Intro: This week at the Socio Economic Voices debate we have Environmental Economist Abhijit Sharan sharing his concerns towards the environmental degradation going on in India and across the globe. Speaking to Senior Journalist Mahima Sharma, Mr Sharan asserts that to achieve its dream of Net Zero Emissions by 2070 innovative technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) and hydrogen production will need to be significantly ramped up. He adds that coal-energy-driven electricity-based Vehicles (EVs) are not a great idea, that too without stricts regulations towards safety standardization and safe disposal of used batteries. Also, he informs that the “extensive” and poorly studied use of Glass in modern architecture in India, is leading to overheating of the building and leading to higher electricity consumption. Thus, Mr Sharan urges all the stakeholders – the government, the industry, and the common citizen – to take judicious measures towards controlling the unabated climate change. If not acted upon, Mr Sharan warns that if we don’t practice a conscious, sustainable lifestyle including fashion, then we will start seeing the global food crisis and inflation due to climate change well within the next 10 years.
MS: On the backdrop of a surge in power demand due to severe heat wave across the country, the Union Environment Ministry has recently relaxed environmental compliance rules for coal mines in order to ramp up production. What's your take on the safety of the surroundings where such mines will now ramp up their production from 40% to 50%, sidelining the earlier norms? Also, how could the Center tackle the power crisis in a better way, than taking this non-green step?
AS: The recent plans of the Environment Ministry to relax environmental compliances and attract private players to start operating closed coal mines, without any additional public consultation or environmental impact assessment is definitely a cause of concern from both environmental and social points of view. That being said, this step is for all practical reasons a desperate measure taken during desperate times. Power demand has dramatically surged in the recent heatwave across the country. This comes at a time when there were already certain supply-chain bottlenecks being felt in the coal industry across the country. With economic activity rebounding after the easing of Covid restrictions, lack of adequate number of rail cars to transport coal and the recent Russian invasion in Ukraine, the coal supply was already affected in the country. The severe heatwave just worsened the situation. I really hope the compliance relaxations in coal mining are planned and short-lived. While uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine tensions were out of our control, I won’t say the surging power demand was something completely unforeseen, and we should have started preparing accordingly. If we look closely, this “shortage of coal” is actually a supply chain issue. Out of the one billion tonnes requirement of coal annually to meet India’s domestic demand, more than 700 million tonnes are met by domestic producers. The government had in fact realized the rising power demand in the country and had indicated plans in the recent past to increase domestic coal production to 1.2 billion tonnes in the next two years, especially to support a post-pandemic economic recovery. A more focused approach and prompt planning to address the supply chain bottlenecks, in my opinion, could have avoided the need to resort to taking the desperate measure to relax environmental compliances. India, while investing in renewable energy production and setting a target of increasing the share of renewable energy to 50% by 2030, still currently depends on coal to meet 70% of its electricity requirement. Thus, although we must accept that we cannot completely do away with our dependence on coal in the near future, we must be robustly working towards decarbonising our emissions intensive sectors and increasing the renewable energy capacity.
MS: India’s pledge at COP26- Net Zero Emissions by 2070. Do you think India will be able to achieve this humongous task, especially the way we are moving ahead? If yes, how? If not, then what kind of strict norms need to be adopted to achieve this COP26 commitment?
AS: In order to significantly cut down emissions, innovative technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) and hydrogen production will need to be significantly ramped up and adopted across the leading energy-intensive sectors like energy, transport, and construction. At present, the share of coal in primary energy production stands at around 70% in India. According to Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) study on achieving net-zero emissions by 2070 through different scenarios, coal’s share in primary energy production would need to fall between 1-5% in order to achieve the net-zero emissions goal. So, the target year 2070 does feel like a long time away, but in a developing country like India, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels to meet its energy requirements, studies suggest that there should be at least a 30-year gap between emissions peaking and the net-zero year. This means we must achieve our peak by the year 2040, which is not even two decades away. What also needs to be considered is the possible rise in energy prices and job losses in the fossil fuel industry in the short run. These will need to be compensated one way or the other. India could leverage the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBRD) and seek compensation from the developed countries who hold the historical responsibility of the current effects of global climate change. Achieving net-zero emissions is indeed a humongous task. It is an ambitious goal, but it is not impossible to achieve. We need to act with a sense of urgency, where all the stakeholders – the government, the industry, and the common citizen – need to take effective measures to achieve this common goal.
MS: Talking of Net Zero Emissions, Electric Vehicles/ EVs are being hailed as the new revolution, but so far these have shown high doubts (top brand EVs caught fire while safely parked, there is no plan to safely dispose of their worn off batteries, so on and so forth). What environmental strategy should India have adopted prior to bringing them into the mainstream?
AS: Electric Vehicles are indeed a welcome change in the personal automobile industry. But as consumers, we must understand that at least in the current scenario, electric vehicles are not yet 100% green. Seeing a zero-emission claim on an electric vehicle generally leads people to ignore the fact that the electricity on which the electric vehicle is running still comes from coal burning, especially in countries like India. Moreover, the raw material used in making the batteries, for example Cobalt, comes from widespread mineral mining, in many cases after clearing of forests, which ironically leads to more deforestation. I don’t mean to come across as someone against the EV-era, but I just hope that a more balanced view is taken by the consumers as well as governments while transitioning to EVs. If we compare the overall emissions during the lifetime of a conventional (internal combustion engine) vehicle to that of an electric vehicle, we will see that the net emissions are lesser for an EV. Since the EV market has just recently taken off, there are still certain technological gaps. The conventional fossil-fuel based automobiles rarely show these technologically caused doubts because that industry has been in existence and has been innovating for well over a hundred years now. I am certain such doubts will be addressed soon in the case of EVs, given the pace at which innovation is going on to make EVs safer and more environmentally friendly. In India, the annual electric cars sales are still below 1% of the total car sales (not including electric two-wheelers). In the case of two-wheelers, India aims to achieve 80% electric two-wheeler sales by the year 2030. I think India still has a large scope in bringing about stringent policies and regulations which ensure safety standardization and safe disposal of used batteries. With India projected to become a $200 billion market in the EV sector by the year 2030, I think this is the best time for India to also put in place stringent auditable standards and practices in EV manufacturing and safety aspects. I hope the consumers, on their part, should make informed decisions while looking to purchase an EV. For example, one must not arbitrarily shift to an electric vehicle despite owning a conventional car, and rather let the car run its legally mandated lifetime to reduce the environmental load and double emissions that would have been caused by bringing in one additional vehicle in the supply chain.
MS: Currently the rising inflation is due to highly fluctuating fuel prices. But where do you foresee the onset of food crisis and inflation due to climate change in the next ten years?
AS: I think the inflationary conditions and food supply crunch we are seeing these days do offer us a snapshot of how the near future would look due to the effects of climate change. Let’s just take the example of the recent wheat-export ban imposed by India in order to control rising domestic prices. The country-wide sudden heat wave also contributed to a lower wheat output in the country. And there are already scientific speculations that this heatwave, otherwise a natural phenomenon not new to India, was significantly aggravated due to global warming. It has also been reported that the frequency of such heatwaves is set to increase in the future, and such weather extremes have a very unkind effect on Indian agriculture. Shift in seasons, lesser or unseasonal rainfalls and increasing drought-like conditions all lead to crop failures and decreased production. Negative externalities such as economic instabilities and power struggles across the world time and again lead to governments ignoring to work towards environmental sustainability and addressing climate change issues. If gone unabated, we will start seeing the global food crisis and inflation due to climate change well within the next ten years.
MS: We talk of sustainable living. That too without a ban on one-time use of plastic. What's your detailed take on this and more such talks that don't find substantial base at least in the Indian perspective?
AS: Single-use plastic is one of the many ills that have been normalized and lead to plaguing our efforts to attain sustainable living. We don’t need to look elsewhere, rather if we look back in time, Indian masses were already practicing sustainability without even realizing it. We need to re-introduce the use of cloth or jute bags which are sturdy and can be used for a long time. Recycling and even up-cycling, that is, transforming the usage of a material from one form to another needs to be propagated. Another normalized illness that comes to my mind is the trend of fast fashion that is being heavily promoted by fashion and lifestyle brands. Earlier, clothing used to last a lot longer than it does today. This is because in the name of fashion, or convincing customers to adapt to latest fashion trends, companies are deliberately manufacturing everyday clothing products that might not last long. A single t-shirt, during its manufacturing process, consumes over 20,000 liters of water. Imagine the sheer number of customers buying such clothing products that hardly last for 6-8 months and then replacing it with newer products. At the same time, top fashion brands make public commitments towards promoting environment-friendly sourcing and manufacturing to “save the planet”, but their profit-making motive points towards the contrary. I think the general public needs to be more sensitive in their day-to-day lifestyle choices. This coupled with genuine sustainability efforts by the industries can go a long way in achieving sustainable living goals.
MS: How can a common man contribute to green environs in various ways when even basic literacy is a dream amid the masses? What steps need to be taken to create a far reaching Green Movement?
AS: As mentioned in my previous answer, the common man needs to become more sensitive towards their everyday lifestyle choices. 100% basic literacy is still unrealized in our country, but we are getting there. India has been showing a steady rise in literacy rate. The overall literacy rate in 2011 was 73%, which has come up to 77.7% in 2022. However, if we look at the UN Emissions Gap Report, the world’s wealthiest 1% account for more than twice the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%. In India, this gap only widens. According to a recent study by the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, the average carbon footprint of every person in India was estimated at 0.56 tonne per year– with 0.19 tonne per capita among the poor and 1.32 tonne among the rich. This translates to the rich emitting almost seven times more than the poor. So, it is actually the literate masses who need to urgently cut down on their average emissions. We are seeing the “minimalist movement” gaining traction in recent years all over the world, where people are encouraged to only buy products that are necessary, while also reusing and recycling to the extent possible in order to minimize wastage. With the rapid urbanization we are witnessing in India, large masses are moving to urban areas, while newer urban areas are also coming up to accommodate this population. While the urban populace does need to judiciously use natural resources and energy, the government and private sector should also step in to provide facilities to these urban areas which would promote increased use of public transportation, developing urban green spaces with locally habitable plant species and providing basic services like medicine, education, etc. within shorter distances to residential areas.
MS: The proposed Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill 2021 encourages a conducive environment for investments and to simplify the patent application process. Yet the 2021 Bill implies that the National Biodiversity Authority can’t provide any terms or conditions for sustainable use, biodiversity conservation or benefit-sharing on a PVP-holder registered under the PPV&FR Act. What's your take on this move which will further isolate Indian Agriculture and Environment?
AS: India is one the earliest countries to have biodiversity legislation in the form of Biological Diversity Act (2002). We must note that the Biological Diversity Act (2002) was in the works ever since the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into being in 1992-93. Thus, India’s Biological Diversity Act (2002) is a result of years of multiple public consultations, incorporating inputs from varied stakeholders from across the country. However, the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill 2021, which seeks to amend certain key provisions in the BDA (2002) was seen as being hurriedly pushed by the government last year. Encouraging a conducive environment for investments, even foreign, by easing some legitimately strict provisions as well as increasing involvement of local bodies in certain provisions are some of the welcome steps in the Amendment. But there are some rightly identified loopholes in the BD (Amendment) Bill 2021, that could be taken advantage of by unscrupulous companies gravely endangering the benefits and rights of locals. These gaps and concerns can only be addressed if enough time is spent on further discussion and ironing out inconsistencies, through productive consultation with the stakeholders. I do see some hope at this point as the government has decided to forward the BD (Amendment) Bill 2021 to a Joint Parliamentary Committee for further discussion, rather than simply pushing it forward. Further dialogue, expert opinions – both technical and legal, as well as stakeholder inputs will hopefully ensure that interests of PVP-holders will be given their due considerations, keeping the original intent of the Biological Diversity Act (2002) intact.
MS: What in your opinion will be a sustainable India? How and by when can this dream be achieved?
AS: A vast and diversity-rich country like India, in order to achieve long-term sustainability and environmental safety, needs effective coordination between the central and state governments. Whenever a natural disaster strikes, Indians come together no matter what their differences and political ideologies are, and work towards making things better. We need to ensure that there is enough awareness at all levels to treat climate change as an on-going human-caused natural disaster. A sustainable India, in my opinion, is where the concept of sustainability is etched in the day-to-day practices of people from every walk of life. The education sector will play a key role in raising awareness from the basic level leading to better coherence between communities, governments and industries. I don’t expect overnight changes to a problem accrued over multiple generations. But we will need to amplify our efforts by implementing policy-level changes that receive positive reciprocation from the affected stakeholders. We have already proven during the pandemic that switching to digital alternatives is very doable. Be it work-from-home arrangements where possible, digital banking/payments, or even high-level meetings and conferences being successfully conducted online during the raging COVID19 pandemic, we have realized that our current technologies, if utilized well, can help us in achieving significant emissions reductions. India has one of the cheapest internet data prices in the world, and this has greatly benefitted the marginalized population of our country, which also happens to be the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Investing in providing better access to data, affordable energy-efficient electrical appliances, and public transportation providing better last-mile connectivity will directly help the masses in adapting to sustainable practices. While we have started working on the much-needed top-down approach, I think simultaneously we also need to focus more on multi-pronged bottom-up approaches, starting at the grassroot-level which will catalyze India’s journey towards meeting its sustainability goals.
MS: Indian architects have aped the West where glass was used to create warmth indoors via Greenhouse Effect. India is already a warm country, where extensive use of glass means more use of electricity during summer months via installing air conditioners. What's your take on such flaws that have further aggravated the power crisis?
AS: The environment-friendly and sustainable claims of glass is a highly debated topic. Glass consumes a high amount of energy right from its manufacturing to transportation and installation. According to Down To Earth, the embodied energy of glass is between 15.9 and 26.2 megajoules per kg; it is 1.06 MJ/kg for bricks. The embodied energy of glass increases considerably when used as double or triple glazing or when inert gasses like argon replace the air gap to further improve performance. Glass is also expensive when compared with other building material. I do agree that there are certain advantages of glass like space-saving and visible transmittance, which results in lesser need for using electrical lighting in buildings. But such advantages are overshadowed by the disadvantages due to indiscriminate use of glass in buildings. Heat absorbance, glare, poor impact resistance, and higher maintenance cost in humid and dust-prone areas are some of the disadvantages which unfortunately get ignored in order to make buildings aesthetically appealing.
Still, I don’t think that completely doing away with glass buildings will solve this problem. As you correctly said, it’s the “extensive” and in many cases, poorly studied, use of glass in buildings that is the issue to be dealt with. I agree with your point that in many cases in India, usage of glass has not been assessed properly, which leads to overheating of the building and leading to higher electricity consumption. We must also keep in mind that concrete, or bricks and mortar, also have serious environmental ramifications, since their manufacturing involves clay mining and intensive use of water. A carefully studied use of a mix of glass with conventional building material, and where possible more environment-friendly building materials like bamboo, hemp-concrete, etc should also be promoted and integrated in creating built spaces. India is the second-largest producer of Bamboo in the world having varieties of fast-growing Bamboo species growing in the country, especially the North-eastern region. Utilizing abundantly available renewable natural resources like these in the building construction sector will not only benefit the local economy but will also help develop indigenous sustainable building solutions within the country.
About Abhijit Sharan
Delhi based Abhijit Sharan is an environment professional with a diverse experience of almost eight years working in the sector of climate change and sustainability in India. He has worked with various government departments and ministries, think tanks, and academicians on projects focusing on forest and agricultural sustainability in the country. Mr. Sharan is currently heading the Forest Management Certification department, as Manager of the Natural Resources Division at GICIA India Pvt Ltd, an environmental certification firm based out of Noida, India. His current engagement entails auditing of timber-dependent industries to ensure compliance with internationally benchmarked forest sustainability standards. Besides working on various forest and agricultural consultancy projects, Mr. Sharan has also been involved in a first-of-its-kind study commissioned by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to conduct economic valuation of coastal ecosystem goods and services in India. Mr. Sharan received his master’s degree in environmental economics from Madras School of Economics.
About the Interviewer
Mahima Sharma is a Senior Journalist based in Delhi NCR. She has been in the field of TV, Print & Online Journalism since 2005 and previously an additional three years in the allied media. In her span of work she has been associated with CNN-News18, ANI - Asian News International (A collaboration with Reuters), Voice of India, Hindustan Times and various other top media brands of their times. In recent times, she has diversified her work as a Digital Media Marketing Consultant & Content Strategist as well. Since March 2022, she is also an Entrepreneurship Education Mentor at Women Will - An Entrepreneurship Program by Google in Collaboration with SHEROES. Mahima can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this interview are the personal opinions of the interviewee. The facts and opinions appearing in the answers do not reflect the views of Indiastat or the interviewer. Indiastat does not hold any responsibility or liability for the same.