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Coal Reliance Clouds India’s Climate Leadership

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s green pitch to the Group of 20 this week will include new calls for clean energy cooperation — a tough sell from a nation still doggedly reliant on coal.

The world’s most populous country has eye-catching targets for hydrogen, solar and biofuels, and can point to some dramatic progress on renewables. India has installed 71 gigawatts of solar from a negligible amount a decade ago, including a record deployment of utility-scale capacity last year.

Yet coal remains the source of about 70% of electricity generation, and Modi’s ambitions for the New Delhi summit stop short of any fresh appeal for nations to move away from polluting fossil fuels.

Read More: The G20 Summit Is an Opportunity for Modi and a Test of India’s Global Leadership

G20 nations will pledge to lift efforts to triple their renewable energy capacity by 2030, a rare breakthrough this year in climate diplomacy, people familiar with the negotiations said Wednesday. The agreement also offers support to the continued use of fossil fuels when paired with emissions abatement technology, a caveat seen as crucial to secure support from Russia and Saudi Arabia.

It’s a substantial concession, and one that speaks to India’s own concerns over just how far — and quickly — it can go in greening its power system. New Delhi frets over the risks that come with abandoning coal, a fuel regarded as cheap and readily available — at a time when energy security and cost concerns are paramount.

“This was a missed opportunity for the world’s major emitters to signal commitment and momentum ahead of the COP,” and for India to show its potential to deliver consensus among nations with competing interests, according to Shiloh Fetzek, an associate fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a climate and security expert. The COP28 climate talks begin in the UAE in November.

Nations have reached agreement on classification of green hydrogen, which is “a significant achievement for all of us,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Power said. India’s G20 presidency is shaping up to be an “overwhelming success,” the spokesperson said.

So far no consensus has been reached on other issues including biofuels, clean energy access and collaboration on critical minerals, according to the ministry.

Countries making up the G20 account for 85% of the world’s GDP and roughly two-thirds of the world’s population. They also generate 80% of global emissions from the power sector, much of that from coal.

Excluding the EU as a region, the group’s members accounted for 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita from coal power in 2022, against a global average of 1.1 tons, according to data compiled by Ember, a climate-focused think tank.

While wealthy nations have made some inroads on limiting coal’s role, a key focus for progress is in middle-income nations — many of which are looking to India for leadership — where coal-fired power plants are also often younger, and infrastructure supporting clean energy alternatives, from energy storage to transmission, is rarely in place.

Read More: How India Became the Most Important Country in the Climate Fight

Without consensus on key issues, thanks to Russia, and with the absence at the G20 of China’s leader Xi Jinping, Modi had an opportunity to make the green agenda a centerpiece for the talks — seizing on Indonesia’s lead. President Joko Widodo used his G20 platform last year to sign the world’s largest climate finance deal to enable a move away from fossil fuels — a game changer in theory, if not yet in practice.

So far, that prospect doesn’t align with India’s own needs. Coal remains a vast employer, and crucial to both electricity supply and heavy industry. India plans to expand its coal fleet by a quarter, adding nearly 56 gigawatts of capacity by the end of the decade.

Along with China, India previously made an eleventh hour move to block progress on phasing out the use of coal at 2021 UN climate talks.

“Now its case is bolstered given the disruptions to the West and the rest of the world sliding back,” said Shayak Sengupta, a climate and energy fellow with the think tank Observer Research Foundation America, referring to anxiety over global fuel supplies triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Modi’s plan is to circumvent the fossil fuel issue this weekend, using the G20 to focus on renewables and options like development of green hydrogen, seen as key to decarbonizing hard-to-abate sectors like steelmaking and cement production.

“There’s certainly a risk that by missing this moment — and basically every climate moment is make-or-break now given the emerging science — India has dented its credibility as a leader,” Fetzek said, “on both the energy transition and climate diplomacy.”

—With assistance from Sanjit Das.

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