By Alli Devlin
Can India’s switch to solar deliver not just clean energy, but empowerment of the poorest? For one of the world’s most rapidly developing economies, a lot rests on the answer to this question.
The South Asian nation emits over 2300 megatonnes of CO2 each year, making it the third-largest emitting nation after the US and China, although on a per capita basis the emissions of the average Indian citizen is only 1.6 tonnes per year--far below the global average of 4.4. But the country’s emissions are not stabilising. Instead, they are rising rapidly as the economy grows; in 2018, India’s emissions had increased by 335% since 1990. The situation is grave indeed, and given India’s major role in global emissions, it will take a concerted effort to eliminate the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions to keep global warming below 2⁰C.
India is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, particularly on coal. However, since signing up to the Paris Agreement in 2016, the Indian government has made significant progress towards reducing its emissions. In late 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a target of 450 gigawatts of installed renewable energy capacity by 2030, equivalent to 60% of the country’s energy needs.
While there is a place for all kinds of renewable energy generation in India, solar energy in particular makes sense in a country that is blessed by significant daily exposure to sunlight most of the year round. There is significant potential for solar to dominate the Indian electricity grid mix, as it can be deployed quickly and affordably. Solar may also be able to quickly reach communities through decentralised energy models, like village-scale micro-grids or household-scale off-grid solutions. Additionally, with correlations between electricity access and poverty reduction, solar can also bring direct socioeconomic returns. In the decade after 2005, approximately 200 million people in India gained access to electricity and 270 million moved out of multidimensional poverty.
A range of innovative solar solutions have been experimented with and implemented across India--from rooftop installations, to lanterns and streetlights, to ‘solar canals’. This approach, which involves the installation of solar panels atop canals not only preserves residential and agricultural land, but also prevents excess water evaporation, simultaneously supporting food and energy security.
Zooming out, though, It is clear that with a population of 1.4 billion spread across 2.4% of the world’s land area, larger-scale solutions are required--with one approach being to drive down the short- and long-term cost of renewable energy through the cultivation of a competitive manufacturing industry. And, despite solar electricity now being cheaper than that derived from fossil-fuels, there is a need for the initial investment to enable a transition to this form of electricity generation; investment in monetary terms, but also in capacity-building through knowledge and skill hubs, and regulatory action to ensure a fair, competitive market for the manufacturing and supply of PV panels/modules.
To that end, in 2018, investment in solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in India was greater than investment in all fossil fuel sources combined. And, in November 2020, the government announced a US$630 million investment package for the development of high-efficiency PV modules.
Unfortunately, inconsistent government action and contradictory policymaking is politicising the switch to renewables. For example, Prime Minister Modi was elected on the back of a campaign promise to ensure electricity access for all. And, between 2000 and 2018, 700 million people in India gained access to electricity, an achievement which should be applauded. However, in Prime Minister Modi declared that the government had achieved ‘100% village electrification’, based on a definition of electrification which considered any village with at least 10% of households, public spaces, schools and health centres as electrified. In reality, 31 million homes remain without connection. More concerningly, coal is still not off the national energy agenda.
The successful switch to renewables will be a greater feat for India than many other nations due to its quickly increasing population, projected to reach 1.66 billion in 2050. This means that renewable energy sources do not just need to replace nonrenewable sources, but to exceed current total energy supplies. But the potential of renewable energy to provide access to reliable and affordable energy to more people across India, while simultaneously contributing to a reduction in air pollution and mitigating climate change, is too important and significant to be ignored.
How can innovation, investment and the development of competitive markets and industry help to accelerate the uptake of solar in India? Atmospheric emissions do not discriminate by national borders, and neither should investments. The switch to renewable energy is crucial for the quality of life of both Indian citizens and the global community.
Now the question is more, how fast can India switch to solar? And will it be enough, if we don’t all join the transition?
By Bridget Stuart
A haunting vision of a skeletal polar bear staring into the camera, clinging to a piece of melting ice.
This is an image all too well associated with climate change, and while pictures can indeed be powerful tools of communication, the emotive visual appeal of this particular image hasn’t been as powerful as perhaps it was intended to be. People just don’t care enough about polar bears to stop flying or become vegan or install solar panels or protest against their government’s lack of climate action. And why should they? For most us, polar bears exist far-away in the ‘North Pole’, are not important for our livelihoods, and confusingly abstract climate change in our minds. This highlights the true fickle nature of the beast that is climate change, and explains in part why so many people across the world are disengaged from the issue, or worse, deny that it is even happening.
The very definition of climate change is a thorny one, and evidence shows that people often conflate it with other environmental issues, such as ozone layer depletion (1). Also, as its effects are not directly observable, people perceive climate change to be distant in time and space. For example, just 43% of American adults think that climate change will harm them personally (2). There is also a stark cultural divide on this matter. A 2019 YouGov survey of 30,000 people across 28 countries found that the percentage of people in Eastern and Middle Eastern countries who think climate change will have a great impact on their lives ranges from 38-75%, whereas in Western countries people’s perceptions of the risk is much weaker, ranging from 10-32% (3). This is an example of spatial and temporal cognitive discounting, which refers to the process of cost-benefit analysis that people perform to weigh up the probability and cost of potential risks. While some of climate change’s effects are being felt today, it is predominantly people in the Global South who are suffering; and much of the worst is still yet to come. Therefore, for many people the costs of taking action currently do not seem to outweigh the benefits, as climate change is just not seen as a big enough threat in day-to-day life.
While opinion polls show that 63% of US adults are worried about climate change (2) and 69% of UK adults believe the climate situation to be just as bad as scientists have proven (4), the rates of inaction by individuals and government alike are stark. This phenomenon is called the attitude-behaviour gap, which occurs when what people say doesn’t correlate with what they actually do. There is of course a plethora of reasons for this. Psychological factors include inertia, limited cognitive resources, the externalisation of responsibility, and fatalism. However, structural and institutional factors are probably more significant, as well as socio-demographic ones.
Giving governments’ and people’s inaction (predominantly of those in the Global North) the benefit of doubt, it could be argued that there is still some confusion around the topic of climate change. Despite the 97% consensus within the scientific community that climate change is happening and is the result of human activity (5), as with all science, there does remain some degree of uncertainty. However, the media has played a major role in wildly exaggerating that uncertainty and fostering scepticism, thus enabling institutional negligence.
But, uncertainty aside, when it comes to climate change beliefs, partisanship (in the US) has been shown to be a stronger influence than the level of knowledge or understanding of climate science (6). Indeed, political ideology is widely acknowledged to be a significant influence on climate change-related beliefs. The general trend is that right-wing conservatism is associated with less engagement on issues of climate and less support for environmental policy, in comparison to liberal social ideologies. This socio-political divide can be better understood if we perceive climate change as a narrative, socially constructed through societal and group norms. Individual members of a group, such as a political party, will endorse the values and opinions most central to their group. If a strong awareness of climate breakdown and a passion for climate justice are not included within these group values, then they will generally not be endorsed by individual members. This in-group homogeneity is perpetuated further by confirmation bias, or the tendency to selectively seek and process information that aligns with your existing values and views, and actively ignoring information which contradicts them.
So, there exists a two-fold problem in that climate change itself is a highly technical, multi-faceted issue and that, as the title of George Marshall’s 2014 book states, people’s “brains are wired to ignore climate change” (7). It is at this intersection of factors that corporations, mass media and political parties exploit individuals’ understandings of an already complex issue, driving wedges into the fault lines of their psychological biases. These ‘wedges’ include 'fake news', subliminal messaging, polarisation and disinformation, all increasingly proliferated via social media.
So, what can be done about the situation? How can we communicate with people on climate change in a way that is effective and influential? On a positive note, most people feel it is not too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change, if the necessary drastic changes are achieved fast enough (3). This represents a window of opportunity through which climate communications can apply existing scientific research to empower people with accurate information, in order to galvanise collective action and systemic change. There are many brilliant scientific research bodies, charitable and public sector organisations, and global initiatives who are working tirelessly to spread these important messages and calling loudly for a socially just and cohesive global mobilisation. We should heed their call—otherwise, denial, discounting and disenfranchisement will steadily, and ever rapidly, drive us forwards to the point of no return.
By Nayah Thu
There are many reasons to care about the climate crisis. But, fundamentally, most people care about climate change because they care about people. So why aren’t we talking more about food insecurity? With a growing population and ever-growing pressure on fertile land, it is one of the clearest threats posed by climate change, with concrete consequences for global health and inequality.
When climate-induced food insecurity is mentioned, it is often in one of two lights: either as an inevitable evil that we will have to live with, or as a far-away and uncertain spectre that may never materialise, especially if we keep developing our farming technology. Both perspectives reek of privilege, distancing the speaker from the reality of the situation. The immense suffering caused by hunger is neither inevitable nor invisible. We know this. Global hunger is one of the most highly profiled humanitarian causes. But it’s no longer an issue solely of resource redistribution. It’s a consequence of unsustainable and imperialistic farming practices.
The Global South is already disproportionately affected by climate-related food insecurity. For example, Africa is the continent with “the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world, at almost 20 percent,” and as at August 2019, hunger was on the rise in “almost all parts” of the continent.
Some of this hunger is due to extreme weather events, such as droughts, which are occurring more frequently and more severely than they have before. Some of it is due to more indirect effects of these changes in the weather, such as the burden of pests and disease. While pesticides and management have historically helped increase production, pests and disease still reduce global harvests by 10-16%, a figure only set to get worse. The spring locust swarms that accompanied this year's pandemic can be directly linked to climate change; according to Nature, the climactic conditions which produce cyclones and wet weather—which create ideal breeding conditions for locusts—are becoming more frequent. Ethiopia, for one, has been battling constant locust swarms since June 2019. Increasingly frequent locust outbreaks have catastrophic consequences: a swarm covering one square kilometre can eat as much in a day as 35,000 people. And warming temperatures mean that even the winter won’t stop them.
The problem doesn’t stop there: the fall armyworm, which was first recorded in Africa in 2017, is now present in all Southern Africa Development Community countries (SADC) except Lesotho. Over 20 million metric tonnes of maize have been lost in just under three years to the armyworm: enough to feed 100 million people. This pest disproportionately affects smaller farmers, exacerbating existing inequalities. Loss of income is compounded by rising staple food prices, according to the World Food Programme. It’s clear that we need to address the causes of these problems.
To do so requires research and funding. Food production is threatened by warming temperatures, unsustainable farming practices, desertification and soil degradation. It’s a slippery slope: the topsoil is a quasi-finite resource, susceptible to erosion, especially with the single-crop, tilling-heavy intensive style of farming prevalent today. If current trends continue, global mean crop yields are projected to decrease between 3% and 10% per degree of warming above historical levels. Even limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (as per the Paris Accord) puts us at risk of losing 15% of global crop yields, at a time when some say the current consumption trajectory means we’ll need to increase food production by 60% by 2050. We can’t just expand: according to Valerie Masson-Delmotte, we humans affect more than 70% of ice-free land, a quarter of which is already degraded. The rest is either not suitable for farming, or represents important carbon sinks and biodiversity havens, like the remains of the Amazon. We need to make the most of the farmland we already have.
Doing that will require cooperation, but it is possible. Discussions of famine often veer into naïve techno-optimism, or sink into apathetic nihilism. The truth is somewhere in the middle: the situation is bad, and it will probably get worse. However, we can make a big difference if we get to the root of the problem. Innovation and implementation is needed now: it is not enough to be reactive. In the words of Hans Otto Pörtner: there is “no possibility for anybody to say, ‘Oh, climate change is happening and we (will) just adapt to it.’ The capacity to adapt is limited.” This is especially true for the most vulnerable, who often lack resources to implement mitigation and risk reduction strategies. We see much lower adoption rates of technologies in the countries where they are most sorely needed. Where action plans exist, they are often sector dependent – they are not optimised for specific geographies and communities, and don’t allow for inter-industry synergies. Right now, climate impact studies are mostly done on crops, but impacts on fisheries and livestock production are no less serious. Additionally, the narrow focus on yield fails to develop our understanding of the systemic ecological and social contexts within which crops exist. Research must continue, but it must diversify.
While we are living in the Anthropocene, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that everyone is equally culpable. Through the past centuries, traditional and sustainable farming practices have been ignored and destroyed across the world in the name of a limited vision of modernisation. Voices in the contemporary debate are overwhelmingly white and Western, corporations and techno-optimists who advocate continuing to exploit the land, only more efficiently, setting us up for more trouble down the line. Only treating the obvious signs of food insecurity, such as rising disease prevalence, will lead to new problems, like the overuse of pesticides and veterinary medicines. More voices need to be heard.
There is a wealth of traditional and indigenous knowledge to draw on, in conjunction with modern technology. As ecosystems are so varied, measures need to be specific enough to make a difference, and developed in partnership with those who know the land. One interesting example is that of 'climate smart villages' or CSVs, which act “as platforms where researchers, local partners, farmers’ groups and policy makers collaborate to select and trial a portfolio of technologies and institutional interventions.”
Only an inclusive approach can prevent further degradation and increase long-term agricultural productivity within the constraints of specific ecosystems and communities. There are also many social dimensions that have to be taken into account: bringing more voices to the table expands the horizon of possible solutions.
Global food insecurity is one of today's leading issues. Our response to it will either prevent or cause enormous amounts of human suffering. Only by looking at its connections to the climate crisis, can we effectively take control. It’s not always clear what should be done. But we’ve had to make decisions based on uncertain information in the past. The only real wrong is not taking the problem seriously enough.
Image by sarangib on Pixabay
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.