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India and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released February 2008)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Energy use is integrally connected to the environment, most obviously to air pollution. In India, coal is the primary energy source, supplying over half of total energy needs (U.S. Energy). Coal is widely considered one of the dirtiest fuels; furthermore, the coal on which India relies, currently some 250 million tonnes per year (Anderson 262), is of low quality, thus contributing heavily to India's poor air quality.

coal plant
A coal plant in Rajasthan, India

In return for its heavily polluting infrastructure, India receives a poor energy return. Its energy grid is intermittent and unreliable. The Economist sarcastically remarks, "By tradition, Indians have pretended to pay for their electricity and the utilities have pretended to supply it. Black-outs and brown-outs are part of life."

Given such deficiencies, Indians continue to rely on such traditional fuels as "wood, crop, and dung-cakes," which, besides contributing to local pollution, cause "soil erosion and nutrient loss" (Anderson 256). As automobile use becomes more widespread, oil use is rising; the International Energy Agency expects India to be consuming 5.6 million barrels of oil per day in the year 2030 (Pachauri 711). A growing reliance on automobiles means that India is certain to increase its oil importation, despite unstable supply sources, while adding to local pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas is one energy option that is widely used in India. It is less polluting than either coal or oil. Currently, India is able to meet most of its natural gas needs, although increased imports can be expected in the future (U.S. Energy).

Conventional economic analysis of a "normal" path to growth—known as an environmental Kuznets curve—suggests that things will get worse, that growth will harm the environment until the economy is developed enough to become more efficient. Yet the inevitability of such a course is increasingly seen as outmoded thinking, particularly by sustainability advocates. Given that better technology and practices exist, they ask, why not use them as quickly as possible, and avoid the mistakes of the past?

Probably the brightest spot in India's use of alternative energy is the development of wind power. Implemented in part as a solution to India's intermittent energy grid, wind power use has risen dramatically. Not even in the top ten in 2002 (Bradsher), the Indian wind industry now ranks fourth in the world in market share (global 3). Suzlon, India's largest wind power company, has risen "to ranking 5th worldwide, with 7.7%of the global market share in just over a decade" (Suzlon).

ox plow beneath windmill
Suzlon Energy wind farm, Khori: A father and son plow a field below wind turbines, an increasing source of power in India.
On a small scale, other experiments in renewable energy are occuring. A United Nations program in Karnataka state has provided small loans for solar energy systems, typically $300 to $500 for a system to power two to four small lights or appliances (Appropriate 11). These local systems replace kerosene lighting, widely used in India because of its unreliable electricity grid, that emits harmful gases and soot. The solar program has already boosted local employment and caused a 13-fold increase in the number of solar systems financed in the pilot area (Appropriate 11). Another local alternative energy program, promulgated by a Canadian NGO, involves biodiesel in the state of Orissa. This particular biodiesel is produced from local oil seeds, making it inexpensive and easy to store. So far, it has been used in pumping water and home-lighting, and further uses and means of production are being explored (Vaidyanathan & Sankaranarayanan). Still, programs such as these remain sporaidic and relatively isolated. Rather than an exotic option, they need to become commonplace to have a serious impact.

Given the weight of population and economic expansion, India's environmental problems are almost certain to get worse. For instance: "it is estimated that if coal continues as the primary fuel for power generation, the total annual consumption would reach 1400 million tonnes by the middle of the century" (Anderson 262), over five times its current usage. The worst impacts of such a scenario are unlikely, though. "Clean coal" strategies, for instance, could lessen harmful emissions. Conservation and the use of alternative power might be better ways to alleviate the situation. First, however, current policies must change since they provide "perverse incentives" for wasteful energy sources. Pachauri, for instance, complains of "subsidies that often did not reach the target for which they were designed" (712). Similarly, Anderson argues that India needs to introduce "tax and regulatory incentives to support the development and use of [alternative] technologies. Elimination of the subsidies for coal, hydro schemes, nuclear power, and rural electrification would also facilitate the emergence of renewable energy technologies" (273).

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