Why India needs a ‘Just Energy Transition’

Net zero emission is a worthy goal, but implications of transition to green energy for a variety of people must be addressed to ensure justice and equity

Saksham Misra | November 12, 2021


#Climate change   #COP26   #green energy   #GHG emissions   #justice   #equity  


India has made overhauling commitment in the ongoing COP 26 at Glasgow, where it sets the deadline for becoming net zero emitter by 2070. This shows India’s resolute approach for combating climate change effects and sets an example for its developing counterpart. I often call it the “utopia of net zero emission”, and it is a fairly complex task to execute especially for India, which is one among the rapidly growing economies of world. This needs strategic transitioning of energy systems from fossil fuel-centred to cleaner and sustainable technologies. India has to decommission or replace the existing energy systems, which are mostly coal-based, with cleaner ones.

This process of energy transition involves two major forms of costs, firstly, the financial cost which is majorly in the form of investments and second is the social cost which is often ignored especially in Indian context. Energy transition is not just about replacing the machines and technologies; it involves transitioning the lives of people. It may have ever-lasting effects on the society, which can be positive and negative as well. The transitioning of energy systems can affect the employments of workers employed in the carbon-based industries. Also it can affect the development of coal-rich states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in terms of infrastructure and job opportunities for local people. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the social costs of the so called “net zero emission” must be mitigated, controlled and shared equally by the people of India.

Many reports have predicted that the India’s energy transition will create millions of job opportunities and revenue for investors. But I am cynical about the pattern of distribution of these benefits among the different strata of Indian society. So if I may put it candidly then, what if India’s energy transition carry forward the legacy of unequal distribution of benefits and costs among haves and havenots? What if this transition unfolds into havoc for workers of carbon-based industries who may get jobless and left out due to policy measures? What if the remote villages of India never light up with clean electricity? What if the prices of electric cars and transport are not within the reach of Indian middle class who comprises the major chunk of its population? There are so many “what-ifs” and down the line these highlight the bigger question: Whether India’s transition to clean energy will be a “just energy transition”?

The qualifier “just” reflects upon the nature of energy transition which should be inclusive, enduring and sustainable. In a just energy transition the approach must be society-centric and decisions must be made considering their socio-economic implications for the life of people. The task of transitioning the energy system involves the question of just and unjust. Therefore, policymakers must develop models of distribution of costs and benefits of this transition among people. I have highlighted three key measures which can ensure just energy transition in Indian context:

1. Establishment of a dedicated body to govern the execution of energy transition programme. This is already in practice; Scotland has recently established the Just Energy Transition Commission  to execute the programme. We need such a specialised body to act as a watchdog for controlling the socio-economic implications of transition. This body must have pluralistic composition including the representatives from private and public bodies, civil societies, academicians and technocrats.

2. A corpus fund needs to be allocated for financing the activities for ensuring just transition. This includes insurance covers, compensations for jobless workers, relocation of affected people and building necessary infrastructures. A social security net is really important for mitigating the implications of transitions especially in context of informally employed labourers in carbon-based industries. This corpus fund can receive contributions in form of CSR compliances by the companies which are engaged in carbon-based activities and even from those which are transitioning to non-carbon activities.

3.  Allowing more investment inflow in labour intensive activities so as to re-employ the jobless workforces and ensure their survival. Strong and resilient grid networks need to develop to ensure supply of clean electricity to rural areas. Development of decentralised energy systems like rooftop solar plants should be encouraged. The inclusion of rural India in this energy transition is one big challenge for policymakers.

This piece is my humble attempt to bring in light the discourse on Just Energy Transition in context of India. Unfortunately, we are beating the drum for net zero emission and ignoring the aspect of justice. I argue that justice is still most valued virtue that fetches legitimacy and social acceptance to the actions of governments. The transitioning of energy systems requires structural changes in the Indian society and, therefore, I argue that it must be executed in a just manner.

Mishra is Assistant Professor of Law at the Indore Institute of Law.

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