Recognizing India’s Energy Independence

With the approach of Indian Independence Day, it is worth celebrating the country’s success—and also recognizing the ways in which the West may be trying to hold India back.

US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have formed an especially close relationship over the past few years, culminating in a series of joint commitments on development, security, governance, and global leadership during a bilateral summit this June. But even as the US-India alliance has strengthened, India has asserted greater independence regarding its development path. I hadn’t quite realized how wide this gap is until I visited India in March to study its energy access and innovation challenges.

India is determined to lift its population up to modern standards of living. That task will require enormous amounts of energy, which is essential for manufacturing, education, health care, transportation, and many other pillars of prosperity. Accordingly, the country plans to double coal output by 2020 to help achieve its development objectives, putting India at odds with the policy goals of wealthier nations seeking to decarbonize the global energy supply.

The United States and Western institutions such as the World Bank have responded to developing nations like India by denying them access to public capital to develop cheap energy sources—what Arvind Subramanian, chief economic advisor to the government of India, calls “carbon imperialism.” In 2013, President Obama began to place major restrictions on US government financing for new coal plants abroad. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, one of the primary US agencies for supporting development projects, toughened a carbon cap on its investments that severely limits its ability to invest in fossil fuel projects in developing countries. And the World Bank followed suit with its own restrictions on coal financing.

Some civil society institutions in the developed world also work to prevent developing nations from using fossil fuels. Greenpeace, for example, tried to block India’s coal program and was essentially kicked out of the country as a result.

Wanting to limit fossil fuel development is completely understandable given the threat of climate change. But we in the West are too focused on what we see as the problem—such as coal—and not focused enough on the solutions—such as the clean technologies that can completely replace fossil energy or limit its environmental impact. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have an important role to play, and can provide modest levels of energy for basic household uses in many places. But renewables do not, alone, generate enough reliable energy to power industry, manufacturing, and other large-scale economic enterprises needed to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty—particularly as people continue moving to cities for jobs. Nor are wind and solar feasible solutions everywhere.

India actually is making a big bet that solar will be part of its future, committing to develop 100 gigawatts by 2022—equivalent to just under half of all solar installed across the world as of 2015. But behind closed doors, none of the Indian energy analysts I spoke with said they believed that target is attainable; and that’s with solar operating alongside coal, not in lieu of it. The argument that developing countries can “leapfrog” the West by pursuing a different development path than we did appears to be more ideological than evidence-based. Joyashree Roy, professor of economics at Javadpur University in India, puts it starkly:

This dream involves solar lanterns, solar power-based domestic lighting systems and micro grids, but does not lead anywhere except back to the initial state of affairs … Such experiments … delay progress in the quality of life of those communities by two or three decades.

Let’s be clear: India is going to develop. Everywhere I went in the country—in the slums of New Delhi and Calcutta, and the villages of West Bengal—the intense desire for energy access was manifest. Even in a town I visited next to a coal plant, one family—after describing all of the problems the plant caused them—said they would rather face those issues than not have the full energy connection they received as a result of living near the plant.

Given the choice between clean energy that provides only meager energy access and dirty energy sources that allow people to escape poverty, countries will always choose the latter. The United States itself still gets 66 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels—and only 5.3 percent from wind and solar.

So rather than simply imposing on developing nations a set of restrictions that we are not—and have never been—subject to, we should be helping them achieve the standard of living we so enjoy. Rather than allowing ideology to dictate solutions, we should focus on helping countries get the most clean, cheap energy possible in their unique contexts—including hydropower, nuclear, and even natural gas as an alternative to coal. Since countries like India will continue to burn coal, we should help them build the cleanest plants available and reduce the impacts of their existing plants with technologies like scrubbers. And since we do not currently have all of the necessary clean energy technologies, we must devote greater resources to energy research, development, and demonstration—a woefully underfunded area of public and private investment, including advanced nuclear energy and carbon capture.

Asking poor people to stay poor to solve a problem they didn’t create in the first place would be a supreme act of injustice and misanthropy. So as India celebrates 69 years of independence from the British Empire, it is time for the West to shift its orientation to India and other developing nations—away from a paternalistic position to one of true partnership. Only then will we be able to solve the world’s two greatest challenges—climate change and poverty—at the same time.

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