India’s Energy Future and Climate Change

In an article that appeared in May’s Scientific American, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Varun
Sivaram shows that India’s path of energy development could have a large impact
on future greenhouse-gas emissions. 
Unlike China, which currently pumps out about twice as much carbon into
the air as the U. S., India’s infrastructure is largely yet to be built.  And in that fact lies both a challenge
and an opportunity.

It will help to get things in proportion if we compare
greenhouse emissions and populations for China, the U. S., and India.  According to the U. S. Environmental
Protection Agency, in 2014 the world leader of global carbon dioxide emissions was
China, contributing about 30% of the total.  Next in line was the U. S., with 15%, and third was India,
with 7%.  The much-ballyhooed Paris
accords of 2015 committed India to an apparently almost meaningless limit,
because Sivaram says “its overall commitment to curb emissions was
underwhelming.  If the government
just sat on its hands, emissions would rise rapidly yet stay within the
sky-high limits the country set for itself in Paris.”

By many measures, most citizens of India are still living in
the same energy environment their ancestors occupied:  using dried cow dung, straw, charcoal, and firewood for
domestic heating and cooking.  The
lucky third or so who have access to more advanced fuel sources use either coal
or oil.  The nation’s electric grid
is somewhat of a joke by Western standards, reaching less than a fourth of the
population.  And those who get
electricity can’t count on it: 
outages (both planned and accidental) are common, and government-inspired
policies to keep rates low has resulted in chronic underinvestment that has
further contributed to the grid’s rickety status.

Unlike China, India has something approaching a democratic
government, although with a heavy dose of socialist-style traditions left over
from the Nehru years of the 1950s and 60s.  While the economy has improved greatly under more recent
governments since the 1990s that have favored private enterprise and
privatization of formerly government-owned enterprises, Sivaram points out that
investment money is hard to come by.

Examining the two extremes of how things go from here,
suppose that India follows the easier path trod already by China, exploiting
readily-accessible fossil fuels and building coal-fired power plants to supply
its increasing population of about 1.4 billion, which is due to outstrip
China’s population in a few years. 
If that happens, the U. S. will no longer be the world’s No. 2
carbon-dioxide emitter—India will be, and might even surpass China to become
No. 1. 

Of course, this is a competition that no government wants to
win.  But zooming down to the micro
view of individual citizens, the meaning of drastic global-warming restrictions
on future fossil-fuel use becomes more problematic.  Most Indian citizens do not drive cars, and the vast
majority of motorized vehicles sold even today are motorbikes or three-wheel
jitneys.  Mobility is something
everyone wants, and as more Indians get better jobs and are able to save money
to buy larger items, the market for automobiles could grow tremendously.  But that development would only
exacerbate carbon-dioxide emissions. 
The same people who want to drive would like to have plentiful, reliable
electricity both for domestic uses and for things like agriculture and
manufacturing.  But if power is
generated with coal or oil, there goes more CO2.

In his article, Sivaram holds out an alternative energy
future that could become reality, given enough willingness on the part of
national and state governments and citizens generally.  Solar energy is abundant in the
countryside, and the government is already deploying solar panels to power
irrigation pumps, but on a small scale. 
Given enough investment, the desperately-needed expansion of the electric
grid could include the latest smart-grid technologies that would enable it to
take advantage of wind and solar power, which otherwise would not fit easily
into an old-fashioned grid designed for 24-hour-a day power sources.  And the nice thing is that little
retrofitting will be required, because most of the needed grid does not yet
exist today.

While coal and oil will be a large part of India’s energy
mix in the near future, another hope Sivaram has is that conservation measures
will limit the increase in demand to less than it would be otherwise.  Rapid deployment of electric vehicles powered
by renewable energy sources could help here, as well as an emphasis on
energy-efficient appliances and buildings. 

The fly in this sweet-smelling ointment of the future,
Sivaram admits, is the crying need for investment money.  And here is where things get
murky.  In common with many other
countries in Asia, India’s regulatory environment is marred by complexity,
delays, and corruption.  Even major
infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams and grid improvements have
been torpedoed by high interest rates, permit delays, and poor fiscal planning,
resulting in abandoned projects and even bankruptcies.  These are not engineering
problems.  These are social and government-policy
problems, and it will take political courage and intelligence to make much
progress in these areas.

With India halfway around the world, it’s easy to ignore
internal problems like these, but this academic semester just ending, I taught
a graduate class for the first time in many years, and most of the students in
it were from the Indian subcontinent. 
Thirty years ago, most of them would have been from China, but there are
plenty of Chinese universities that are as good or better than your average
state school in the U. S. now, and so the new-graduate-student pool for
middle-ranked U. S. universities has shifted south over the years.

If these students are like most foreign grad students, many
of them will try to stay in the U. S. 
But some will return to their native lands.  I hope that what they learn here about the social and
political structure of the U. S. will help them realize that in many ways,
India has a chance to avoid mistakes others have made before them.  Whatever your views on global warming,
I think we can agree that it’s a hard problem both to allow millions of people
in India to enjoy some of the benefits of advanced technology that we in the U.
S. have enjoyed for three generations, while avoiding preventable harm to the
planet we all live on.  I hope the
citizens of India can take advantage of their opportunities to work out this
problem in the best way possible.

Sources:  The article “The Global Warming
Wild Card” by Varun Sivaram appeared on pp. 48-53 of the May 2017 issue of
Scientific American.  The EPA website from which I obtained
2014 data on carbon-dioxide emissions is at  I also referred to the Wikipedia
articles on the demographies of China and India and the history of the Indian

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