Picture of aerial view of well-lit city at night.

India is reinventing its energy strategy—and the climate may depend on it

Can the nation meet the demands of a booming middle class while curbing carbon emissions? The planet's future will hinge on the answer.

An illuminated Mumbai sprawls toward the horizon in this view from India’s tallest residential building, a 76-story luxury tower. The vibrant city reflects the ambitions of the growing middle class, which is placing more demands on the country’s electrical grid.

On a warm and humid morning in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh last September, Chetan Singh Solanki stepped off a bus he’d been living in for the past 10 months and walked into a high school auditorium in the small town of Raisen, where 200 students, teachers, and officials had gathered to hear him speak.

A solar energy professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Mumbai, Solanki is a slender man in his mid-40s with a boyish appearance and a quick smile that are assets for the mission he’s on. In late 2020 he took a leave to make an 11-year road trip around India to inspire action to fight climate change. Solanki’s vehicle is a mobile demonstration of the utility of renewable energy: Solar panels generate enough electricity to run the lights, fans, computers, stove, and television on board. After being garlanded and welcomed on the stage, Solanki made an unusual request.

“I see 15 ceiling fans in this room. It’s the middle of the day, there’s so much sunlight outside, yet we have so many lights on in here,” he said. “Do we really need all of these fans and lights? Let’s turn some of them off and see if we’ll be OK with it.”

A couple of students got up to do what he asked. “Leave some of them on, though!” Solanki joked when one student got carried away.

With half the lights and fans switched off, the auditorium felt warmer and darker. But, Solanki asked, did it really matter all that much? “We can see one another just fine, which means there’s sufficient light in this room,” he said. “Is anyone feeling distressed because some fans have been turned off? Thinking, Oh God, how am I going to make it?” The audience laughed.

The point Solanki was making is one of two that he hopes will persuade Indians to achieve what he calls Energy Swaraj, or energy self-reliance. One idea is to save energy directly by reducing usage and indirectly by consuming less stuff. The other is to generate electricity locally from renewable resources such as the sun, so every town becomes self-sufficient. During the next decade, India’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase steeply as the economy expands and the population grows to 1.5 billion, surpassing China’s population.

“Humankind’s lust for never ending economic growth is rapidly changing the planet’s climate,” he warned. “Our arrogance makes us think we can keep increasing consumption without consequence. But the world has finite resources. Unless we change our ways, future generations will have to endure great suffering.”

Solanki grew up in a small village and was the first in his family to get a college degree. At IIT, he founded a center for solar cell technology. Aiming to kick-start a grassroots solar revolution, he started a nonprofit called the Energy Swaraj Foundation, which trains rural women to assemble and sell solar lamps and rooftop panels. Three years ago he started thinking about how Mohandas Gandhi—whom Solanki idolizes—might have responded to the climate crisis. That’s how he came up with the road trip: He’s hoping to spark a mass movement, just as Gandhi did when he led a historic 25-day, 241-mile march during India’s freedom struggle against British rule.

Solanki’s exhortation to live simply may seem surprising in a country with such low per capita consumption. On average, Indians use goods and services worth about a thousand dollars a year—one-fortieth of what Americans do. Yet Solanki’s approach could be critical to India’s efforts to reduce its contribution to global warming. At the country’s current rate of economic growth, the middle class is expected to double by 2030, to 800 million. This will be a welcome milestone for India because it will lift many out of poverty. But it also will mean a tsunami of new consumers who will want spacious homes and air conditioners and appliances and cars, significantly increasing the country’s carbon footprint.

On August 15, India will celebrate 75 years of independence. The country has made monumental progress during that period: achieving self-sufficiency in food production, creating a space program that launched an orbiter to Mars, supplying vaccines to about a hundred countries, and transforming into a technological powerhouse and the sixth largest economy in the world.

Now, as an emerging world power, India is stepping up to tackle climate change. With the creation of 45 solar parks; a plan to have 40 percent of buses, 30 percent of private cars, and 80 percent of two- and three-wheelers go electric by 2030; and a mission to become a global leader in the production of hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels, the country is making strides toward greening its future—and the world’s.

Even so, India faces more daunting challenges than any other country. The rapid expansion of its middle class will drive up energy consumption during the next two decades more than anywhere else. To meet the demand, India likely will remain heavily dependent on coal—an abundant resource—for many years while continuing to increase its petroleum imports. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The planet’s future hinges, in many ways, on how India navigates the path ahead, balancing its pursuit of strong economic growth with the need to curb emissions.

India is the fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China, the United States, and the European Union. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2070—20 years past the deadline set by the U.S. and 10 years later than China’s. India also has promised to reduce its emissions intensity—the volume of emissions per unit of gross domestic product—before the end of the decade, to 45 percent lower than it was in 2005. The country’s total emissions, however, are predicted to keep rising until about 2045.

The long horizon to get to net zero and the insistence on using emissions intensity, rather than emissions, to track progress disappointed some environmental activists, but Indian officials say the country is doing more than its fair share within the constraints of a developing nation. Until about 15 years ago, India’s stance, still common among developing countries, was that climate change needed to be tackled by industrialized nations, such as the U.S., because they had been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere long before India had much of a carbon footprint. The disparity in the share of responsibility for the problem is hard to miss. All one needs to do is compare lifestyles in the West, where personal car ownership, air-conditioned homes, and other energy-intensive comforts are the norm, with the way that most Indians live, even today—in a state of extreme austerity.

As the changing climate sparked increasing alarm in the mid-2000s, India became more willing to search for solutions. “There was a growing feeling that we need to go beyond ascribing blame,” says R.R. Rashmi, a former bureaucrat who represented India in climate negotiations for many years and is now a fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi. “It’s a global problem; everybody must share the burden.”

India has plenty of reasons to be worried. The country’s 4,670-mile coastline is under threat from sea-level rise, especially the low-lying eastern coast, which could be calamitous for tens of millions of people. This spring, after the hottest March on record, an extended heat wave sent temperatures soaring above 100 degrees across much of the country, withering crops in the field. Droughts also are becoming more severe. Cyclones are lashing the coasts with increasing fury, flooding urban areas.

“A deep depression may take the form of a cyclonic storm, a cyclonic storm may become a severe cyclonic storm, and a severe one may turn into a very severe cyclonic storm,” says Suruchi Bhadwal, a researcher at TERI. “So the nature of the events is changing.”

India’s vulnerability to climate change is a prime motivation for the country’s policymakers to act, but concern over India’s energy security—the country will spend a hundred billion dollars this year on oil imports—is another driver.

“India is really starting well,” says Niklas Höhne, a researcher at the NewClimate Institute in Germany, citing, in particular, the expansion of renewable energy and the development of transportation systems that don’t rely on fossil fuels. But he points out that not all of India’s steps are in the right direction. The country relies on 285 coal-fired plants—and plans to build 48 more by the end of the decade.

To try to understand India’s dependence on coal, I visited Jharia in the coal-rich eastern state of Jharkhand. Standing on the edge of a 30-foot-deep pit the size of a few football fields, I watched workers load explosives into holes drilled in a far corner. Somebody handed me a hard hat, and a supervisor ordered the charges detonated. The sound echoed across the coal mine. Rocks flew high in the air. A dust cloud billowed over the site of the explosion.

This quarry is new. Miners will blast out several more feet of earth to get to the coal seam. India is opening more mines like this one to meet its growing needs. The choice to continue burning coal, instead of switching to cleaner fuels, is driven by a simple fact: India has enormous coal reserves, nearly a tenth of the world’s total. And yet its production capacity of about 850 million tons a year isn’t enough. The country imports about 200 million tons annually.

After the blast, I walked over to a corrugated metal shed where workers congregate and talked with Ram Madhab Bhattacharjee, a professor of mining at the Indian Institute of Technology in nearby Dhanbad with years of experience in the industry. A soft-spoken man who had helped organize my visit, Bhattacharjee is a member of a government panel studying the future of coal in India. According to the panel’s projections, the country’s demand for coal is expected to reach about 1.4 billion tons by 2035.

“We cannot afford to not increase our production,” Bhattacharjee told me. “Once we get to 1.4 billion tons, we may plateau for five to 10 years and then start declining. But that’ll be by 2050 or so.”

A giant dump truck trundled past us, loaded with rocks and soil. Rubble from mines has left the landscape dotted with hillocks. Bhattacharjee described a conversation he’d had days earlier with a senior official from Coal India, the world’s largest coal producer, who’d told him: “I’m getting so many calls from either the coal secretary or the coal minister or power plants—everybody’s asking for coal, coal, and coal.”

Phasing out coal also is challenging because nearly four million Indians rely on it for their livelihoods. Besides mine workers, thousands of people make a living by scavenging for lumps at mines and lugging sacks of stolen coal on bicycles to sell on the black market for use in homes, restaurants, and factories. “There’s already a lot of unemployment here,” Jitender Singh, a mine worker, told me. “If you end coal production, it will make things worse for this region.”

None of the workers I spoke with, including Singh, knew much about climate change. “I haven’t had any time to watch the news on television,” Rajesh Chauhan, a supervisor, told me. “I work my shift here, then I go home and take care of my family.” Talking with the workers about global warming felt embarrassingly esoteric and far removed from their concerns of everyday living. Some wondered how they would survive if the mines were shut down. Others were more optimistic. “There will always be work to be found,” Chauhan said.

The country needs to prepare for the transition away from coal, says Sandeep Pai, a researcher with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., who is collaborating with policymakers in India to help shape these plans. One imperative is to optimize coal consumption by extracting more energy per unit. Because of their proximity to mines and agreements with India’s coal-producing companies, older power plants have better access to coal than do the newer ones, which utilize it more efficiently.

“When you shut down some of these older plants, your overall coal demand will come down,” Pai says. Places dependent on coal, like Jharkhand, will need to create alternative sources of employment—a challenge facing other parts of the world, such as West Virginia in the U.S. “Some of these states have really good tourism potential,” Pai says. Another idea is to reclaim abandoned mines for agriculture and other purposes—a task that could employ a great many people for years.

India already is moving toward a future in which a large share of its energy will come from the sun, wind, and water. Since 2010, when the Indian government set a modest target of 20 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2022, the amount has grown dramatically. This has been driven by the plummeting cost of photovoltaic cells and a government initiative to create large parks where utility companies are incentivized to build solar plants. India passed the original target of 20 gigawatts four years before the deadline and is in a dash to meet a revised one of 100 gigawatts before the end of the year. India’s current renewable energy capacity is about 151 gigawatts from solar, wind, biomass, and hydroelectric. But last year Modi announced that the country would generate 500 gigawatts by 2030.

In pursuit of this ambitious goal, India is counting on the expansion of solar and wind projects in states such as Rajasthan, two-thirds of which is covered by desert. In the summer, temperatures can soar above 110 degrees. Shimmering heat and strong winds there often force people to stay indoors for hours at a stretch during the day. The conditions are so inhospitable that huge tracts are devoid of human habitation. Subodh Agarwal, the top administrator of a district in the state’s desert region in the 1990s, recalls getting stuck in dust storms. “The roads would disappear under sand,” he says.

Until recently, this foreboding landscape was viewed as a wasteland. But some of it has begun to undergo a remarkable transformation. At a place called Bhadla, a 22-square-mile area has been turned into a sea of blue by row upon row of solar panels. “It’s a color people aren’t used to seeing in the desert,” says Agarwal, who has played a role in this transformation as the former head of the Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation, a government agency that sets aside land and finds investors for solar and wind projects.

The solar park at Bhadla is one of the largest in the world, able to produce about 2.25 gigawatts of electricity—enough to power a million households. Several others have been commissioned in Rajasthan, and more are in development. I toured one near Jaisalmer, a city close to India’s border with Pakistan best known for a magnificent medieval fortress that attracts tourists during the cooler months. An official from the agency and I drove about 40 miles from the city into a flat, sandy expanse sparsely dotted with vegetation.

Entering the park, we drove past thousands of boxes of solar panels stacked one on top of another over an area the size of a city block, waiting to be unpacked and mounted on rows of metal pillars. Several acres already had panels installed. Every few days, the panels need to be hosed down to remove the thick film of dust that accumulates on their surface. Walking between two rows, I heard the whir of a motor tilting the panels a few degrees to adjust to the angle of the sun’s rays as the day progressed. Inside a nearby building, a half dozen engineers were seated in front of computer screens, watching for modules that needed troubleshooting. “Right this minute, we’re producing 167 megawatts of electricity,” an engineer told me, pointing to a graph on his monitor that showed the power output steadily rising since morning. “We’ll hit peak between 12 and one, and then keep going down until sunset.”

One hurdle for India is the dearth of domestic solar cell manufacturing. The panels at the site I visited were entirely made in India, but most solar installations rely on imports from China. Earlier this year, the Indian government announced a $2.6 billion program to accelerate solar equipment manufacturing.

India is counting on large-scale projects, but there’s also the hope embodied by Solanki that Indians themselves will join the solar revolution. Farmers, for example, can take advantage of a new government program allowing them to lease their agricultural land—which previously was restricted to farming—for solar power plants and solar pumps. In sun-rich states such as Rajasthan and Gujarat, homeowners and businesspeople are installing solar modules on their rooftops. And women in rural Rajasthan and Maharashtra, with help from Solanki’s Energy Swaraj Foundation, are starting companies to make solar products.

India’s transportation minister, Nitin Gadkari, a straight-talking politician who seems to have a perpetual smile, showed up earlier this year at parliament, in New Delhi, in a hydrogen-powered car. He was making a point. As he told reporters, the government intends to make the country a leading manufacturer of green hydrogen.

The bulk of hydrogen produced today is derived from fossil fuels. Green hydrogen is made by splitting water through electrolysis, using renewable energy. As a fuel for transportation, it would cut emissions since burning hydrogen produces no greenhouse gases. It also would lower the carbon footprint of industries that need hydrogen to make goods such as fertilizer and steel. And unlike wind and solar, which are intermittent, green hydrogen can be stored for future use, just like fossil fuels.

As the costs of renewable energy and electrolyzers come down, green hydrogen is expected to become cheaper. India wants to reduce its cost 75 percent by 2030, says Amitabh Kant, the CEO of NITI Aayog, the country’s chief planning agency. “India has been a champion of renewable energy. The challenge for it now is to become a champion of the clean molecule—and that is green hydrogen,” he says. The idea is that driving down the price by scaling up production will make it a viable alternative to petroleum—especially for long-haul trucks, ships, and airplanes, which cannot be powered by batteries.

Nearly a quarter of India’s emissions come from industry, which is under increasing regulatory pressure to switch to cleaner fuels and be more energy efficient. The country’s cement manufacturers—second only to the iron and steel industry as a source of emissions, accounting for 8 percent—have become greener. A ton of cement produced in India has a smaller carbon footprint than the global average—the result of recovering more waste heat from flue gases, blending cement with fly ash from coal-fired power plants, and using green alternatives as fuel.

At a cement plant owned by the Dalmia Bharat Group in Ariyalur, Tamil Nadu, the factory’s engineers are using nonbiodegradable municipal garbage along with industrial refuse, such as paint sludge and rubber, as fuel for the kiln, where limestone and clay are heated in the process of making cement. Burning such wastes normally creates toxic smoke, but they can be incinerated at very high temperatures without polluting the atmosphere.

“The energy added by them lowers the energy required to maintain the kiln temperature,” says T.R. Robert, the head of the plant. Using waste has helped the plant cut its coal consumption by 15 percent.

Similarly, other industries, including steel, are accelerating their efforts to improve energy efficiency, prodded by a “perform, achieve, trade” program that allows companies to sell credits earned by exceeding mandated efficiency targets to companies that fall short. The government is especially keen to improve energy efficiency in new homes and commercial buildings, which are being built at a dizzying pace.

“Whatever the country built in the last 40, 50 years, we expect to build 80 percent of that in the next 10 years,” says Abhay Bakre, the head of India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency. “And most of it will be air-conditioned.” A lot of this construction is happening in a hundred cities that the government is upgrading to “smart cities”—by adding new urban areas with energy-efficient buildings and putting in place improved infrastructure, such as better waste management facilities and public transportation.

The government has updated its energy conservation code for new large commercial buildings, and Bakre is optimistic that advances in design and materials will greatly reduce their energy burden. “If you ask an architect to design a building today,” Bakre says, “he’s not going to come up with the same design as 10 years ago. He’ll make better use of natural light; he’ll use better insulation, efficient lighting, efficient air-conditioning, pumps, water services.”

On visits to India over the past two decades, I have seen the growing presence and affluence of its middle class. The changes in lifestyle are visible not just in the shiny malls of big cities, such as Delhi and Mumbai, but also in smaller towns, where narrow streets once filled with bicycles and rickshaws now teem with cars and motorbikes. In Dhanbad I talked with an automobile salesman named P.J. Kumar at a swanky dealership staffed with nattily dressed men and women. He told me that 20 years ago business owners bought most of the cars he sold. “Now government workers and young professionals are easily able to afford cars. The customer base has grown a lot,” he added. Kumar started selling cars three decades ago at what was then Dhanbad’s only dealership. Now there are a dozen.

I began reporting this article by riding along with Chetan Singh Solanki as he journeyed through Madhya Pradesh to spread his mantra of energy self-reliance. After I left him, it was hard not to feel a little guilty about staying in hotels where the rooms were temperature controlled, hot water gushed from showers, and toilets flushed with the force of a miniature cyclone. Such conveniences are unexceptional for travelers in developed countries, but they are only now becoming a part of life for many Indians. When I returned to the United States, I called Solanki to ask if his message to his compatriots about austere living wasn’t overly idealistic and rather unfair when people in affluent nations weren’t being asked to give up their comforts.

He laughed. “If we get into this kind of argument about who needs to reduce consumption first, then doomsday will not be far,” he said. “America could make the counterargument: Fine, we’ll consume less, but your country has too large a population. Why don’t you reduce your number of people?”

His message, though utopian, wasn’t going unnoticed, he insisted. Since we’d met, his foundation had begun offering an online energy literacy program that explains the environmental costs of fossil fuels and suggests ways of reducing one’s carbon footprint. At a recent event, a man who’d taken the course came on stage and announced it had prompted him to cancel plans to buy an air conditioner for his home, Solanki told me. “He said, ‘My wife was angry, but after doing the training herself, she agreed.’ ”

Inspiring this one couple to become more energy conscious seemed admirable—and I’m certain Solanki will persuade others—but I couldn’t help but despair at how puny this accomplishment seemed in the face of the climate crisis. The moral force of his message was undeniable: Boundless consumption is not sustainable even if we unlock new supplies of renewable energy. But will Solanki’s fellow citizens in India, and in the rest of the world, listen?

His hope is that India will lead by example. “I’m going to spread this message in India and see how people take it,” he told me. “Then I’ll take it to other countries.”

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, born and raised in India, is a National Geographic contributing writer who lives near Washington, D.C. Arko Datto, based in Kolkata, photographs long-term projects on social, political, and environmental issues.

This story appears in the August 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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