strategies."

Indian businesses ask for a Green Recovery

Earlier, on 27 August, 20 Indian businesses signed a statement outlining priorities to stimulate green growth and create a more resilient economy for the country. The signatories include Nadir Godrej of Godrej Industries, R Mukundan of Tata Chemicals, Mahendra Singhvi of Dalmia Cement and Videh Kumar Jaipuriar of Delhi International Airport-GMR Group. The eight-point statement includes calls for investment in new clean energy sources, access to green finance to mitigate emissions, new standards and regulations for green materials in Indian manufacturing, accelerating power sector transition to RE and protecting ecosystems and arresting land degradation.

The statement is supported by TERI and the global nonprofit We Mean Business Coalition (WMBC). “Ambitious climate action from corporate India, alongside government policies that can stimulate green growth, will drive competitiveness, create jobs, support healthy communities and provide the route to resilient, long-term economic growth," said Maria Mendiluce, CEO, WMBC. Ajay Mathur, director general, TERI, said, “These business actions tie together the short-term goals with the longer-term opportunities and provide a blueprint for both profitability and sustainability."

Speaking to Mint, Ulka Kelkar, climate director, World Resources Institute (WRI) India, which is a part of this initiative with WMBC, said that this call for action is significant, given that Indian businesses are preoccupied with the economic downturn. Talking about the worldwide trend towards cleaner energy, Kelkar said, “In general the tide is turning. All over the world the momentum is building. And the worry was that this severe, unprecedented economic recession would hinder these efforts. That’s why this call to action becomes more important. Businesses must still hold firm to the trends that we were seeing before the pandemic."

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