Whither Ecological Limits? Jairam Ramesh, Economic Growth & Energy Expansion

jairam ramesh photo

Photo: Mat McDermott

India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh (above, talking with students at one of the opening events of World Environment Day 2011) has a lot to be praised for. So much so that we awarded him a Best of Green award last year, mostly for his statements and actions prior to COP15. And so far at WED he's mostly lived up to that reputation.

But when it comes to the language he uses to talking about economic growth and energy use, I have to say that he goes off the rails a bit. Here's what concerns me: At Delhi Haat yesterday evening, Ramesh was asked by a reporter--well, it wasn't so much a question as a statement--about what he thought about biogas and other distributed energy production.

He was blunt, saying that we should give up "romantic notions" like India's 1.2 billion people will get their energy from cow dung. What India needs, Ramesh countered, is a more extensive national electric grid and more coal, nuclear power, natural gas, solar power, wind power. He actively dismissed the notion of distributed power. He also kept insisting that India needed more and more economic growth.

Let's unpack those statements.

First of all, with no ambiguity, the situation in regards to energy usage, resource usage, and energy poverty in India creates a far different starting position than exists elsewhere in the world. As measured by ecological footprint, India can probably double its per capita ecological footprint and that level of resource consumption could still be extended equitably to everyone on the planet--while at the same time radically improving the quality of life and standard of living of the majority of its people. Keep in mind, that from the perspective of what's considered normal resource consumption in the United States, that would mean a gigantic reduction. Even China's tiny-by-US-standards eco-footprint is just above what is globally sustainable--and that is quite higher than that of India.

But even then, talking about rapid and ever expanding economic growth in India, without even hinting that there might be a limit to that at some point, is wrapped in problems.

Sure, India should and must develop its economy so that human development can improve there (here as I write this...). I one hundred percent agree with that statement. But by using the words 'economic growth' that implies expanded ecological footprint--which cannot be expanded indefinitely in India, just as it cannot be expanded indefinitely anywhere on a finite planet where ecological limits are already being reached.

Without embedding the notion of ecological limit, as well as personal and communal limits, into economic thinking and policy India (as is every nation right now) is setting itself and ourselves up for further resource conflict and ecological collapse, either locally, globally, or both.

Perhaps the Minister recognizes this, but the language was omitted from his statements throughout the day.

Then there's energy use. India needs to expand its use of energy in per capita terms, indeed. But as UNEP executive director Achim Steiner aptly put it, speaking just before Ramesh at Delhi Haat, renewable energy only gets cheaper over time while fossil fuels only get more expensive. As India needs a massive build out of energy infrastructure, it makes no sense in the long term to make that investment in coal, in nuclear. These are archaic, end of life technologies which are only going to get more expensive.

It makes neither financial, social, nor environmental sense to advocate continued expansion of these in 2011. Not in India, nor China, nor anywhere else.

If you're starting from the comparatively clean slate that India has, do it right. Do it with renewables, both tied to the grid and through distributed generation at the village level. Do it with solar panels on roofs and in concentrated solar power plants. Do it with grid-tied wind farms. Do it with biogas on farms and in rural areas. Do it with grid-tied geothermal where appropriate and do it with hydropower if that can be done in a low-impact way. Do it with biofuels if they can be produced from waste products and not crops. Expanding the grid has its place, but equally (if not more so in much of rural India) so does distributed generation.

It is not romantic thinking to advocate for these in a nation of 1.2 billion (and growing) people. It is eminently rational, realistic thinking.

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