Secretary-General António Guterres said India is at a crossroads and should speed up its shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy by committing to no new coal projects after 2020.
India's subsidies for fossil fuels are some seven times bigger than its subsidies for clean energy. Coal subsidies in the 2019-20 financial year amounted to $2.06 billion, with overall subsides to fossil fuels at $11 billion.
Guterres made the remarks in a lecture delivered online. It was organized by The Energy and Resources Institute, a New Delhi-based private research group, to commemorate its founder Darbari Seth.
The U.N. chief lauded India for raising the proportion of renewable energy in its total consumption to 24% from 17% despite the pandemic. Coal-fired power use as a share of the total declined to 66% from 76%.
Investments in renewable energy generate triple the number of jobs created by investments in more polluting fossil fuels, he said.
The Indian government has committed to spending trillions of dollars on welfare and development programs to help the country weather the pandemic.
``With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening to push many people back into poverty, such job creation is an opportunity that can’t be missed,” Guterres said.
Apart from issues of job creation and concerns about pollution and climate change, coal power plants are likely to become “stranded assets,” he noted.
``In India, 50% of coal will be uncompetitive in 2022, reaching 85 per cent by 2025,” Guterres said.
Dr. Anjal Prakash, Research Director of the Bharti Institute of Public Policy and an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author, said India would take some time to reduce its dependence on coal.
``One of the measures is to reduce subsidy in fossil fuel and provide more incentives for farmers, households and common people to generate energy using solar and contribute to reducing energy poverty,” he said.
Navroz K. Dubash, a professor at the Center for Policy Research, said that U.N. chief was right in saying that the days of coal are numbered.
``India should prepare for the transition and make sure the poor do not suffer, particularly by working toward new livelihoods and jobs in coal mining states,” Dubash said.
India’s share of global oil and gas reserves is less than 1% each and it imports nearly 80% of its oil needs.
But the country does have coal reserves and is the second-largest producer of coal behind China, with record output at 729 million metric tonnes in 2019-20. Because of the poor quality of its coal with a high ash and moisture content, India also imported 251 metric tonnes of coal in 2019-20.
Meanwhile, many Indian cities are shrouded in heavy smog.
Guterres acknowledged progress, noting that the number of people working in renewable energy in India had increased five-fold since 2015. Last year, its spending on solar energy surpassed spending on coal-fired power generation for the first time.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the International Solar Alliance in the form of ``One Sun, One World, One Grid" in 2015 with 120 nations affirming their participation for promotion of solar energy.
The country also is promoting a World Solar Bank that will mobilize $1 trillion of investments in solar projects over the coming decade.
India has pledged to raise its renewable energy capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030 from an initial goal set in 2015 of 175 gigawatts. It now has 37 gigawatts of installed solar electric capacity.
Some 64 million Indians still get along without access to electricity.