India’s progress towards SDG-7, affordable and clean energy and COVID-19 impacts

The United Nations, in 2015, set up the sustainable development goals as a universal call and blueprint for achieving comprehensive development with social, economic and environmental balance


The United Nations, in 2015, set up the sustainable development goals as a universal call and blueprint for achieving comprehensive development with social, economic and environmental balance. Five years into the journey and a decade left, this time serves good to assess the progress made and to ascertain possible modifications and alternate routes that could yield better fruit.

Access to modern and sustainable energy is fundamental to a nation’s growth and development. Despite this, severaldeveloping countries and India in particular, have been struggling to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energysources and meeting the ever-increasing energy demand.

COVID-19 pandemic bought about an unprecedented shock for the world economy in form of a massive health and humanitarian crisis. It has further affected the developmental objectives of several countries, the impact of which can be glaringly felt on the global goals including SDG-7. Along with creating an influx of new challenges, the pandemic has harshly intensified the sting of the existing ones. Identifying the unpleasant repercussions of this pandemic on the energy sector and its progress to attaining the 2030 targets are cardinal to planning and devising additional policies.

Access to electricity

SDG target 7.1 aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030. India’s journey so far has been remarkable in achieving near-universal access to electricity in the last one decade. As per the Saubhagya dashboard, 99.9% per cent of rural households in India have been electrified and less than 20,000 households lack electricity access as of March 2019, but as per NSS-76, more than 6 per cent households in rural areas and 1 per cent households in urban areas had no access to electricity till December 2018. Majority of the states have above 97 per cent access, but larger states such as Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha still lag behind the national average. Rural areas of Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand are most deprived with 80 and 85 per cent access to electricity respectively.

According to NFHS-4, in 2015-16, Bihar ranked at the bottom of all states with just 60 per cent of its households having access to electricity. Since then, it has made significant progress in expanding its electricity access to near-universal coverage in the last three years. But despite attaining near-universal electrification for the majority of states, securing continuous and quality supply of electricity to remote villages and poorest households still remains a mighty concern.

Access to clean fuel

Compared to electricity access, larger variations can be observed in the access of cleanfuel among the Indian states.Meghalaya, West Bengal, and EAG states excluding Uttarakhand still lag in providing universal access to clean cooking fuels, whereevery second households have no access to clean cooking fuels.A significantly low national average portrays the lack of access to clean cooking fuels posing a core developmental and health challenge. Even Kerala despite high living standards has witnessed glaringly low progress in this aspect. Also, as per NSS-76, there exists a blatant country wide rural-urban divide in the access of clean fuel.

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On average, the beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) go for only 3.1 cylinder refills in a year. For the year 2019-2020, around 4.14 crore families never opted for a refill of more than three cylinders. Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan fair the worst in this regard. According to the information stated at the Rajya Sabha recently, since the beginning of the new financial year in April till August 2020, around 1.84 crore families refilled their LPG cylinders only once. This information comes in when the government claimed of providing free cylinders among the poor since the COVID-19 lockdown.

Hence, the challenge further remains to not only increase the access of cleaner fuels to households but to increase the overall consumption per household. Access to cleaner cooking fuels is rather a multi-dimensional issue both in characteristics and implications. The deficiency in access manifests in several forms such as poor health, unequal rural development, poverty, inferior opportunities and a threat to the environment. The stakeholders involved must further consider safety, fuel availability, affordability and quality.

Towards renewable energy

The energy productions of all type contributes for about 70 per cent of CO2 emissions across the globe. Energy-related CO2 emissions grew 1.7 per cent in 2018 to reach a historic high of 33.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide globally. It was the highest rate of growth since 2013, and 70 per cent higher than the average increase since 2010.However, the global energy demand in the first quarter of 2020 declined by 3.8 percent relative to the first quarter of 2019, resulting to 5 per cent lower CO2  emissions as well. But this seemingly desirablechange, mainly caused by national lockdowns, may not continue for more than a few months.

To sustainably move towards a better future, it is now essential that we cope with our energy needs, giving due consideration to the environment that has been long neglected and continues to be. The energy transition from conventional to renewable sources is the biggest need of the hour. Owing to this, target 7.2 aims to increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

Amongst the BRICS nations, Brazil has been leading the way in the share of renewable energy from its total energy mix, drawing advantage from its high potential of electricity production from wind and solar energy sources. India’s share of renewable energy in its final energy consumption stands at 32.2 per cent as of 2017, suffering a decline since the past many years. Even though India’s share of renewable energy is in comparison higher than countries like Russia, USA, China, Japan and Europe, the decline in this share must be controlled. Whereas for countries mentioned above able to sustain the share of renewables in their total energy mix, intense efforts of increasing that share must be realised too.

Energy Statistics 2020 has
reported substantial growth in renewable energyshare in the total installed electricity generation from 13.4 per cent (2015-2016) to 17.7 per cent (2017-2018), owing to significantinvestments and expansions made in wind and solar power generation. Recent IEA analysis shows that in 2018, India’s investment in solar energy was greater than in all fossil fuel sources of electricity generation together.

Improving energy efficiency

SDG-7 target 7.3 aims to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030. Energy intensity indicates the amount of energy needed to produce one unit of GDP – where a smaller value is always desirable pointing towards greater energy efficiency. India has made significant progress in delivering energy efficiency even better than major economies namely China, USA, Russia, several European countries. It has showcased exemplary performance on this front and  achieved energy intensity level of 4.1 MJ/US$  that is even lower than the global average of  54.1 MJ/US$.

 Energy efficiency and increasing share of renewables are fundamental in achieving several other sustainable development goals. Without accelerated clean energy innovation and transition towards renewables, these agenda 2030 seem far-fetched. As the nation faces the grim economic impact of the pandemic, energy efficiency offers several opportunities to provide the much-needed boost to the economy in the form of employment generation and so on. Although a great deal of uncertainty exists with regard to SDG-7.

COVID-19 impacts

The pandemic has enhanced the need for domestic manufacturing to meet our energy requirements instead of depending on imports. We have been highly reliant on China for its solar imports, and the repercussions of this was felt during the lockdown, affecting renewable projects under construction. India’s renewable energy trajectory will highly depend on initiatives and policies the government takes up during and after COVID-19, to meet the 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030.

The energy demand will show signs of recovery with the unlock measures taken, but careful and wise decisions regarding India’s energy transition are mandatory. Over focus on domestic coal mining and thermal power, policies are likely to compromise not only the environmental safeguards but even the energy transition prospects. The renewable industry seeks gains after years of gradual and increasing investments in innovation and capacity building.

Dwindling investments by buyers due to higher costs associated with renewable energy or reduced confidence in committing to new projects could potentially disrupt the meeting of these goals. On to the bright side, there was an increase in the share of renewable power generation for the months in lockdown as compared to previous years, owing to a ‘must run’ status given to them by the government offering assurance of the government’s will towards energy transition.

The IEA 2020 report stated that companies developing clean energy innovation are likely to receive reductions in R&D budgets. The economic recovery plans being developed must provide opportunities that support clean energy jobs and accelerate technological progress. A recent CEEW analysis stated that 10 GW of additional integrated solar cell and module manufacturing could create 26,000 jobs. On the contrary, a ‘just’ energy transition is principle to ensure that India navigates its way through these difficult times prioritizing equity and welfare of its people.

Though the coal industry has its grave and dark side, it has been a source of government revenue for jobs and public services for years, which cannot merely be replaced by the renewable industry. Hence, this time serves as an excellent opportunity to start conversations of a just energy transition, that will eventually pave the way for India to recover sustainably from the bondage of problems we have been facing for years.

Nand Lal Mishra, Rachel Gaikwad, Prarthana Verma, Aniket Chatterjee, Mishika Sharma

Rachel Gaikwad and Nand Lal Mishra are research graduates from International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.Prarthana Verma is pursuing Master’s degree in Economics at NMIMS, Mumbai.Aniket Chatterjee is pursuing Master’s degree in Financial Economics at Hyderabad University.Mishika Sharma is pursuing BA Economics at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi.

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India’s progress towardsSDG-7, affordable and clean energy and COVID-19 impacts
The United Nations, in 2015, set up the sustainable development goals as a universal call and blueprint for achieving comprehensive development with social, economic and environmental balance
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