India’s sustainability quest: From desirable goals towards achievable ones

India's sustainability quest
India achieving its sustainability goals will hinge on its ability to balance economic growth needs with environmental imperatives, writes Aruna Sharma.

I would like to use this opportunity to discuss the complexities of creating a sustainable future for the Indian economy. All of us share a common desire to achieve what seems possible in terms of sustainability, while confronting what may appear impossible. A hands-on approach is crucial to this effort, and what we desire can indeed be transformed into achievable objectives over a period of time as long as we meticulously navigate the benchmarks and move with utmost care.

Any discussion on sustainability will bring the focus on the mining and steel industries, notorious for inflicting damage on the environment. Amarendu Prakash, chairman of the Steel Authority of India Ltd, who will speak next can shed light on the significant pollution stemming from steelmaking, a matter of deep concern in the context of climate change.

Another speaker, Pankaj Satija, managing director of Tata Steel Mining Ltd, can explain the mechanisms necessary to mitigate the environmental damage caused by the mining industry. We also have Dr Charan Singh who will provide valuable insights into circular economy. He has extensive experience and unwavering commitment to sustainability which will enrich the discussion.

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Sustainability in mining, steel industries

Let me begin with a brief introduction of the context of India’s mining sector. At present, we are tapping just around 10% of our vast mineral resources. However, if India were to continue along the high growth path, mining industry will inevitably see a major expansion. This presents a challenge as our mineral wealth lies predominantly under thick forest cover. To strike the right balance, we must employ mechanisms that minimise deforestation and focus on responsible transportation and extraction methods.

Turning to the manufacturing of steel, there are various routes with varying degrees of environmental impact. While India has made significant progress towards achieving more than 50% of its 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs). Current and future investments heavily rely on high-emission carbon-based processes. To make a meaningful course correction, we must carefully evaluate our investment decisions today.

One significant issue facing India is its dependence on coal, a domestically abundant resource, while other crucial materials need to be imported. Although alternative technologies such as green hydrogen hold promise, they are still in the experimental stage and not commercially tested. Consequently, India is likely to rely on coal for the next 50 years, particularly for thermal energy use. The challenge lies in skilfully navigating the dependence on coal while adhering to climate change benchmarks.

The pandemic underscored the delicate balance between economic concerns and environmental priorities. Some Western nations, grappling with disruptions in energy supply chain, stepped up coal production recently, undermining their climate change commitments. This serves as a stark reminder of the need for a well-designed structure that ensures economic considerations never outweigh environmental concerns.

Sustainable economy is a desirable goal, but it is important to be realistic about what is achievable. There are challenges to reducing the environmental impact of mining and steel industries, but there are also ways to make progress. The challenge is to navigate the transition to a sustainable economy while still maintaining economic growth. The economics of climate change must be aligned with the environmental concerns. There is an opportunity to rewrite the rules and move towards a sustainable future. We need to invest in research and development, cooperate internationally, and raise public awareness about climate change.

Creating a sustainable economy demands thoughtful integration of economic growth needs and environmental imperatives. By adopting responsible mining practices, making informed decisions in steel manufacturing, and strategically planning our energy transition, India can pave the way towards a sustainable future. It presents us with an opportunity to rewrite the script, striking a harmonious balance where economic imperatives align with ecological preservation. This way, we secure a better world for the generations yet to come.

(This article is the edited transcript of Dr Aruna Sharma’s speech at the India Sustainability Summit, organised by Policy Circle in New Delhi on July 26.)

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Dr Aruna Sharma is a New Delhi-based development economist. She is a 1982-batch Indian Administrative Service officer. She retired as steel secretary in 2018.