Friday, May 27, 2011

India’s Submissions to UN Panel on Sustainability: A Missed Opportunity

The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), Government of India’s recent submissions to the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel for Global Sustainability, on the occasion of its meeting at Helsinki on 17th May 2011 “made a strong call for equity and universal energy access by the year 2030 for all.”[i] While the call for equity is welcome, it is a moot question as to why the world needs to wait till 2030 – almost 20 more years – before universal energy access is a reality.

Moreover, India’s detailed proposals to actualize universal energy access lack coherence, and belie the expectations raised by its strong call for equity. This note presents a critical look at the proposal on universal energy access.

MoEF has submitted three notes to back up its call, one on equity and sustainable development, the second on universal energy access, and the third outlining a new indicator to measure sustainable development.

Note on Equity in the Context of Sustainable Development

The note on Equity is a very well written note, outlining comprehensively what equity means, and how sustainability, environmentalism, and sustainable development is inextricably linked with equity. It is unfortunate, then, that this note does not inform the other note on Universal Energy Access (UEA Note). In a sense, it appears that the Minister’s left hand does not know what the right is doing.

Note on Universal Energy Access by 2030

The UEA Note starts with a very interesting statement that

“…the world has enough energy resources to last for centuries. Coal and nuclear can sustain the world energy for over four centuries. Therefore, there is no global energy crisis.”

If this is the case, the natural question is why so many people are without access to energy. (A wrong usage of units causes some confusion here, and even if it is a typo, such errors should be avoided when submitting notes at this level.)

The problem, according to the note, is that we are attempting to satisfy three criteria simultaneously – energy security, economics and environmental compatibility. However, subsequent discussions reduce the environmental problem to essentially that of carbon emissions. This is not only a very narrow view of the environmental impacts, but such an emphasis on the climate angle undermines India’s own stated position[ii] that it is not responsible for the climate crisis and hence the main liability to address it should be of those who have been the main contributors. The long section on Low Carbon Options seems a digression and does not fit into the main theme of the note, namely, universalizing energy access.

The note is problematic in many other ways. First of all, it has not stated explicitly what needs universal energy access is supposed to meet. By inference, we see that the aim seems to be to cover energy for lighting and cooking. Whatever it may be, it needed to be made explicit, as the expectations from universal energy access may be more than this. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many rural and poor households in India deem electricity for running TV sets and cell phone chargers to be as fundamental a need as lighting.

Secondly, there is no explanation as to why it should take 20 years to universalize energy access. Indeed, India should have strongly argued for a much smaller period to achieve this.

Thirdly, the note somehow very easily – and without and logical explanation – slips into the assumption that universalisation of energy access will have to come from decentralized, renewable sources like solar, which are very expensive at this moment. It is true that in some cases, decentralized renewable sources may be the most optimal option, but this need not be always the case. As a recent paper by Prayas Energy Group, Pune shows[iii], there are many steps, including allocation of energy from centralized sources on a priority basis to the poor that can help address this issue.

Fourth is the issue of burdening energy supply to the poor with extraneous considerations.

In his letter to the Chair of the UN Panel, Minister Jairam Ramesh says that

“The challenge before us is to ensure that this [universal energy] access happens rapidly, while ensuring that the sustainability related constraints are not violated”.

The UEA Note makes these sustainability constraints more explicit. It states that

“This [universalizing energy access] is a daunting task in its own right and it is further complicated by the constraint of reducing global CO2 emissions.”

What is puzzling and difficult to understand in this whole argument is why universalizing energy access should be made to shoulder the burden of sustainability related constraints, in particular reducing carbon emissions. We can well understand that local sustainability issues like preservation of forests, rivers etc would be important. But why load the burden of cutting global carbon emissions onto the energy for the poor?

Indeed, the UEA Note says that given the energy aspirations of developing countries (not to mention the heavy energy use lifestyles of the developed countries), coal will continue to remain a major part of world energy mix under any scenario. In other words, the world will continue to burn coal (and oil), emitting green house gases in huge quantities – to run the air conditions of the rich, to drive their automobiles, to light up big malls, run energy guzzling appliances like heaters and so on, but when it comes to meeting the energy for universal energy access, for the most basic needs, we want to insist that it meets the constraint of sustainability and reducing global CO2 emissions. This runs completely contrary to the basic principles of equity, which the other note of the MoEF has very well articulated.

It should be clarified that we are not making a case for continuing with “dirty energy”, nor are we making a case for highly centralized energy supply. We are only saying that it is odd, and highly iniquitous, that we burden the energy supply to the poor with high financial costs (of decentralized options like solar), and with tight constraints of meeting sustainability norms (of global carbon emissions, something that the world’s poor have been least responsible for), all the while allowing the energy use of the rich to come from cheap sources (like coal, cheap also because it externalizes many costs), and not imposing any particular constraints on them for meeting sustainability norms.

It may be mentioned here that the so called low carbon technologies considered in this note include nuclear (and other discussions include large hydro too), so what the note is suggesting is that we opt for low carbon even if we have to pay the price of other impacts. We would argue that for India – at least for the poor in India and globally too – what is more important and more appropriate is a “low impact” portfolio of technologies, rather than a “low carbon” portfolio.

Instead of all this, the note on universal energy access should have taken a firm and unequivocal stand that whatever energy options the global community chooses, the first right and claim on these energy sources must be to meet universal energy access obligations. Moreover, while the energy needed for these obligations should meet the requirements of low local social and environmental impacts, they should not be loaded with extraneous costs like meeting global carbon emissions targets. And last but not the least, India should have argued for a much smaller time period in which to meet the objective of universal energy access.

It is only such a stand that would do justice to the strong call for the equity made by Minister Ramesh at the UN Panel meeting.

It is not known whether there were any broad based consultations – or even peer reviews of the notes prepared on behalf of the Minister for submission to the Panel – before India’s positions were finalized. It is urged that at least for the next round, such consultations should be carried out. This will help India put up coherent positions, and take the lead in pushing critical aspects like equity and justice in global efforts at sustainability.

A longer Version of this note is available at

[i] Press note by MoEF

[ii] Low Carbon Growth Report of MoEF

[iii] Electricity for All, Ten Ideas towards Turning Rhetoric into Reality, Prayas Energy Group, 2010.

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