Surya Prakash Sethi has served as India’s principal adviser (power and energy) and core climate negotiator with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He spoke to Snigdhendu Bhattacharya on India’s renewable energy policy and climate change priorities. Excerpts:
SB. Do you think India’s commitment of getting 50% of energy from non-fossil-based fuel by 2030 is realistic?
Sethi: It does not matter what India committed. India accounts for only 7% of global emissions. The problem is 100% of global emission. When we think of net zero in the global context, how much is India’s contribution? India alone hard-pushing for energy transition would not change much in the global context.
SB. What will make the real difference?
Sethi: The real difference requires that the top 20% consumers across the world, who are overconsuming, reduce their consumption by 85%. Otherwise, the whole battle against global warming would not reach anywhere. Global warming is happening because a section of the population is overconsuming.
SB. Do you mean the disparity in energy consumptions?
Sethi: Just for an example, the carbon footprint of an average American is 42 times higher than the carbon footprint of an average Indian, even though our size of population is four times the size of the American population. So, they are consuming 170 times more than average Indians.
SB. So, the onus of mitigating the problem lies more with the developed nations?
Sethi: Eighty-one percent of global warming has happened because of actions taken in the past by the OECD countries. Therefore, 81% responsibility for mitigating the crisis should lie with them. The total population of all OECD countries is less than India’s population. Imagine the disparity.
SB: Were India’s climate negotiations in 2015 and 2021 improper?
Sethi: I wouldn’t comment on proper or improper. Fact remains that the bottom 50% of the world has practically negligible responsibility to global warming. But the Paris accord requires everybody to contribute. It does not specify this contribution, though. Mitigation, however, is not the only climate action that is required. Mitigation is one of the five climate actions required. A very major climate action is adaptation. People who have nothing to do with global warming are the ones who suffer the most. But everyone keeps talking about mitigation.
SB: What are the other aspects of climate action?
Sethi: The five aspects are mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building. These actions cannot be handled through mitigations alone. But we hardly heard anything about adaptation in Glasgow. Somebody has to finance these actions. The framework convention requires that the developed world, which has the capacity to finance, should finance global climate actions. Did you hear about their financial commitments? Even the commitments they made have never been fulfilled.
SB: Are you suggesting that adaptation is of greater priority for India than mitigation?
Sethi: Adaptation should be our only priority. Our emissions will not go down. It will rise. With 18% share of the global population, our emission is less than 7% of the global share. Our per capita consumption is only one-third of the global average. China’s per capita consumption is 1.4 times the global average. As we try to adapt, we will need more energy, which means more emissions. Our historical responsibility is negligible. The OECD countries should focus on mitigations, while our aspirations should go up. Our emissions go up, their emissions go down – that’s the way it should be.
SB: So, developed countries are not doing enough?
Sethi: I am not alone saying this. The civil society in the West is also saying this. About 250 civil society organisations in the West have put together a paper on fair burden sharing. It requires the US to reduce their emissions by 195% below their 2005 level by 2030. It requires the European Union to reduce their emissions by 150% below their 1990-level emissions by 2030. Neither of them is on track.
SB: What kind of adaptations India needs?
Sethi: First of all, skills. If 60% of the population is dependent on agriculture, and agriculture output suffers due to climate change, they will require a new set of skills. The process of skill development does not happen on its own. The government needs to educate the people. India is ranked 151 among 160 countries in the hunger index. There is massive malnutrition. They lack access to power. India needs to improve the basic parameters to have a healthier population. We need to improve the standard of human shelter. Floods, landslides are increasing. Even major metropolitan cities are flooding and about one-third of metro city population lives in slums. Imagine their condition when the cities flood. The magnitude of these problems would rise with global warming. India should prioritise raising the adaptive capacity of its population.
SB: So, India’s emissions are going to go up?
Sethi: If you provide everybody with a proper house to live in, emissions will go up because houses need cement and steel, each of which causes emissions. If you give everyone access to electricity–not just wires coming in but people actually using electricity for daily basic needs–the emission will go up. But the use of electricity will raise their adaptive capacity.
SB: What about the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuel?
Sethi: We must separate global issues and local issues. India will be affected by global warming, no matter what we do. But there are large-scale domestic environmental problems, including air, water and soil quality issues, and the issue of water availability. In situ coal gasification can reduce some of the local environmental impacts of coal mining. But for this, boiler efficiency has to be improved.
SB: What role do you see coal taking in India’s future power generation scheme?
Sethi: India is so energy poor that it needs every energy resource that it can get. The renewables have a fair share in this role. Similarly, coal, oil and gas will continue to have a role. Even if you look at global projections, the share of renewables, including large hydro, will still be about 26–27% of energy sources. The Energy Information Administration’s October 2021 projection shows 69% of global energy will still come from fossil fuels in 2050.