Event summary by Laura Watson
This week, we were incredibly privileged to be joined by world-leading public intellectual and scholar, Professor Noam Chomsky, to discuss the intersection of neoliberalism, democracy and the climate emergency.
Professor Chomsky began by emphasising the well-known, scientifically proven position that it is time to panic about climate change. It is also time to act: we know what the solutions are, and we know that they are feasible and within our grasp. However, it must also be recognised that there is resistance to change fossil fuel companies, parts of the media and, in the United States, from the Republican Party.
The practice of neoliberalism can be traced back to the 1970s, based around the transfer of decision-making power from accountable governments to unaccountable private entities, which are encouraged to pursue profit at the expense of all else. Recently, former President of the United States, Donald Trump, further extended neoliberalism in American by calling for increased power for businesses, claiming that this would create a more efficient economic system. However, the recent weather-induced catastrophe in Texas is a key example of how neoliberalism's lack of regulation, and its market-led, consumer-choice-centred approach has created a system vulnerable to collapse.
Today, although the world is in many ways different, Professor Chomsky asserted we (primarily in Western Europe and North America) find ourselves in a similar position to that of the 1920s: we face the choice of whether to move towards a more radical form of democracy, or to continue with neoliberalism. Chomsky asserted that choosing the former is crucial, if we are to avoid facing an end to humanity.
How can we address short-termism, given the urgent timescales necessary for addressing the challenges of climate change and neoliberalism?
Professor Chomsky advised the audience that they are "absolutely not powerless. We have plenty of power.” People don't have to succumb to the ideological control of the powerful, but we have to grasp this power to be able to use it.
To hear the rest of Professor Chomsky's powerful talk, head to our YouTube channel here.
Event summary by Larissa Nzikeu
This week’s event focused on India’s energy transition, with esteemed guest speakers Amitabh Kant and Professor Navroz. K Dubash leading the conversation. Mr Kant is CEO of the National Institute for Transforming India, whilst Professor Dubash is a leading figure at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, India.
Mr Kant began the conversation brimming with positivity and optimism at India’s progress in achieving its sustainability goals. Indeed, he pointed out that India is one of the few G20 countries on track to meet its Paris Agreements climate ambitions—such as achieving 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022. Mr Kant detailed the many achievements made throughout the course of India’s energy transition, highlighting, for example, that innovative and cutting-edge technology such as battery storage, ethanol blending, and solar pumps have already been implemented to promote energy efficiency schemes that facilitate India’s decarbonisation agenda.
Much progress has also been made at the fiscal and policy level to aid India's energy transition to renewables. For example, Mr Kant outlined India’s successful implementation of energy efficiency policies that promote green business models. This includes the aspirational goal of launching a mission to produce hydrogen fuel from green power sources. Also, a future 60-billion-dollar investment is set to be made to help the country transition to a gas-based economy, wherein such infrastructure as re-gasification terminals become the norm.
However, India’s energy transition is not perfect. Mr Kant discussed the challenges ahead, for example, in replacing the monopoly of state-run carbon-intensive power generation a more efficient and competitive distribution system which provides choice to consumers to opt for green services. Elaborating upon such challenges, Professor Dubash added that India’s energy transition is a rather complex and ‘multi-stranded process’. For instance, he argued that opting for sustainable models of development may cause a rise in carbon emissions in India - due in part to rising energy demands.
Professor Dubash noted that a just transition was critical, to minimise the social disruption caused by the shift from coal power shares of energy generation to renewables. In particular, he argued that substitutes will be needed to replace large revenues traditionally gained from fossil fuels in order to maintain India’s financial health. Likewise, the switch to renewables is likely to impact millions of Indian livelihoods heavily dependent on coal industries. Importantly, Professor Dubash stressed that social inequalities will be greatly exacerbated should the cross-subsidy system of the electricity sector be lost during the transition to solar power.
All is not doom and gloom. Both Professor Dubash and Mr Kant agreed that there is still much cause for optimism for India’s energy transition: it has great renewable energy capacity. However, the socio-economic strategies put in place to aid this transition must be kept under a watchful eye.
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?
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.