India Joins the Paris Agreement: Another Big Step for the World, One Giant Leap for India

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Pictured: The Sasan coal-fired power plant in Singrauli, India. Photo by Neha Mathew.

Earlier this week, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change finally met the requirements for entry into force, marking a historic global moment and demonstrating unprecedented cooperation between the world's biggest carbon emitters -- including China, the U.S., the EU, and India. This news has ensured that the Paris Agreement will enter into force well ahead of schedule, and it is because of leadership from countries like India that we have witnessed the biggest step forward yet in strengthening the global commitment to climate action.

And for India -- the world's fourth largest carbon emitter -- this announcement is a strong affirmation of its commitment to its sustainable development and carbon emission reduction goals.

India faces one of the biggest challenges in increasing and advancing its energy capacity to efficiently meet growing energy demand. Intent on increasing domestic energy security, India previously announced a plan to double domestic coal production to 1.5 billion tons by 2020. But plans to ramp up generation from coal are at odds with lower-than-expected energy demand as well as a drop in coal production due to floods and local protests, which have resulted in decreased production targets. Latent energy demand, although variable, also points out the potential need for India's energy planning to refocus on the use and distribution of energy.

And it is clear that local communities will not acquiesce when faced with coal projects that will destroy their homes and livelihoods. For years, locals have been pushing back against the unchecked and unnecessary development of destructive fossil fuel projects to protect their communities and their families. But tragically, these acts of peaceful resistance sometimes turn deadly. This week, six people were killed near Hazaribagh when police opened fire on a protest against the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) -- the national power company of India -- and its failure to gain the necessary 70 percent approval to move forward with the acquisition of forest land.

Meanwhile, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, the Indian government has set an ambitious target of achieving 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, including 100 gigawatts of solar power. Over the past two years, India has seen growing and unprecedented momentum toward clean energy growth and investment. As of April 2016, India achieved an installed capacity of nearly 7 gigawatts of grid-connected clean, renewable energy. Already in 2016, off-grid solar power has surpassed capacity targets. In June, the World Bank announced $1 billion to support expansion of solar through investments in solar generation. India is also on track to become one of the largest solar installers globally and the country's total installed solar capacity has grown by over 80 percent in the past 12 months to reach 8.1 gigawatts. In states like Bihar, where 82 percent of people lack access to electricity, successful campaigns like 100 percent Renewable Energy for Bihar have mobilized communities and political leadership, while increasing energy access.

Last December during the Paris Climate Summit, India led the way forward with solar and clean energy, pledging $30 million over five years and announcing the creation of the International Solar Alliance. During Prime Minister Modi's fourth visit to the U.S. this past June, the South Asian leader and President Obama committed to redoubling U.S.-India cooperation on climate and clean energy. The announcement included collaboration on a new initiative under the International Solar Alliance and the implementation of two new financing facilities to drive $1 billion in new solar investment beyond the grid. As evident in the image below, in just six years, India is projected to have the largest electricity generation capacity increase from renewable energy sources (RES).

Electricity Generation Capacity in India
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(Source: IEEFA)

And while it is promising that India is projected to have the largest increase in electricity generation capacity from renewable energy sources, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The reality is that barriers to clean energy development in India include problems with the country's grid infrastructure, high cost of financing, inefficiencies in power distribution companies and issues with land acquisition, continued dependence on domestically-produced coal, inefficient coal-fired power plants, and an inadequate grid. Put together, all of these factors threaten to complicate India's energy access problem.

As this 2016 report from CoalSwarm shows, India's coal development pipeline could derail renewable energy ambitions. Too many Indian communities have been stripped off their farming and forest lands and played witness to mass displacement, polluted air and water, and several other human rights crises.

In Singrauli, the U.S. Export-Import Bank used U.S. taxpayer dollars to finance the development of the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Plant. Communities in Singrauli have been driven out of their lands and displaced several times by the development of 11 thermal power plants and nine coal mines. To this day, the Tata Mundra Coal-Fired Power Plant, initially funded by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, continues to plague fishing communities and farmers. Although the World Bank itself has taken several steps to address climate change, it continues to finance fossil fuels, especially in developing countries like India.

This week, the World Bank is hosting its annual meetings, where the Sierra Club and Oil Change International are specifically demanding actions from the World Bank in order to align its lending with the Paris Agreement and the sustainable development goals.

Historically, the world's largest developed countries have all relied heavily on fossil fuels, a trend that has rapidly been shifting in recent years. In the U.S., for example, this toxic reliance on fossil fuels has significantly transitioned toward a pathway forward to 100 percent clean and renewable energy.

But India still stands to enable the perpetuation of dirty fossil fuels. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), around $13 trillion is needed in zero-carbon energy investment between now and 2040 in order to meet global climate targets and accelerate the shift from coal to renewables.

As we move toward a modern clean energy economy, the U.S. and international financial institutions need to continue to build on the historic momentum that brought us to the Paris Agreement and focus their investments and partnerships on facilitating clean energy that can and will provide safe and reliable access to the growing energy demands around the world.