Review: Transitions in India’s Urban Energy Services Amid a Changing Global Climate

by Julia Huentmann, MSc student, School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford

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Amid a Changing Global Climate Tuesday 18th February 2020 – It is a rainy afternoon outside the School of Geography and the Environment. India is undergoing the largest and fastest impending urban transition on the planet. With this mind-blowing statement, Dr Khosla embarks on a captivating lecture about the nexus between urban transition, energy service consumption and climate change. To make sure that all members of the audience are on the same page, Dr Khosla first sketches out India’s broader energy and climate context. While India has joined the ranks of developed economies when it comes to aggregate GDP, the world’s largest democracy still finds itself amongst the ranks of its developing South Asian neighbours when it comes to human development. Any assessment of India’s efforts at governing the urgently needed energy transition must acknowledge that India is starting from a much lower development base than the countries India is paired with at environmental international negotiations.

It is in this context, that Khosla skilfully draws the audience’s attention to the uncertainties surrounding India’s impending urban transition and its future implications. India’s urban population is predicted to double between 2015 and 2050, leaving scholars seemingly incapable of credibly predicting India’s future emissions. What underlies this uncertainty, according to Dr Khosla, is both the uncertainty in future energy supply but also future energy demand. Here she deviates from the standard literature on energy transition which has been supply-side oriented and makes a credible case for the relevance and potential of demand side policies. While energy transition research, especially in developing economies, frequently is a cause for pessimism, Dr Khosla managed to infuse her lecture with a sense of optimism when it comes to shaping India’s energy consumption trajectories. India finds itself at the brink of large-scale infrastructure construction for residential purposes. The current decisions on infrastructure will create path dependent trajectories either locking in low carbon energy consumption or high carbon energy consumption.

Having expounded the potential of influencing India’s emissions trajectory by shaping energy demand patterns, Dr Khosla zooms in on the built environment and residential energy use. According to Dr Khosla’s estimates, residential electricity demand has doubled since the 1970’s and now makes up ca 25% of total electricity demand. Anyone who deemed Indian households to be irrelevant for India’s macro energy picture, certainly changed his/her mind during Dr Khosla’s lecture. What happens in homes is relevant, which makes it all the more surprising that adequate estimates in terms of residential electricity demand are non-existent. It is this context in which Dr Khosla moves on to present her recent efforts at constructing an empirical base from which to manage and examine energy service transitions in Indian households. Her research builds on household surveys and participant observations in the cities of Delhi and Rajkot. While her research in Delhi builds on a sample of 5500 households, representative of Delhi’s population, her research in Rajkot builds on a sample of low-income households. Before illustrating her results, Khosla outlines her rationales for including affordable housing in the survey. According to Dr Khosla, lowincome housing has been an ignored real estate but should be included, especially considering the government’s recent plans at rolling out affordable housing by 20 million units until 2022. One objective of Dr Khosla’s research was to map the energy consumption of the households at hand, in relation to their economic status. Dr Khosla demonstrates her rich expertise of social scientific fieldwork in the Indian context when she draws the audience’s attention to the fact that economic status cannot reliably be measured by reported income. Aware of the fact that reported income may be subject to deception, Dr Khosla’s research relies on an innovative index which links economic status to appliance ownership, i.e. the household’s ability to consume.

Supporting her argument with illustrative graphic material, Dr Khosla outlines the relation between the demand for energy appliances and economic wellbeing. Not only was she able to trace shifts in the appliances that households demand as they urbanize and become wealthier, but also shifts in the way in which appliances are used. A particularly interesting trajectory is that of cooling appliances. As households become more economically well off, Dr Khosla recognizes a clear shift from the Fan to the Air Conditioning as the dominant cooling appliance. This is a shift which will cause tremendous spikes in energy consumption and hence, underpins the relevance of her new Future of Cooling Programme commissioned by the Oxford Martin School.

On the whole, Dr Khosla’s lecture presented refreshing and original ideas, which left the audience with the feeling of having witnessed relevant cutting-edge research. Not only does her research rely on the large household samples for the city of Delhi, but also belongs to the few studies that acknowledges low-income housing as an important focal point. Further, Dr Khosla makes an important case for moving beyond the status quo of treating energy supply as the entry point of India’s energy transition. Her lecture was skilfully embedded in the broader discussion on India’s energy transition and left the audience with a set of wider questions to ponder on. How can India negotiate the tensions between growing energy demand and the need to reduce carbon emissions? Can India’s urban transition really be re-envisioned to put consumer demand at the heart of how we tackle India’s energy transition? Does India have a viable chance at locking in low carbon trajectories?

Ideas were communicated clearly and were easily digestible even for an audience that does not consider itself experts in energy policy. Dr Khosla shows this rare combination of intellectual rigor, enthusiasm for her work and the ability to inspire the next generation of students which is why it is not surprising that her lecture enjoyed high attendance followed by an interactive Q&A session, which Dr Khosla managed with great confidence and pointed responses.

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