Visiting Scholar Highlights India’s Conflicting Priorities of Development and Climate

Is India a power or an emerging economy? Given what’s at stake, it’s important for the world.

On November 8, the air quality in New Delhi India hit toxic rock bottom. The concentration of airborne particulate matter—an opaque brew including petrol and diesel exhaust, fumes from biomass burning, and windblown ash from crop fires to the city’s west—reached the point where the very act of breathing was as detrimental to a person’s health as smoking 50 cigarettes a day. The experience, and its immediate impact on the lives of New Delhi’s population, is documented in a blog post by the Kleinman Center’s Oscar Serpell, who recently returned from the city.

Urban Migration Drives Energy Demand

New Delhi’s extreme air pollution highlights the larger challenge that India faces in balancing environmental quality with the urgent need to lift hundreds of millions of its citizens from poverty. The country is in the midst of urbanization of breathtaking scale and speed. Some 200 million rural Indians will move to cities by 2030. By some estimates, India’s already sprawling built environment will triple in size to accommodate the new arrivals, who will demand more energy for transportation, appliances, and air conditioning.

Growth will further challenge local air quality, and increase the carbon emissions that are already contributing to record droughts that have made parts of India’s south “nearly uninhabitable.”

Yet, in the face of this dire environmental outlook, Radhika Khosla, a New Delhi native and recent visiting scholar to the Kleinman Center, sees the rare opportunity to substantially limit the future growth of India’s carbon footprint. Khosla, a fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a University of Chicago-trained geophysicist, is working to develop policies that balance India’s growing energy demand and its environmental impact.

“India has the highest risk of lock-in for any country right now,” Khosla says, referring to the fact that most decisions on India’s future urban form have yet to be made. The development choices India makes today will shape energy demand far into the future.

“I examine this in terms of the energy system and demand in 2030,” Khosla says. “We’re dealing with an emerging economy with lots of uncertainty, and what this uncertainty brings is an opportunity to make the energy future potentially manageable.  The residential sector is growing very quickly, and a large part of the energy demand emanates from there.”

“There are interventions to be made at the time of building construction,” she says. Policies governing building design and appliance efficiency can be set. Neighborhoods can be arranged to ease access to public transportation and minimize the need for cars.

India’s Outsized Carbon Challenge

Managing demand will be crucial given the reality of India’s reliance on coal to generate electricity, which is bound to continue for the foreseeable future. Per its Paris Climate Accord commitment, India aims to develop 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by the year 2022. If India reaches this goal, it will have displaced just 5% of its total greenhouse gas emissions— equivalent to the same order of magnitude as South Africa’s entire pledged 2030 emissions—attesting to the enormity of the climate challenge the country faces.

Yet Khosla argues that efforts to paint India as a climate bogeyman are ill-directed.

“The changes going on in India need to be juxtaposed with the fact that this is a really poor country. India’s GDP per capita is much closer to that of Bangladesh, but in terms of total carbon emissions it ranks with Germany, the U.S., and China,” she says.  She notes that India’s per-capita carbon emissions will be far below those of the West, even in 2030.

 “That’s the dilemma—is India a power or an emerging economy? Given what’s at stake, it’s important for the world.”

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Battling Climate Change

Khosla is attracted to complex problems that require interdisciplinary solutions. “To solve the problems of energy and climate change, an understanding of qualitative and quantitative issues is essential,” she says.

She earned an undergraduate and master’s degree in atmospheric sciences from the University of Oxford. Her next move took her to the University of Chicago to earn a doctorate in geophysical sciences, where she had the opportunity to engage her interest in bridging science and policy. In the years following graduation Khosla worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, to understand the policy implications of earth sciences. “I knew the science, but not how decisions get made and implemented.”

Her next professional move was to New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research. “I found my sweet spot there—academic research with a deep policy focus,” she says. “The independence of research is very valuable, which is why I like working in an academic setting.”

Resource Constraints Limit Climate Action

Khosla is careful to frame India’s efforts to fight local air pollution and climate change against the country’s formidable constraints, ranging from limited finances to invest in clean energy technology to a “system of environmental laws and enforcement of laws that are much weaker than ideal.”

Another challenge is the fact that climate change is not the first priority for much of India’s urban population. “Electricity, crime, health care, and local air pollution are the things that are mobilizing local politics.”

Nevertheless, climate concerns are rising, as is the awareness that other development priorities are closely related. “Officials go to local meetings on climate change, and the focus turns very quickly to its linkages to more local environmental, development and health issues.”

Khosla talks in depth about India’s dual challenges of development and climate in her interview on the Kleinman Center’s Energy Policy Now podcast.