Diluting Environmental Norms May Derail India’s Ambitious Climate Goals

Mumbai: In 2021, India committed to achieving net zero by 2070, but the dichotomy between the ambitious target and the steps taken on the ground is hard to miss. The government has not only diluted environmental laws that regulate erring units but also devised plans to divert forest land to non-forest users.

During this period, India announced other policy measures such as the National Hydrogen Mission for clean energy and the global solar Green Grids initiative to transition away from coal. However, amid the renewed stress on ramping up climate action, the Indian government also amended the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 to allow non-forest use of the land for “strategic” projects, stripped away the ecological protection of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and pushed palm oil cultivation in north east India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

This happened in the backdrop of two major climate events: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6)–the first after 2013–which presented a grim forecast on how global warming has impacted and will impact us in the near future; and countries across the world met for the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) in November, where they adopted the Glasgow Climate Pact to control global temperature rise.

As the year comes to a close, we take a look at India’s major energy, climate and environment policies and actions this year.

Renewed push to renewable energy

Renewable energy has been one of the fastest-growing sectors in India in recent years as successive governments have prioritised it, we reported in August 2021. Primary among the reasons is the quest for energy security because most of the conventional energy sources in India are either imported or of poor quality.

India had set a target of 175 gigawatt (GW) of renewable capacity by year 2022 and 450 GW by 2030, under the Paris Agreement in 2015. By October 2021, India had already surpassed 100 GW capacity, according to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). By October 2021, 39% of India’s installed power capacity came from non-fossil sources as against a target of 40% by 2022.

In India, solar tariffs have also fallen dramatically; this is because the government has been awarding large projects through reverse auctions (where buyers request for goods and services and sellers bid for the prices at which they are willing to sell), which has resulted in global investors setting up very large projects at very low tariffs. Many industrial and commercial establishments in India also find RE power, especially solar, cheaper than the cost of sourcing power from a distribution company (DISCOM), as we reported in August 2021.

While India is aggressively pushing large-scale clean energy projects–mainly wind and solar–these are leading to conflicts as rights of communities are not recognised over common lands used for renewable projects. Experts suggest that conflicts could grow as India pushes more clean energy projects such as large solar parks.

Such conflicts could be reduced if India pushes for rooftop solar energy. But the high cost of rooftop solar systems and the patchy implementation of its subsidy schemes are holding the sector back, we reported in July 2021.

Further, at the COP26, India raised the renewable energy targets to 500 GW by 2030 from the earlier target for 450 GW. India, along with the United Kingdom, launched an ambitious renewables venture called Green Grids Initiative–One Sun One World One Grid, a global solar grid linking 140 countries. While energy experts agree with the initiative’s premise and appreciate its scale, they question its feasibility, because of geopolitics and the cost of undersea cables, we reported in October 2021.

In August 2021, the prime minister also announced the National Hydrogen Mission to support India’s energy transition goals. Green hydrogen is produced using renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The use of green hydrogen will help India decarbonise sectors such as shipping and transportation where it can be used as a fuel, as well as in manufacturing industries such as steel and chemicals where it can be used as a raw material. It could also replace fossil fuels in power generation and be used to store renewable energy but only if it is commercially viable and as economically competitive as traditionally used fossil-based grey hydrogen, we reported in September 2021.

About 70% of India’s energy demand is met by two fossil fuels–coal (44%) and oil (25%). However, at the COP26, India committed to achieving a net zero target by 2070, which means India will have to significantly reduce its coal and oil reliance over the next decades.

But, at the same time, India also issued a series of notifications that give polluting units “a license to pollute”, according to a briefing note by the Centre for Science and Environment. In April 2021, through a notification, the environment ministry extended the timelines to comply with emission norms for a majority of coal-based power plants in India from 2022 to 2025. This means that 72% of coal-based power plants will continue to pollute for another two-three years.

Further, in June 2021, the Central Electricity Authority called for extending the deadline for plants to 2035 to adopt emission norms set in 2015. “Given the 2070 net zero target, India will have to phase out coal by 2035; so, if they plan to give concessions to thermal plants until 2035, when will they phase out,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary, analyst at the research organisation Manthan Adhyayan Kendra.

In April 2021, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued a notification on 100% utilisation of ash generated by coal and lignite-based thermal power plants in an eco-friendly manner and introduced a fine for non-compliance. Over the last two decades, the environment ministry has been issuing similar notifications on the disposal and utilisation of fly ash, but over 50% of industries remain non-compliant, mostly dumping the ash in the open, in water bodies and in unlined and uncovered pits, we reported in August 2021.

Environment laws diluted

In October, the environment ministry proposed an amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, permitting non-forest activities–cultivation, construction, mining–in private forest land and state or Union government-notified forest land, where the owner can be any private or public sector entity. The proposed amendment deviates from the mandate to preserve forest by making exemptions to several developmental projects, environmentalists say.

Forests are one of the critical elements in the fight against climate change. Apart from sustaining terrestrial biodiversity and livelihoods, forests significantly absorb the carbon dioxide released into the air. The Forest Act is the apex law in India to prevent deforestation, by prohibiting tree felling and other non-forestry activities on forest land without the permission of the Union or state governments.

In March 2021, the central government issued an amendment diluting the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) framework of 2006, by exempting all projects from public hearing whose environmental clearance had expired and therefore had to apply afresh. According to the notification, the prior environmental clearance for a project was granted for a maximum period of 10 years, and in some cases five years. The projects which failed to complete within the granted time period had to undergo all the processes afresh, including conducting public hearing. However, as per the new amendment, the earlier compulsion of conducting public hearing was done away with if minimum 50% of the project had been implemented. The 2006 notification has undergone a total of 15 alterations until February 2020.

In July 2021, the environment ministry further issued new standard operating procedures (SOPs) for dealing with cases of industrial projects that are operating without prior environmental clearance under the Environment Impact Notification (EIA), 2006. But these provisions will not act as a deterrent against violations of environment norms, defeating the purpose of prior environmental clearances mandated by the EIA 2006, an IndiaSpend investigation found in August.

On November 1, MoEF&CC issued a gazette notification seeking an amendment to India’s Coastal Regulation (CRZ) Notification, 2019, to exempt oil and natural gas exploration and development activities from obtaining mandatory prior clearances.

Andaman forests denotified, push to palm oil

The government is planning to set up big commercial, tourism and shipping projects in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that would strip the protection that the ecologically and ethnically significant archipelago enjoys, we reported in April 2021.

Earlier, in January, the MoEFCC amended the Island Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2019, to move Great Nicobar from Group I of islands with a 200-metre buffer from the high-tide line to Group II with 100 metres’ buffer.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprise 836 islands with a total geographical area of about 8,249 square kilometres, 0.25% of the total geographical area of India. Of the 8,249 sq km, over 80% of the land (6,751 sq km) is recorded as forest land, which includes nine national parks, 96 wildlife sanctuaries and one biosphere reserve.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands have seen a marginal rise in forest cover of 0.28% between 2011 and 2019, but have lost their moderately dense forests by 71%, or 1,732 sq km, a November 2021 Factchecker study found.

In August 2021, the Union cabinet approved an outlay of Rs 11,040 crore for a proposal to expand palm oil production in India, towards its ultimate goal to have 1 million hectare of land under palm cultivation and becoming atmanirbhar, or ‘self-sufficient’, in oil. The scheme has identified India’s northeast region and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as focus areas, which has raised concerns among environmentalists. Palm oil bears a significant threat to the water table of specific areas it is cultivated in, as seen in the major palm oil cultivating countries in southeast Asia.

When it comes to air pollution, Northern India, again, saw a deterioration in air quality with the onset of winter. Our report shows that the number of air quality monitors in India per million people is much less compared to compatible countries.

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