The critical question, therefore, is, can a paradigm shift in our economy, irrespective of the timeline, be dependent solely on terms dictated by other countries for technology transfer? If on one hand we aspire to be INR 5 trillion economy and a global economic powerhouse by 2024-25, what stops us from thinking big in terms of climate technology innovation and development? We are shortsighted if we think that India can be really atmanirbhar in manufacturing without concomitant investment in R&D. China actually embarked on two distinct policies: renewable energy policy for renewable energy deployment and renewable energy industrial policy for enhancing the competitiveness and capability of renewable manufacturing industry – one of the `strategic’ emerging industries. The impacts of sidestepping a key objective of our National Solar Mission to ‘create favourable conditions for solar manufacturing capability, for indigenous production and market leadership’ are visible after a decade. While leadership in capacity deployment has undoubtedly been achieved; the sector is so much dependent on imports that the leading Chinese vendors’ refusal to honour old contracts is threatening to derail many large solar projects. In such a scenario what is required is inherent strengths in research, innovation, and manufacturing. And that cannot be compensated by fixes like safeguard and enhanced custom duties. Of course, in today’s time rather than a silo approach, it is multi-country and cross-industry collaborative research that pays dividend. India, however, must take a leading role, pivoting around its own specific socio-economic needs and geographical conditions. As of now it is rather ambiguous whether `green collaborations’ under “India-US climate and clean energy Agenda 2030 partnership” allude to research and technology development collaboration. Nonetheless it may be useful to analyze the outcomes of earlier such initiatives to identify areas that need further push.
Between demand and supply side interventions, there are host of other areas that require development of cost-effective technologies to reach net-zero goal. The `System value framework’ in the recently released `Energy Transition Index 2021’ of World Economic Forum details areas such as reliability and service quality, energy productivity and systemic efficiency, flexibility to manage generation, demand and power flows across the grid, and resilience and security of diversified energy supply at affordable prices. In each of these, local contexts play a major role in shaping the technological solutions, demanding India-centric research. Even for supposedly plug-and-play equipment, adaptability to local conditions and absorptive capacity remains an issue, requiring indigenous capabilities (even for an established technology like flue gas desulfurization equipment for thermal power plants, CEA has flagged the concern of fine tuning the technology for local conditions). And beyond electricity there are a host of areas that can be decarbonized only on the back of technological breakthrough. These include harder to abate sector like cement, steel, chemicals, aluminum, and heavy-duty transport. As per IEA’s ETP 2020, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, half of the required technologies like carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), bioenergy and hydrogen are not commercially available today. Even technologies that are in early-adoption stage now, require significant R&D support to reduce costs and improve operational efficiency.
Even an already technologically advanced country like the US is planning big in this field. Investment in R&D and the technologies of the future is one of the key planks of the proposed American Jobs Plan. The plan envisages to invest USD 35 billion in the full range of solutions needed to achieve technology breakthroughs that address the climate crisis and position America as the global leader in clean energy technology and clean energy jobs. Here, R&D investments are also seen to yield handsome co-benefits as large-scale employment that India too needs desperately. China provided for public funding for innovation and R&D in renewable energy along with clear goals and targets.
PM Modi was right when at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate 2021 he said that `We need such action at a high speed, on a large scale, and with a global scope’. If we can take global leadership position for developing frugal solutions in space science domain, there is no reason for us to perennially depend on technology transfer to reach our climate goals. It is time that the proposed National Research Foundation galvanize the country in this role.
[This piece was authored by Amit Kumar, Senior Director, Social Transformation, TERI]
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