India will be a “renewables superpower” according to its new energy minister, but its coal-fired electricity generation will also undergo “very rapid” expansion. However, Piyush Goyal dismissed criticism of the impact of India’s coal rush on climate change , as western governments giving “homilies and pontificating, having enjoyed themselves the fruits of ruining the environment over many years.”
The aggressive statements are significant in setting out both how prime minister Narendra Modi will fulfil his government’s ambitious goal to bring electricity to the 300m power-less Indians and also how India will approach the crucial 15 months of negotiations ahead before a UN deal to tackle global warming must be agreed.
Huge increases in energy supply in developing nations are needed to lift the world’s poor out of poverty, but achieving this largely through polluting fossil fuels will lead to dangerous climate change.
In an interview with the Guardian, Goyal, minister for power, coal and new and renewable energy, set out why Modi wants to deliver electricity to every village in the vast country.
“Electricity can transform people’s lives, not just economically but also socially,” he said. “My own father studied under street lamps. We understand how agonising it can be for a young boy wanting to study or a pregnant women wanting to get care [without electricity] and working opportunities, jobs, entrepreneurship – it will be impossible to do it without an assured supply of affordable energy.”
Goyal set out his government’s pledge, including to end expensive and polluting diesel-based electricity: “Our commitment to the people of India is that we should rapidly expand this [energy] sector, reach out to every home, and make sure we can do a diesel-generator free-India in our five years.”
Modi’s government, elected in May, has brought forward a flurry of energy announcements in its first 100 days, with pledges to accelerate solar power particularly prominent. As chief minister in Gujarat, Modi delivered Asia’s biggest solar park and piloted schemes that covered rooftops in cities and irrigation canals in the countryside.
“We will be a renewables superpower – you know Mr Modi’s mantra: ‘speed, skill and scale’,” said Goyal, adding that he expects $100bn (£62bn) to be invested in renewable energy in India in the next five years.
He has killed an earlier proposal to hit cheap Chinese solar panels with an import tariff and revived a tax break for wind power. The previous government set a solar target of 20GW by 2022, but Goyal said this will be smashed: “It will be much, much larger. I think for India to add 10GW a year [of solar] and six, or seven or eight of wind every year is not very difficult to envisage.”
Goyal has doubled the tax on coal that provides funding for clean energy and introduced incentives to close dirty and inefficient coal plants older than 25 years. But he is clear that coal-fired electricity generation will also grow quickly, given the pledge to bring power to all Indians and to continue the fast development of the Indian economy.
“Coal also would have to expand in a very rapid way,” he said, refusing to predict a decline in coal’s share of the growing energy supply. “I would wish [the proportion of renewable energy] was better but my fear is that, even if I would want to do more, I may not be able to fund. Coal I would be able to fund unlimited.”
In a preview of the position India is likely to take into the final year of the global climate change negotiations, Goyal took a hardline in dealing with western criticism that huge expansion of coal power is environmentally irresponsible.
“Western countries have gone through their development cycle and enjoyed the fruits of ruining the environment over many years and are now giving us homilies and pontificating on responsibilities to the environment,” he said. “I think they need to look inward. They need to recognise the cost to the world’s environment that they have caused – and continue to cause for that matter – and set their house in order before sermonising to developing countries.
“Of course we aren’t one of the largest polluters by any stretch of the imagination on a per capita basis.” He said comparing the total emissions of very populous nations like India with smaller countries was “very misleading”.
Goyal said developing countries, including India which has over 360m people living in poverty, had a commitment to develop the jobs and infrastructure which was already in place in the west. “So I think we will have to balance our developmental goals and our environmental goals,” he said.
The notion of compromising on the reduction of carbon emission to enable economic growth will alarm western observers. But, even with rapid coal expansion, Goyal said India could still follow a less polluting development path than seen previously in the west. “I am still fairly confident we will come out better than the west in terms of our overall development versus damage.”