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Is India missing the green hydrogen bus?

NewsIs India missing the green hydrogen bus?

As India struggles to put wind and solar farms and dabbles with electric vehicles, the world is securely and surely moving onto an era of green hydrogen.


New Delhi: There is today little ambiguity about the empiricism of changing climates the world over. From increased frequencies of intense extreme events to melting ice and sea-level changes, the ramifications of a warming world are palpable. For poorer nations such as India, the rapidity of these changes herald unprecedented hardship, first for those living in fragile environments—leaving a trail of ghost settlements; cascading into the lives of people who reside in endowed and perhaps more resilient regions. As per a 2018 World Bank report, a business as usual scenario could potentially lead to half of the South Asian regions becoming moderate to severe climate change hotspots, affecting over 800 million people. In contrast, the report adds, this vulnerability can be substantively reduced to 375 million if global emissions are halved through collective action.
This, of course, is not easy.
As far as India is concerned, the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on 1 November 2021, saw a 2070 net-zero pledge from the nation. The only other country that has a 2070 target under consideration is Indonesia, while most of the high carbon-emitting nations bind themselves by law and policy to touch the net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050 or before (China at 2060).
Being the third-largest global emitter of CO2, India’s near 20-year lag in meeting the target can perhaps skew efforts to stabilise global temperatures.
Although the well-promoted net-zero discourse needs to integrate the largely unaddressed issue of de-carbonisation, its current arrangement does help strategise time-specific low-carbon pathways. For India a 2070 target, though distant, may need to top the nations’ political distractions in order to make meaningful interventions for climate-vulnerable life and livelihood choices.
India’s energy mix is largely coal dominant—not likely to change anytime soon, despite its huge renewable push (as of September 2021, thermal power—power generated from burning coal, gas and petroleum—comprised 60% of India’s installed capacity in power generation with coal accounting for nearly 50%).
A 2030 renewables target has been upwardly revised to 500 GW from 450 GW and carbon intensity has been pledged to be reduced by 45% within the decade. Considering that in the six years since the Paris Agreement, India was able to add 65.06 GW renewable capacity (as of September 2021, wind capacity was 39.87 and solar stood at 46.28 GW, representing about 38% of the overall installed power capacity), it would be interesting to see India add about 400 GW in mere nine years.
As India struggles to put wind and solar farms and dabbles with electric vehicles, the world is securely and surely moving onto an era of green hydrogen. Nations such as Japan, China, Canada, France, Australia, Norway, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Chile, and Finland, as well as the European Union have already begun to use hydrogen for their petrochemicals and fertilisers industries. Although the majority of the hydrogen produced at present is “grey”, made from natural gas, data from International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that the use of solar, wind or other green power sources to produce “green hydrogen” is highly feasible. Japan and China have accelerated their investments in green hydrogen to help the nation’s transition to a low-carbon economy. China in fact has inked a 2021-2025 trajectory for its hydrogen industry as one of China’s six top industries of the future.
Opposed to nations that are looking towards transitioning their internal economies, there are others that are looking towards global export of green hydrogen. Chile, Argentina and Paraguay are a few such countries that are geographically endowed with cold deserts that are high-efficiency renewable energy generation regions. Such is the locational advantage of this area that it has been touted as the “new Saudi” of green energy. In years to come, the Magallanes and the Chilean Antarctic region, with overlapping (unrecognized) claims with the Argentine and British Antarctic territories, may well become a hotspot for geopolitical manoeuvring around green hydrogen.
Closer home, however, yet another cold, dry and windy region offers a similar opportunity—the Tibetan plateau (Fig 1). China’s successful 850 MW Longyangxia Dam solar facility in the area should be reason enough for India to identify Ladakh as the most promising location for establishing green hydrogen facilities. Juxtaposed however are feeble efforts by India’s Nav Ratna companies such as NTPC to line up tenders this year to procure fuel cell buses for Ladakh and place a 1.25 MW solar power plant to produce green hydrogen in the future. Other public sector units too, such as GAIL and Indian Oil are at a nascent stage of hydrogen generation at various locations in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a National Hydrogen Mission in August 2021, a welcome recognition of the need to transition towards a green hydrogen pathway. Yet the R&D allocation of a meagre Rs 25 crore in the Union Budget 2021-2022 was confounding. To put things in perspective, an exploratory Deep Ocean Mission with manned underwater submersibles (as grandiose as India’s space programme) that envisages mining at depths of 6,000 m in the distant future is allocated Rs 4,000 crore, while a green hydrogen target that is near achievable, helping the nation transition into low-carbon energy matrix earlier, is handed a paltry allocation. A net-zero transition strategy for the entire spectrum of the energy sector, modelling both public and private enterprise, is therefore imperative.
It would be prudent for us to realise that with every fraction of upward creeping global temperatures, a larger amount of water vapour would be held in the atmosphere. This is, and would more devastatingly in the future, cause life-threatening extreme events.
Not only would South Asia incur huge losses in agriculture with rising plant, animal and human disease burdens, but it would also lead to large scale climate refugees and crippling uncertainties. If the new flick “Don’t Look Up” is anything to go by, the onus of sensitising the populace about intangible future events lies with the political dispensation of the day, who tragically driven by profiteering industry, lead the world to a horrific and dark end. As for India, so far removed are we from aspirationalising climate change targets that it’s finding a place in the myriad manifestoes of major political parties would be a reason enough to rejoice.

The author is President, Science and Geopolitics of Himalaya-Arctic-Antarctica (SaGHAA), a New Delhi based think tank. @EditorSulagna

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