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?
Event summary by Nayah Thu
At this week’s event on the role of civil disobedience in the climate movement we heard from Patrick Bond and James Jasper.
Jasper is best known for his research on the emotional and social aspect of protest movements, and spoke about the necessity of utilising civil disobedience to grow the climate movement and increase climate action. He distinguished between long-run emotions, which shape our basic value orientations and perceptions of rationality, and the short run emotions seen in social movements. He argued that social movements have the ability to use short-run anger and indignation to shape long-run perceptions of morality.
Contrasting the climate justice movement with BLM, Jasper acknowledged the difficulty of creating a narrative about the climate crisis. The lack of clear causal links makes it harder to identify “villains” or sources of blame. Climate change manifests in events that appear like random acts of nature – which makes it difficult to make connections intuitively. Another part of the problem is that it is difficult to motivate people to take big personal steps, like not flying, or refusing to have children.
The most effective targets for climate action are those who can both be demonised, and who have an incentive to change – namely, corporations. Symbolic power is also important to consider, in order to raise maximum indignation. In a way, movements are speaking to a third-party audience, the general public. Unfortunately, sometimes the counter-movements are able to mobilise better than their inciters, making the outcome somewhat uncertain.
Bond is a professor at the University of West Cape School of Government. Bond outlined the climate justice principles from the Rights of Mother Earth conference in Cochabamba in Bolivia 2010, and their criticism of technological solutions as “sufficient”. Mentioning books like To Cook a Continent, This Changes Everything and How to Blow Up a Pipeline, he stressed the importance of direct action. As he pointed out, since Occupy and the Arab Spring, the frequency of mass protests around the world is increasing, and the last decade has been marked by popular movements, most recently exemplified in the farmers’ protest in India. When it comes to climate, there exists a generational anger: people want more.
Bond pointed to the Environmental Justice Atlas, an online resource explaining indigenous-led and other climate actions. He highlighted the importance of a just transition and made clear the inadequacies of prior climate policies, like the Paris agreement, and their inadequate focus on climate justice, as well as lack of binding commitments. He quoted Lumumba Di-Aping, leader of a G77 group, when he reacted to the Copenhagen accords, saying “we have been asked to sign a suicide pact”. Going forward, he maintained that civil disobedience will continue to be necessary, drawing parallels with the fight against apartheid.
To hear the rest, listen to the recording, up on our YouTube channel now!
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.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.