India’s Sustainability Dilemma: Growing Economy vs. Climate Goals

Anil Trigunayat

In less than a month ( September 9-10),  leaders from the world’s most powerful countries will be in New Delhi  for the G20 Summit, which for the first time in history will be held under the patronage of an Indian presidency. While the summit will undoubtedly address many of the most pressing issues facing the global community, one topic has been placed at the center of debate —sustainable development.

Evoked by this year’s G20 theme, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” or “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, the Indian presidency has made the pursuit of a sustainable and cleaner future its top priority. Now, with the eyes of the world fixed on India’s energy leadership, it is imperative that India does not falter, and instead serves as a glowing example of a clean-energy hub. 

With $8.3 trillion GDP expected over the next decade, India will soon become the third-largest economy in the world. Coupled with the continued expansion of India’s domestic population, such rapid growth has put tremendous pressure on the country’s energy system, which remains grossly dependent on fossil fuel imports.

However, India’s leadership has made a clear commitment to expanding and securing its domestic energy supply, with a particular emphasis on the development of renewable energy sources and modern climate solutions. Aside from the flurry of energy-facing policies introduced in recent years, this commitment is clearly reflected in Prime Minister Modi’s determination to reach net zero far before the target year of 2070. 

As a result, India rightly boasts the fastest-growing renewable energy capacity globally. The country added over 100 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by the end of 2021, with the vision of 500 GW by 2030. Moreover, India now ranks fourth in the world for overall installed renewable energy capacity, having the world’s largest renewable energy expansion program of 175 GW till 2022. 

India has sought to encourage similar developments on a global scale, once more taking a leading role in driving the international energy transition. Under its presidency, India has launched the Amrit Kaal initiative, which aims to create a shared global future through the promotion of environmentally conscious practices and sustainable living, as part of the Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE) movement. Moreover, India’s International Solar Alliance (ISA) and Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) are further proof of that commitment.

Meanwhile, India has also prioritised the need for cooperation in ensuring equal access to affordable energy and a steady supply of traditional resources, such as natural gas and LNG.  In fact, the ongoing G-20 Energy Transitions Working Group has fostered collective efforts from all member nations to achieve a cleaner and more inclusive energy future, with policies that promote equal access to decarbonisation technologies while supporting economic development in the Global South, which has often been adversely impacted by global geopolitics and radical changes in global energy priorities.

This represents an important step towards creating a more just transition, as leading states can generally be considered insincere as they arbitrarily force ESG matrix in global economic discourse. 

Finally, to further engage countries in a collective push towards cleaner and more affordable energy solutions, India, Brazil, and the United States are preparing to launch a Global Biofuel Alliance, which would promote sustainable biofuel use in transportation and trade, provide technical assistance to national biofuel programs worldwide, and share policy best practices.

The Alliance’s official launch is expected to occur before the G-20 leaders’ summit in September. In India, biofuels have been embraced as a key tool for decarbonising the transport sector, and are predicted to represent 20 percent of India’s energy mix in the near future. Along with the rapid expansion of EV technology and heightened decarbonisation efforts by the hydrocarbons industry, India is making incredible progress with clean transportation, both at home and abroad.  

However, just as India’s domestic commitment to sustainable energy has fuelled its leadership on the world stage, any relapse towards fossil fuel dependency within the country threatens to undermine its global position of authority like it has done in Europe, which reverted to polluting sources of energy with a vengeance. In the first few months of 2023, close to 11.5 gigawatts (GW) of coal power capacity moved forward through various approval stages. India has permitted about 3.9 GW of coal projects and 7.6 GW of coal projects received terms of reference, moving them one step closer to permits. 

This news offers as a clear reminder that the energy transition is a gradual process, and steps must be taken to ensure the security of domestic energy systems. As we have had the misfortune of witnessing first-hand in recent years, external factors and unanticipated events abroad can severely disrupt traditional supply lines, thus requiring a balanced approach to energy policy which can support economic stability and growth. 

For India, the challenge will be to strike the right balance between protecting economic development through the use of existing resources, and establishing itself as leader in the global push to clean energy.  Thankfully, the international community has number of opportunities to find common ground on this issue, and India’s G20 Presidency offers the ideal platform for our country to steer future discussions and initiatives.

ADIPEC 2023, for example, will convene the world’s leading energy policymakers and executives in Abu Dhabi for four days of intensive discussion and debate, with the goal of producing impactful results that can galvanise the entire industry push to net zero. India is set to play a leading role at the agenda-setting event, especially following PM Modi’s recent visit to Abu Dhabi, where he officially endorsed UAE’s presidency of COP 28.

As India prepares to host its first ever G20 summit, we have to ensure that our own domestic policies continue to reflect an earnest commitment to clean energy. In doing so, India will be in a far better position to lead the global energy system into the future.

This article was first published in CNBC TV 18 as World View | G20 and Sustainability — here’s why there is a paradox of commitment on 21 August, 2023.

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  • Anil Trigunayat

    Former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta; Distinguished Fellow and Head of the West Asia Experts Group at the Vivekananda International Foundation.

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