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The Weekend Read: Why a ban on 'bridge fuels' wouldn't work for India

In conversation with energy security researcher Sandeep Pai


Lou Del Bello

Jul 04 2021

7 mins read


Welcome back to Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.

I took a break this month for work reasons, thank you to the readers who reached out to ask if everything was ok! Don't worry — normal service will be resumed from now on.

In my previous weekend interview, I spoke with Shruti Sharma, an energy specialist who argued that India should not rely on fossil fuels to facilitate its energy transition. This week, we hear a different perspective from Sandeep Pai, a senior researcher in energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Pai has just published his PhD thesis on the just transition, and in this interview he argues that when it comes to climate action, developing countries cannot be held to the same standards we expect from developed nations, and the energy transition needs to happen in a more nuanced and strategic way.

Lights On: When it comes to climate action, what are the differences between rich and developing nations? Is it simply just a matter of finance?

Sandeep Pai: When we think about climate change, we have to take bold action, that's the bedrock of what we do as a global community. But that story is different when it comes to developing countries, the reason being that mitigation cannot be the way to develop. Countries in the global south need to develop [and] the per capita emissions of some of these countries are really, really low, compared to the world average and compared to the OECD countries. 

Basic human development is really important. And for that, these countries need energy and they need it now. From where I'm sitting in Canada, I have already achieved energy access and development. For most people here, that goal has been met. And now the idea is, how do we mitigate? That is the starting point of a developed country.

In India's case, or generally in [many parts of] the global south, the story is different. We haven't met the basic energy needs, which feed into the development needs. On top of that, there is growing pressure to transition away [from carbon]. So there's this huge imbalance between the narratives in both places. For a policymaker in India, the first responsibility and the first point of action is development, not climate.

And there are two schools of thoughts here. One will say, you know, why don't we do everything using renewables? And then they weaponise this idea and say: "You developing countries, you will face the worst climate impacts, so why don't you completely leapfrog and move away from this low base of energy to renewable powered future?"

I've heard this argument many times, and many suggest that this approach is advantageous to developing nations too, because if you still need to build an infrastructure, it'll definitely be easier and more convenient to make it clean. And you avoid the economic risks associated with the use of fossil fuels.

I don't think this kind of cost analysis makes a compelling argument. When the sun is shining, [solar energy] is cheaper than coal. When the wind is blowing, [wind power] is cheaper than coal. But when you talk about 24/7 power, it's a different ballgame. And that's only the electricity sector, but when you think about the energy system as a whole, when you think about transportation, then I don't think these technologies are ready. If they were ready, the US would transition in five years.

The second school of thought, which is also not good, prescribes development at all costs. So we will burn coal, we'll burn oil and gas... What I propose is that we take a middle ground — let's evaluate everything on a case by case basis. 

Let's explore a classic battlefield of this controversy, the so called 'bridge fuels', which still have a certain carbon footprint but are less polluting than the fuels they hope to replace.

Natural gas is a great example. Think about a country like India, where we have almost 97 percent of households now connected by the grid, but many studies have shown that the grid does not guarantee 24/7 power. So, what's the alternative?

Let's look at clean cooking (where across the developing world, natural gas is being promoted as a replacement to highly polluting biomass). The alternative to LPG is to have electric stoves, run by renewable electricity. Not all households in India are fully connected, and those that are don't have 24/7 power. So if at night you want to cook and there's a power cut, what do you do?

Now, let's say within two or three years you achieve 24/7 electricity in every village and every house, using renewable power from farms or distributed generation. People will still have to change their cooking habits, for example how do you make roti? And that's a big subject, scientifically you have to study how behaviours change.

Plus, once you hook up to electric [cooking], we don't even know what the cost comparison will be between the two. We know that LPG is costly, but you have to make sure that every household gets the electric stove, and has renewable power. It's going to happen, but we are not there yet. And if right now you say no natural gas, you're really denying basic services to extremely poor people. So my bottom line is that I don't believe one side or the other, especially for developing countries. Let's deal with the fossil fuel finance issue [om a] case by case basis. Why can't you choose the middle ground and let global north countries take more ambitious steps?

What would be a practical example of this 'middle ground' approach to the energy transition? What would be an achievable and meaningful goal for India?

I think it's very clear that we don't need new coal. Although the research is not fully conclusive, the consensus is that we will be okay without new coal. That's the boldest climate action India could take. Because if India builds those 60 gigawatts [of coal capacity] which are under pre-construction, that's [emissions] locked in for the next 40 years. So, for me the biggest and boldest climate action is not to worry too much about phasing out whatever capacity is already there, and instead focusing on making sure that no new coal gets built.

On paper, coal phasedown sounds like a convenient idea, from both a financial and climate action perspective. Why shouldn't India aim for that instead?

Coal is a big sector in certain states. You have states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh: these are already poor areas in which coal mining has a big footprint. Here, coal provides millions of direct and indirect jobs, I've quantified that the number is around 4 million. And this does not include informal employment, people scavenging coal to use as fuel in the house, or to sell it on the open market.

So when you talk about phasing out coal, if you don't plan and provide just transition policies, millions of Indians will suffer. And it's really important that you "manage the losers". There will be lots of winners: cleaner cities, climate benefits, local air pollution, water, but you don't want five or six states to really suffer and you don't want poor people in those states to suffer.

What would a just transition policy framework look like?

One option that people talk about is renewables. But renewables don't employ anybody, unless you have renewable manufacturing. You see all these numbers about solar jobs, but those are construction jobs, they are temporary.

So instead of prescribing one policy, you have to do a lot of place-based research in all these different [coal reliant] pockets, to understand what are the sectors in which they can diversify. Renewables could be one of the many options, tourism could be another, something that has been tried in Germany, or it could be something else altogether. You should create a new body dedicated to exploring how the economies of some of these regions can diversify, and how to get there.

If you want to know more about Pai's research, you can follow him on Twitter:

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