We are coming to crunch time for the environment but countries heading for the COP26 session in Glasgow in a few days aren’t radiating sunny optimism. EU climate chief Frans Timmermans sums it up bluntly: “We need to change radically and we need to change fast. That’s going to be bloody hard.”

We’ve been getting regular reminders that the climate crisis has arrived. In the last few months alone, there have been devastating floods in Kerala and Uttarakhand, forest fires in Canadian provinces, “historic rain” in California, summer wildfires in Greece, drought in Kenya, and the list goes on.

COP26 is looking for commitments from every country to cut carbon emissions, ideally to what’s called net-zero. India, though, argues developed countries have “historical responsibility” for environmental degradation and developing nations like us need “carbon space” to even up economically and alleviate our poverty. Rich countries, we’re saying, should actually aim for “net-negative” emissions since they already consume an outsize amount of energy in per capita terms.

British MP Alok Sharma, who’s COP26 president, sums up his summit priorities as: “coal, cars, cash and trees.” That’s not good news for India because we use too much coal and we have too many cars and not enough cash. Nevertheless, we only have to breathe the smog-filled air in our big cities (India has 13 of the world’s most polluted cities) to realise environmental pollution is an awful reality. We must reform our plant-warming practices for our own sakes.

The biggest challenge facing COP26 is how to persuade countries to use less coal. This is where India is on the firing line because we’re the world’s second-biggest coal-using-and-producing country after China. India has a strong case to present with its ambitious renewables drive but coal isn’t about to go away.

The worst part for us is the power sector, the country’s biggest coal-user, has a considerable way to go in demand terms. In the developed world, demand is only rising slowly or is flat. By contrast, India will hit peak consumption in the 2030s or even the 2040s, due to our expanding economy, population, urbanisation and industrialisation. Says a power consultant: “India’s nowhere near peak consumption. We’ve so many people who are in poverty who are going to want more than one bulb and one fan.”

Adds ex-Coal India chairman and managing director Partha Bhattacharya: “In developed countries where power consumption has plateaued, coal can be reduced. India’s in a different situation.” Our per-capita emissions are far below the US and China, though that still puts us in third position behind them in terms of total heat-trapping gases we release. Moreover, the ‘inconvenient truth’ is we’re still going to need a lot of coal in the foreseeable future. In 2010-11, India produced 532.67 million tonnes of coal and that climbed to 730.87 million tonnes by 2019-20. (It slipped to 716.01mt in 2020-21 due to the pandemic.) And from here, demand is only expected to rise. One study projects demand at 1.3-1.9 billion tonnes by 2030, dictated by how fast the economy accelerates. Bhattacharya, more conservatively, estimates output will need to rise by 25 per cent to 1.2 billion tonnes. He believes by 2030 India will need to add around 60GW of thermal power and an enormous 320GW of renewable energy.

Inevitably, with a steeply rising coal import bill, the government is looking to substitute domestic coal. In March, Coal India, the world’s largest coal producer, auctioned 32 mining projects (24 are expansions of existing mines). These auctions should add 81mt to existing capacity by 2024, something unlikely to be highlighted at COP26. The government notes the coal mines are in some of India’s poorest areas and they will mostly employ locals. On the flip side, it will aggravate pollution and environmental degradation. Remember most domestic coal is of poorer quality than higher-grade imports.

Renewables story

So does India have a positive tale to sell at COP26? Amazingly, it does and that’s the renewables story. A few years ago, thermal power was 75 per cent of India’s energy mix. That’s fallen to 67 per cent this year and headed lower. By 2030, it’s reckoned thermal will constitute 50 per cent of our power-generation capacity. Again, though, the problem is our power demand will keep expanding as earnings rise and so 50 per cent of a higher total will still be a massive amount of thermal power that won’t impress the COP26 delegates.

Nevertheless, renewables remain the silver lining in this pollution cloud and, if the past few years are any guide, they may climb even more steeply than our most optimistic estimates. In 2019-20, India added 9.39 gigawatts of renewable energy plus more from rooftop solar and hydroelectricity. By comparison, only 4.32 GW of thermal energy were added during the same time or one-third of total new power generated. Says India Infrastructure Publishing CEO Alok Brara: “Going forward, there are only old projects under construction” and “already, more renewable energy has been added than coal-fired.”

What’s more, it was NTPC that added 3.44 GW (some State governments also launched new power stations but the capacity addition was evened out by retiring old stations). And NTPC’s financial backing for the new plants came from state-run Power Finance Corp. One persuasive reminder that thermal power’s days are numbered is that it’s become a no-go area for global financiers who don’t see it as a good financial bet. Instead, they’re pouring money into new renewable energy projects around the country. Proof of this came in April 2020 when an NHPC solar tender received bids of ₹2.55 per kWh. One bidder was backed by EDF and Total. Others were backed by institutions like Japan’s Softbank and Singapore’s powerful Temasek.

Brara reckons there’s one more strong plus point for India because nobody has doubts about renewable energy. “The good news is there’s no debate on this. Nobody’s saying we shouldn’t reduce coal unlike in the West. Everyone’s saying, ‘let’s do renewable energy as fast as we can.’” Moving forward, he says, the key issue is going to be power storage for nights and times when wind power slows. Currently, power storage is expensive but as demand shoots up, prices will likely fall, making renewable energy an even more attractive proposition.

But unlike China and the US, which have set targets to reach net-zero emissions, India almost certainly won’t be making similar commitments at COP26. We’ll demand the developed world lives up to its pledges about cash transfers to fund expensive environmental safeguards required in the coming years. Expect a powerful tussle at Glasgow and possibly a deadlock that could leave the world heading towards more catastrophic climate events and a less safe place for our children.