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India’s Submissions to UN Panel on Sustainability: A Missed Opportunity The Government of India has recently made a set of submissions to the

UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel for Global Sustainability, on the occasion of its meeting at Helsinki on 17th May 2011. India’s Minister for Environment, Shri Jairam Ramesh, who is also a member of the Panel, has made these submissions. The press note issued by MoEF says that India “made a strong call for equity and universal energy access by the year 2030 for all.” While the call for equity is welcome, it is a moot question as to why the world needs to wait till 2030 – almost 20 more years – before universal energy access is a reality. Moreover, India’s detailed proposals to actualize universal energy access lack coherence and belie the expectations raised by its strong call for equity as detailed in its submissions. MoEF has submitted three notes to back up its call, one on equity and sustainable development, the second on universal energy access, and the third outlining a new indicator to measure sustainable development. Each of the notes talks about its issue at the global level, but draws from the Indian experience. Note on Equity in the Context of Sustainable Development The note on Equity is a very well written note, outlining comprehensively what equity means, and how sustainability, environmentalism, and sustainable development is inextricably linked with equity. It is unfortunate, then, that this note does not inform the other note on the very critical issue of Universal Energy Access (UEA Note). In a sense, it appears that the Minister’s left hand does not know what the right is doing. Indeed, the UEA Note has several shortcomings and presents a somewhat incoherent approach to meeting the goal of universal energy access. Note on Universal Energy Access by 2030 The UEA Note starts with a very interesting statement that
“the world has enough energy resources to last for centuries. Coal and nuclear can sustain the world energy for over four centuries. Therefore, there is no global energy crisis.”

If this is the case, the natural question is why so many people are without access to energy. (A wrong usage of units causes some confusion here, and even if it a typo, such errors should be avoided when submitting notes at this level.) The problem, according to the note, is that we are attempting to satisfy three criteria simultaneously – energy security, economics and environmental


compatibility. However, subsequent discussions reduce the environmental problem to essentially that of carbon emissions, which is not only a very narrow view of the environmental impacts, but such an emphasis on the climate angle undermines India’s own stated positioni that it is not responsible for the climate crisis and hence the main liability to address it should be of those who have been the main contributors. Moreover, the long section on Low Carbon Options seems a digression and does not fit into the main theme of the note, namely, universalizing energy access. More on this aspect later. However, the note is problematic in many other ways. First of all, it has not stated explicitly what needs universal energy access is supposed to meet. By inference, we see that the aim seems to be to cover energy for lighting and cooking. Whatever it may be, it needed to be made explicit, as the expectations from universal energy access may be more than this. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many rural and poor households in India deem electricity for running TV sets and cell phone chargers to be as fundamental a need as lighting. Secondly, there is no explanation as to why it should take 20 years to universalize energy access. Indeed, India should have strongly argued for a much smaller period to achieve this. Thirdly, the note somehow very easily – and without and logical explanation – slips into the assumption that universalisation of energy access will have to come from decentralized, renewable sources like solar, which are very expensive at this moment. It is true that in some cases, decentralized renewable sources may be the most optimal option, but this need not be always the case. As a recent paper by Prayas Energy Group, Pune showsii, there are many steps, including allocation of energy from centralized sources on a priority basis to the poor that can help address this issue. Fourth is the issue of burdening energy supply to the poor with extraneous considerations. In his letter to the Chair of the UN Panel, Jairam Ramesh says that
“The challenge before us is to ensure that this [universal energy] access happens rapidly, while ensuring that the sustainability related constraints are not violated”.

The UEA Note makes these sustainability constraints more explicit. It states that
“This [universalizing energy access] is a daunting task in its own right and it is further complicated by the constraint of reducing global CO2 emissions.”

What is puzzling and difficult to understand in this whole argument is why universalizing energy access should be made to shoulder the burden of 2

sustainability related constraints, in particular reducing carbon emissions. We can well understand that local sustainability issues like preservation of forests, rivers etc would be important. But why load the burden of cutting global carbon emissions onto the energy for the poor? Indeed, the UEA Note says that given the energy aspirations of developing countries (not to mention the heavy energy use lifestyles of the developed countries), coal will continue to remain a major part of world energy mix under any scenario. In other words, the world will continue to burn coal (and oil), emitting green house gases in huge quantities – to run the air conditions of the rich, to drive their automobiles, to light up big malls, run energy guzzling appliances like heaters and so on, but when it comes to meeting the energy for universal energy access, for the most basic needs, we want to insist that it meets the constraint of sustainability and reducing global CO2 emissions. This runs completely contrary to the basic principles of equity, which the other note of the MoEF has very well articulated. It should be clarified that we are not making a case for continuing with “dirty energy”, nor are we making a case for highly centralized energy supply. We are only saying that it is odd, and highly iniquitous, that we burden the energy supply to the poor with high financial costs (of decentralized options like solar), and with tight constraints of meeting sustainability norms (of global carbon emissions, something that the world’s poor have been least responsible for), all the while allowing the energy use of the rich to come from cheap sources (like coal, cheap also because it externalizes many costs), and not imposing any particular constraints on them for meeting sustainability norms. The explanation behind this approach may be found in the next sections of the UEA Note, which says that
“a global transition to a radically different energy mix requires a concerted international effort covering three key aspects: Innovation and technology transfer, Funding and Policy and regulatory framework.”

Nowhere does the Note establish that such a transition to a radically different energy mix is necessary for universal energy access. Indeed, we would argue that it is not. Yet, such a transition is used as an argument to ask for a package that developing countries have been stuck with for years now in international climate negotiations, where, instead of taking principled positions to make developed countries take responsibility for their historical climate pollution, developing countries like India are more and more willing to settle for technology transfer – and money. (Not that these are easily forthcoming, see the fate of the promised $ 100 billion fund.) Such an approach is also the thin


end of the wedge which pushes the burden of cutting emissions and using “low carbon” options on to the developing countries. The details in the UEA note substantiate this. The note argues that
“It is clear that we need to pursue innovation and research and development of a portfolio of low carbon technologies.”

However, as we have shown above, it is not at all clear why we (developing countries) need to prioritise a portfolio of low carbon technologies, especially for meeting needs of universal energy access. It may be mentioned here that the so called low carbon technologies considered in this note include nuclear (and other discussions include large hydro too), so what the note is suggesting is that we opt for low carbon even if we have to pay the price of other impacts. We would argue that for India – at least for the poor in India and globally too – what is more important and more appropriate is a “low impact” portfolio of technologies, rather than a “low carbon” portfolio. Similarly, the UEA Note also says that
“Global transition to low carbon technologies is inherently an expensive option. For instance, most renewable sources are expensive as compared with conventional technologies…Developing countries would be unable to undertake such a transition in the absence of a global funding initiative to incentivize a large – scale deployment of renewable power.”

Again, the main aim of the exercise seems to be to garner international funding. But instead, why not make a strong push for the developed countries to adopt the (expensive) renewable energy options, and vacate some carbon space in case developing countries need it, especially for meeting the needs of universal energy access? This is not to deny the need for an eventual global transition to renewable energy, but only to state that any burden of this transition must be placed squarely on those who have benefited from gross atmospheric pollution, externalizing the heavy climate costs. And to reiterate the question as to why should universal energy access depend on a transition to expensive renewable energy options. In sum, the UEA Note appears to jump from one unconnected argument to another, ending up in a weak appeal for more international funds, at the cost of equity and human development of the poorest. Instead of all this, the note on universal energy access should have taken a firm and unequivocal stand that whatever energy options the global community chooses, the first right and claim on these energy sources must be to meet universal energy access obligations. Moreover, while the energy needed for these obligations should meet the requirements of low local social and environmental impacts, they should not be loaded with extraneous costs like


meeting global carbon emissions targets. And last but not the least, India should have argued for a much smaller time period in which to meet the objective of universal energy access. It is only such a stand that would do justice to the strong call for the equity made by Ramesh at the UN Panel meeting. Note on Proposal for a New Indicator on Sustainable Development The last note submitted by India advocates a new Sustainable Development indicator. In this case, while the note does lay out some principles and attributes of such an indicator, no convincing argument is made out for creating such an indicator. This is especially so considering that to create and maintain such an indicator at the global level will require significant effort, and that the Human Development Index (HDI) process that is already being undertaken by the UN is now attempting to expand the HDI to include many of the aspects of sustainability. For example, the latest HDI Report 2010, apart from the traditional HDI that includes the GDP, education and health criteria, has indices for many other parameters like inequity, gender inequality, multidimensional poverty index, empowerment, sustainability and vulnerability, human security, perceptions of well-being and happiness, civic and community well being, demographics, decent work, enabling environment and access to information and information technology. The note submitted by India does not take cognizance of this effort by the HDI process. We would submit that instead of a new indicator, it would more appropriate to strengthen this expansion of the HDI. If not, at least a (better) argument needs to be put forward for the need for a new indicator. All in all, the submissions by India to the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel for Global Sustainability fall far short of what one would have expected from India. It is not known whether there were any broad based consultations – or even peer reviews of the notes prepared on behalf of the Minister for submission to the Panel – before India’s positions were finalized. It is urged that at least for the next round, such consultations should be carried out. This will help India put up coherent positions, and take the lead in pushing critical aspects like equity and justice in global efforts at sustainability. Shripad Dharmadhikary Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Badwani (M.P.) and Pune (Maharashtra) May 25, 2011


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Low Carbon Growth Report of the MoEF Electricity for All, Ten Ideas towards Turning Rhetoric into Reality, Prayas Energy Group, 2010.