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How India can become a cleaner, healthier, and stronger economy

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At this year’s Oscar awards, one of the nominees for Best Picture was Don’t Look Up, where Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play scientists, desperately trying to warn the public about the impending destruction of the planet. Just a week later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a grim report, which said that the world’s greenhouse gas emissions need to start falling by the middle of this decade and become half of what they are today by the end of the decade. But current trends show emissions are on an upward trajectory, set to warm the planet by about 3°C by 2100. This will mean a two-thirds increase in the number of days with maximum temperature crossing 35°C, and more than a billion people around the world exposed to heat stress, water stress, and desertification.

For India, the climate crisis is daunting and unfair. Our economy depends on fossil fuels and we are trying to meet the basic energy needs of millions of people. The poorest people with the smallest carbon footprint will be the most vulnerable to extreme and erratic weather. Should one feel an overwhelming sense of fighting a losing battle? Or is there room for hope and new opportunities to build a climate-strong future for our country?

Three key findings of the IPCC report provide reasons for optimism and point to the way forward for India to leapfrog to a cleaner, healthier, and stronger economy.

First, the stunning drop in the costs of solar power, wind power, and batteries — much faster than predicted by experts. The cost of solar electricity fell by 85% in 10 years, making it commercially attractive compared to electricity from fossil fuels. Similarly, lithium-ion battery prices fell by 85% in 10 years, making electric vehicles more affordable and large-scale storage of renewable electricity possible. We need battery prices to fall further. We can also store electricity in the form of pumped hydropower. If the cost of hydrogen electrolysers decreases as rapidly as predicted, renewable power can be used to produce green hydrogen as an alternative to industrial fossil fuel use, or to produce green ammonia, which is more easily stored and transported.

Second, the IPCC report talks about the looming challenge of decarbonising industrial process emissions. In industries such as cement, iron and steel, aluminium, chemicals and plastics, it is not enough to use energy more efficiently, we also need to use materials more efficiently. This requires adopting a circular economy approach, by recycling scrap metal, repurposing construction waste, mixing fly ash in cement, using local materials, and recycling water. This approach can reduce emissions substantially at a negative cost. Moreover, India can turn this challenge into an opportunity by creating new circular economy jobs, particularly for recycling battery minerals since India has limited domestic reserves.

Third, the IPCC report imagines new kinds of cities: Compact, walkable, and cool. It finds that integrated spatial planning and transit-oriented development can reduce urban energy use by a quarter. India can meet the growing energy and infrastructure needs of its cities by using the right construction materials, enforcing green building codes, shifting to public transport, and making room for nature, including wetlands, mangroves, and trees. Instead of building heat-trapping concrete jungles, such green cities can provide thermal comfort, reduce pollution, sequester carbon, and let water percolate underground.

Globally, the IPCC report finds that the economic benefits of mitigating the climate crisis will exceed the costs of doing so. In other words, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will pay for itself, in the form of fuel savings, reduced oil import bill, better health and productivity due to improved air quality, and avoided damages due to climate disasters. For India, the challenge now is to find the upfront capital investments to reap the benefits of becoming a climate-strong economy.

Ulka Kelkar is director, climate programme, World Resources Institute India The views expressed are personal.

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