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India Powers Past Poverty, with Coal

Dr John Constable: GWPF Energy Editor

British and Indian ministers met last week at the “UK-India Energy for Growth Dialogue”. If fossil fuels were discussed at the event, and they must have been for they are of overwhelming significance to India, one would never guess it from the UK government’s official statement. Lack of candour in the face of such realities leaves the UK government looking disengaged from reality and even evasive.

The Indian Minister for Power and New & Renewable Energy, Mr Raj Kumar Singh, has been in London within the last week, and met with his counterpart in the UK government, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Mr Greg Clark. The occasion was the second “UK-India Energy for Growth Dialogue” (see press release).

Figure 1. Mr Greg Clark, the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and Mr Raj Kumar Singh, Indian Minister for Power and New & Renewable Energy, London 13 September 2018.

Their discussions apparently focused on “power sector reform and the development of renewable energy”. Mr Singh was also taken to see an offshore wind farm, and renewables figured prominently in the UK government statement:

The ministers endorsed a forward action plan for collaboration, and agreed to develop a proposal for a joint programme on Clean Energy for Growth to support the rapid and sustainable growth of India’s energy sector. In addition to key actions to accelerate energy efficiency, this programme may include elements on renewable energy, power sector reform and elements of green finance.

Doubtless this is all very well meaning and genuinely friendly, but in a conference explicitly designated to discuss “Energy for Growth”, it has the air of polite irrelevance, even of evasion, for as both ministers will have been very well aware, the vast expansion in India’s energy supply is firstly, in no need of support, having more than doubled since 1990, and secondly nothing to do with renewables, since almost all of the growth has come from coal, oil and natural gas, as the following chart drawn from the freely available five yearly data published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) clearly shows:

Figure 2: Total Primary Energy (ktoe) consumption in India, 1990 to 2015 (five year increments). Source:  International Energy Agency.

As for renewables, it is true that the “Biofuel and Waste” category, mostly traditional biomass (the burning of wood and dung for heat), has increased slightly over that time, and still accounts for well over 20% of India’s primary energy, but that is a huge decline in proportional significance from the 1990s when it made up over 40% of India’s total. The modern renewables, wind, solar, geothermal and so on, comprise about 0.6%, and are insignificant to the astonishing societal change currently underway in India and more broadly in Asia overall. – Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution, has called it “the most rapid expansion of the middle class, at a global level, that the world has ever seen”(2017). The simple truth is that India’s economic growth in the last decades has been and still is being fuelled by growth in the use of fossil fuel. No wonder, then, that Mr Modi’s administration has not joined the British government’s “Powering Past Coal Alliance”. India is far too busy powering past poverty.