Welcome to this weekend’s edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.
In case you missed this week’s story about why the US wants India as an ally, and why energy and water may soon become defence issues in the region, you can read it here. It features secret documents, shifting global alliances and more. What’s not to like?
Today I am going to revisit some of the big weekend stories I published last year, and for each interview you’ll find an update to see how things have progressed since then, and whether we should be hopeful or worry.
Busy market in Mumbai - Image credit Adam Cohn
In this interview, air quality scientist Pallavi Pant, who founded the knowledge platform IndiaAQ Hub, explains why lockdowns are not going to solve or even alleviate the air pollution problem. The Covid crisis has been a unique real life example of a solution we all dreamed about at some point - ‘If only all cars would disappear from the streets!’ -
Now we know the consequences are grim. Stopping all human activities, even for just a few weeks, exacerbated poverty in ways we never could have imagined. And despite the blue skies, pollution didn’t magically disappear either. For example, while nitrogen oxides went down during lockdown, scientists observed that ozone levels increased.
Where we stand today: Earlier this week, the independent Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi published new data on the impact of the lockdown on air pollution in India. It finds that while big Indian cities such as Delhi and Varanasi have witnessed a moderate reduction in toxic particulate matter (PM2.5), many smaller cities have recorded pollution levels significantly higher compared to 2019 - a combination of the economy reopening and hostile winter weather.
Cecilia Han Springer is a senior researcher at the Global China Initiative within the Global Development Policy Centre at Boston University. In November, she and her team launched a comprehensive database of China’s foreign energy investments (a fantastic resource that I regularly use for my stories). In this interview, Han Springer reflects on how China’s ambitions for a carbon neutral economy by 2060 square with a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that exports a lot of dirty energy to poorer countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia and beyond. China’s flagship foreign investment program alone has the power to make or break most of its member countries’ climate targets, so it needs a radical overhaul if it wants to stay true to the climate leadership mantle it prides itself on.
Where we stand today: Greening the BRI remains an arduous task but China is starting to take it seriously. In December, the international forum BRI International Green Development Coalition released a “traffic light” framework for the evaluation of new infrastructure. It assigns a red, yellow or green label to each project according to its impacts on climate, pollution and biodiversity. If you want to know more, I recommend the podcast Environment China, which in this episode digs deeper into the idea, its promise and potential roadblocks.
Ahead of the US general elections, I spoke with Andrew Light, former director of US-India bilateral cooperation on climate change during the second Obama term, between 2013 and 2016. Light expected India to be “very high on the list for a future US administration who cares about climate change.” If Chinese emissions go down to the degree that they are now promising, and India does not hit its current targets under Modi, he said, then India becomes the largest emitter in the world at some point. “So you can't care about the climate and not care about India, in addition to the absolute necessity of delivering electricity and eliminating energy poverty.”
Where we stand today - A lot has happened since the end of October. Amidst the political upheaval and the recent riots against the incoming administration, President-elect Joe Biden is not forgetting climate change and environmental justice, which feature prominently in his policy plans. As for a future US-India relationship, we had a couple of interesting releases outlining America’s hopes for the Indo-Pacific region. I wrote about it this week, from an energy and environment perspective.
Hydrogen as a potential fuel has been around for a long time, but so far high prices of the technology and significant emissions from its production have meant it never really took off. Until now, says Will Hall, former associate fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi. As countries race to decarbonise, the technology is becoming cheaper, and India has a competitive edge, he says in this interview. “India is particularly well placed to take advantage of hydrogen,” he told me. “It has some of the cheapest renewable tariffs in the world,” which means that the cost of green hydrogen, produced using renewable energy, can be very competitive.
Where we stand today - TERI, one of the most influential research institutions in India and Asia, believes in the hydrogen promise. In a report released in December, it finds that while hydrogen deployment may not be cost effective for every sector and every country’s economy, demand in India could increase fivefold by 2050, mostly driven by heavy industry such as steel or iron ore processing.
For my first ever weekend read, I sat down with Abhishek Saxena, a public policy expert with the government’s policy branch NITI Aayog. He explained that the cleanest form of transport is the bicycle - or a good walk. But given many of our daily tasks require covering long distances, we need cars. Here, Saxena noted that an electric mobility revolution requires more than just making and selling lots of electric cars. Only through a mix of novel urban design, policies and incentives can we hope to radically change the face of India’s polluted cities.
Where we stand today: The news that Tesla is setting up shop in India, after years of hesitation due to the country's notoriously tough regulatory bite, has been celebrated as a sign that an EV revolution in India could finally be on the cards. Tesla, the world’s most valuable carmaker, has created an Indian subsidiary which will operate a manufacturing plant and R&D unit in Bengaluru. The move will bolster the confidence of Indian carmakers, struggling amidst policy uncertainty and Chinese competition, but analysts fear that India may not have the right infrastructure, including vendors, R&D, charging networks and more, to support a mass rollout of electric vehicles.
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