World is shifting – India will need a green vision - Hindustan Times
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World is shifting – India will need a green vision

Jun 16, 2024 12:11 PM IST

India must design a medium-term strategy that accounts for the multiple structural shifts taking place globally without losing focus of its development needs

As India’s new government settles down to work, there is a buzz around the agenda for the first 100 days. Between the here and now and a long-term vision of the country at 100, the medium-term agenda also matters. During the term of this government, India will celebrate 80 years of Independence. By the time of the next general elections, we will be one year away from the target year for the Sustainable Development Goals. During this period, India is also likely to become the world’s third-largest economy. How do we cohere rapid economic growth with a broader social and sustainable development agenda as India moves towards a landmark moment in its independent history?

Uttarakhand, India - April 30, 2016: Forest fire in Pauri Garhwal District at Uttarakhand, India, on Thursday, April 30, 2016. (Photo by Arun Sharma/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)
Uttarakhand, India - April 30, 2016: Forest fire in Pauri Garhwal District at Uttarakhand, India, on Thursday, April 30, 2016. (Photo by Arun Sharma/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

India must become more deliberately conscious of how it and the world are changing. At least six structural shifts are underway, globally.

First, geopolitics and geoeconomics are opening very real fissures among great powers and major economies. There is greater polarisation, increasing protectionism, reorientation towards mega-regional trade blocs, and constant worry about supply chain disruptions. The multilateral trade regime is failing to bridge divides. The world economy is becoming more divided and protectionist.

Second, we are at the precipice of several planetary tipping points, changes in the Earth system that undergo self-reinforcing dynamics once they cross a threshold. With a warming climate, the abrupt thawing of boreal permafrost exposes a trillion tonnes of carbon stored in the frozen soil. A slowdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation can weaken the monsoon over Asia. We are already witnessing intense heat stress in South Asia and extreme weather. Much of the damage remains uninsured, creating a “protection gap” for many developing countries and stretching their fiscal budgets, which then have to be re-routed to disaster relief rather than development. Including the climate crisis, six out of nine planetary boundaries have been breached.

Third, think of the disruptions — both challenging and promising — that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will impose. One study suggests 27% lower job growth in AI-exposed sectors. Another global survey finds that nearly 40% of respondents think more than a fifth of employees would have to be re-skilled. Digitalisation and decarbonisation are not sectoral trends but will have economy-wide implications.

Fourth, widening inequality in incomes and wealth is now also paired with unequal access to the global commons and natural capital. Environmental stress-induced internal displacement and poverty will exacerbate social tensions, even as rich countries continue to consume large shares of the global commons. For instance, the G7 announcement of phasing out unabated coal power by 2035, rather than being a cause for celebration, means that these countries will consume an extra 3.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide compared to if they phased out coal power by 2030. This is greater than all of India’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

A fifth trend is also visible. Despite insufficient action on the climate crisis, sustainability is becoming mainstream in policy and regulation, within large business and public markets, in the consciousness of small businesses, and evident shifts in consumer preferences, at least in some geographies.

The final structural shift is India’s growth. While growth rates might fluctuate, given the scale of the economy, India’s growth now structurally impacts resource demand, investment flows, and global trade and supply chains.

So, how should India design a medium-term strategy that accounts for these structural shifts while creating new opportunities for sustainable development?

One strategic objective must be to accelerate clean energy generation and penetration. The current heatwave, increasing power demand, and variability and intermittency in renewable energy capacity, have been a few reasons why India cannot wean itself off coal-based power overnight. We must, instead, envision, design and create power markets of the future. More distributed generation and cheaper energy storage will help as would enabling real-time and peer-to-peer trading of electrons to optimise for grid resilience. These power markets can also help India integrate with regional economies by leveraging the comparative advantages each country has for clean energy.

Secondly, India must catalyse a paradigm of industrialisation with low-carbon fuels and material circularity. As a still industrialising country, India has a strategic interest in growing overseas markets for its manufactured output. This cannot happen until India becomes a hub for cleaner industrial processes and a node for manufacturing intermediate and final products that use low-carbon fuels, clean electricity, and processes to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover energy and materials. Otherwise, we risk falling behind the clean tech frontier.

Thirdly, India should take the lead in securing the fuels of the future, which include solar and wind products, critical minerals, electrolysers, and new technologies for nuclear power. India’s resource and energy needs cannot be fulfilled in the absence of a rules-based architecture for these fuels, initiatives to co-develop new technologies, and efforts to reduce supply chain risks. Geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges can severely constrain India’s options if we remain passive participants in an unruly global market for clean tech.

A fourth objective must be to create a new paradigm of jobs-focused green economy. Many parts of the country will eventually have to shift from a dependency on fossil fuels to a future that hasn’t been fully designed. Opportunities in sustainable agriculture, clean energy, bioeconomy, and nature-based solutions can potentially attract billions in investments and enable millions of livelihoods. A green economy paradigm can help reduce environmental displacements and increase value addition closer to communities.

Finally, governments must ensure quality of life — for both urban and rural citizens. It requires cleaning the air we breathe, and realising clean air is an economic asset. It requires us to reuse recycled water — an economy worth billions — and invest in climate-resilient agriculture to boost incomes for small and marginal farmers. It mandates doubling down on clean public transport infrastructure, and making cities more heat-resilient, flood-proof and vibrant sites of innovation and enterprise.

As the new government decides its priorities, let’s hope the State and citizens recognise the shifts unfolding around us and lay the foundation for a future-ready and sustainable India. The foundations must be laid this decade, and this is the story that a rising India must take to the world.

Arunabha Ghosh is the CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). He posts @GhoshArunabha. The views expressed are personal

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