Climate change is a real challenge
by Sandhya Jain on 10 Feb 2015 2 Comments

Several Chinese cities have been in the news over the past decade for blinding smog that made breathing difficult without surgical masks. Recently, New Delhi’s smog-laden air drew unfavourable attention due to the visit of US President Barack Obama for the Republic Day celebrations. American media reports said the US President’s two hour long exposure at Rajpath and other outdoor events, such as tea in a well-appointed garden, took six hours off his life! While only god can authenticate such a fine calibration, it is undeniable that the capital’s air (not to mention water) quality has been deteriorating for decades.


On January 6, 2015, the US embassy’s air pollution monitor recorded Delhi’s particulate matter (particles smaller than 2.5 micro-meters, that can penetrate human lungs) at 215 at 8 a.m., which fell to 199 by 7 p.m. The US embassy is situated in Chanakyapuri, one of the capital’s most idyllic locations; it follows that readings elsewhere in the city would be much higher.


The benchmark is 150; any reading above is “unhealthy” for general, non-sensitive populations (those not afflicted with asthma or other respiratory ailments). A reading above 200 is “very unhealthy” and this is the air citizens are breathing this winter. Levels of 300 and above are “hazardous”.


Much of Delhi’s smog is due to vehicular emissions because a fully integrated public transport system is still not in place. In the country as a whole (no official statistics have been released) air pollution is rising dangerously, particularly in highly industrialised districts and zones. Worldwide, these pollutants contribute to global warming and climate change through ozone depletion, and now pose a threat to the survival of species, including the human race. The crisis is so advanced that 20 C has become the de facto target for global warming.


As urgent remedial measures become imperative, governments and citizens are exploring various options. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mooted fighting air pollution by implementing the Environmental Protection Agency’s international air quality forecasting system AIRNow. This is part of an overall climate deal, to be clinched in Paris in March 2015, that includes phasing out greenhouse gases such as hydrofluorocarbons (used in refrigerants), reducing dependence on coal (thermal power) and enhancing use of renewable sources of energy.


At Paris, all countries will have to declare their respective targets to achieve climate change mitigation goals. For India, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the components of which have not been formally declared so far, are at the core of the negotiations. As a developing country, India faces a dual and paradoxical challenge, viz., to reduce its carbon footprint while providing access to energy to all citizens. The Government has set 2019 as the target year to achieve electricity for all, but this is unlikely to be achieved even with conventional sources of energy.


According to Census 2011, around 81 million (32.8 per cent) households lack access to electricity. These are mainly rural households, but will also be homes with low educational attainment. These families remain dependent upon traditional biomass energy sources such as wood, straw, charcoal, dung, which satisfy only rudimentary needs such as cooking or heating, and adversely impact the environment.


The 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change envisaged that starting 2009-10, a target of five per cent renewable-based electricity would be added to the national grid, which would be increased by one per cent every year for 10 years. Thus, by 2020, 15 per cent of the total national energy mix would be from renewable energy sources. Over the past decade, the installed capacity of grid-connected renewable energy-based power generation rose from merely 3475 MW (2 per cent of the total installed capacity in the country in 2002) to 27,541 MW (12.3 per cent as on 31 April 2013). Of this, wind power (mainly in coastal regions) contributed nearly 70 per cent (19,051 MW).


There has also been a massive surge in solar-based energy production. India’s cumulative installed solar (on grid and off grid) capacity has crossed the 2 Giga-watts milestone. The Centre has now set an ambitious goal of 100 GW of solar energy by 2022. It is obvious that India is seriously exploring renewable energy as a potential source for reliable and secure power supply. Renewables have a tremendous scope for providing energy to citizens on a small- as well as large scale.


An innovative idea would be to rework the concept of national energy grid. The temptation to link every village with the national grid involves highly intensive sources of generating power (mainly thermal), which in turn entails high (genuine) transmission losses on account of the huge distances to be traversed. This system is vulnerable to blackouts due to grid faults, or sabotage (as recently happened in Pakistan).


Instead of feeding energy from all conventional and non-conventional sources into a single grid structure, rural areas with little or no access to the grid should be encouraged to develop their own mini-grids by tapping solar energy through inventive panel designs and wind energy with small, efficient fans. In Australia, citizens have purchased do-it-yourself kits to get off the grid completely. India has several renewable energy applications and technologies, namely, improved biomass cook stoves, biogas digesters, solar space heating and cooling system, solar photovoltaic water pump, solar pasteurizer, solar desalinator, wind water pumps, which can cater to the needs of rural and remote areas. This is a wholly sustainable way of preserving the environment.


The greater challenge is to find renewable energy models that encourage urban citizens to get off the grid and leave thermal energy for industry. The growing middle class, and rising aspirations of citizens for a better quality of life, involve greater access to energy, which poses a challenge for mitigating emissions.


Yet, decentralised models are being experimented with across the country. Currently, over 250 firms are operating across the country, offering a range of decentralised energy solutions, including mini-grids for electricity generation, or developing technologies for other productive activities. The Centre must support this surge of innovation in technologies and delivery systems by encouraging villages or urban housing societies to step forward and take control of their energy destinies. Funds being earmarked for hyper-costly, long gestation and potentially hazardous nuclear energy plants, if invested in renewable energy, could enable India to achieve and even surpass its target. All that it takes is political will. 

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