This commentary originally appeard in Real Clear Energy on November 9th 2016
On October 2, India became the 62nd country to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, a compact that includes pledges from a majority of the 200 countries that met last December. Their goal is to develop the first universal, legally binding global climate deal. Instead, two weeks of negotiations culminated in a collection of promises without any effective enforcement mechanism. These Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) spell out how each country plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the agreement’s claims of “accountability” and “transparency” lack any legal backing, it could have real and damaging consequences for societies across the globe.
By ratifying the agreement, India promised that at least 40 percent of its electricity will be generated from renewable energy sources by 2030. As it stands now, more than 70 percent of the country’s energy is produced using coal. India is the fourth-largest consumer and importer of crude oil and petroleum products.
The global warming debate is characterized by fierce diatribe on both sides of the political aisle. It is one of today’s most divisive policy arenas. But choosing a side is irrelevant. The issue with real merit is how the world will choose to proceed. Even those most concerned by climate change must ultimately face the life-harboring promises of reliable electricity and economic development that fossil fuels readily provide.
Two hundred million people – the most in the world – in India live on the edge between subsistence and hunger. Hunger is one of the many consequences of impeded development. In India, inadequate energy infrastructure deteriorates existing electric systems, expanding areas without access to electricity. The country’s fragile power grid, prone to blackouts and vulnerable to monsoons, reflects the system’s decline. In 2012, the system failed sensationally. More than 600 million people were catapulted into “the worst blackout in global history.”
The power sector is too fundamental to economic growth to dismiss pragmatic, cost-effective solutions. Intermittent power from the sun, tides, and wind become uneconomical when they exceed about one-third of a grid’s supply, proving they cannot consistently generate a system’s minimum level of demand, known as baseload requirement. Industrialized regions of the world effortlessly harness baseload power generated by fossil fuels. For them, renewable energy may serve as a marginal source of electricity. But for India and other developing nations, the development of baseload capacity has only just begun.
Wind and solar power may become useful if their lavish subsidies are curtailed. They have not, however, yet demonstrated the reliability and economic efficiency to provide power at scale for large cities and industrial uses. Deploying renewables with the goal of supplanting fossil fuels is a risky luxury unaffordable to low-income households. In 2015, global investment in renewables carried a $286 billion price tag. It only produced seven percent of the world’s electricity. In the words of Jairam Ramesh, Indian author and former environment minister, “India cannot abandon coal. It would be suicidal on our part…”
Fossil fuels have enabled millions to escape extreme poverty in India. The World Bank identified improved infrastructure, specifically rural electrification, as a driving force behind the decline of India’s poverty rate from 21 percent in 2011 to 12.4 percent in 2015. More reliable electricity would liberate Indians trapped in a cycle of poverty, catalyzing the entrepreneurial spirit that already runs deep and far across the land. For rural villages, it would mean clean water, safe home heating, and dependable lighting. In cities, infrastructure advancement will spur local investment opportunities.
In the wake of the Paris Agreement’s entering into force on November 4, President Obama hailed this time as a “turning point for our planet.” While rationale for institutionalized climate policy is well-intentioned, it has become a global fascination with followers who don’t pause to ask questions. There is a glaring disconnect between a country that is home to more people than anywhere else on Earth and an aggressive pursuit of renewable energies in the name of unproven results. A friend once put it best: “The discussion of green energy comes from a place of privilege,” and India is a prime example of where this realization is needed the most.
Megan Ingram is a Research Assistant with the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment