‘India needs more awareness about the climate challenge it faces’: Akshat Rathi

Published : Jan 12, 2024 13:42 IST - 24 MINS READ

Akshat Rathi, author of Climate Capitalism.

Akshat Rathi, author of Climate Capitalism. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The author of Climate Capitalism feels that there is a lack of connecting the dots in the Indian understanding of the issues caused by climate change.

In India, things have been tough on the environmental front of late. Media reports suggest that recent laws, such as amendments to the Biological Diversity Act and the Forest Conservation Act, have made it easier to chop down forests and reduce the penalties for violating such laws.

In an interview with Frontline, Akshat Rathi discusses his book ‘Climate Capitalism’. | Video Credit: Interview by Abhinav Chakraborty, Edited by Sambavi Parthasarathy

Akshat Rathi, who wrote about the UK’s landmark Climate Change Act of 2008 in his new book Climate Capitalism, says that while countries such as India could consider adopting the basic framework of the UK climate law, the immediate challenge for climate activists here was to raise awareness about how many of the problems that the country faces—be it water issues, air pollution, droughts, heat waves, or lower productivity on agriculture—are because of climate change.

Spread across five continents, Akshat Rathi’s Climate Capitalism: Winning the Global Race to Zero Emissions (John Murray Press, 2023) tracks the unlikely heroes driving the fight against climate change. Through stories that bring people, policy, and technology together, he reveals how the green economy is not just possible, but profitable.

Akshat Rathi is a senior reporter for Bloomberg News based in London, UK, and the host of “Zero”, a climate podcast for Bloomberg Green. He has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Oxford, and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. Akshat has worked for Quartz, The Economist, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. His writings have also been published in Nature, The Hindu, The Guardian, Ars Technica, and Chemistry World, among others.

In an interview with Frontline, Akshat Rathi discusses his book, China’s electric vehicle revolution, India’s push towards renewable energy, Bill Gates’ efforts towards technological solutions to the climate challenge, the problems with emerging technologies such as carbon capture, and the events at COP28 in Dubai, among other things. Excerpts:

You say that you wrote Climate Capitalism as the antidote to the “dominant doom-laden narrative” when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. Tell us about the process of writing the book.

So, it began because of Donald Trump. In 2016, he was running for US President and among the many wild claims he had made, one of them was about how there is clean coal. And the way he described it: it was coal that was mined, then it was cleaned, then it was burned, and it was fine. But of course, he’s not a man who goes over details, and he got the narrative wrong.

My editor at the time was very interested, and he said, “What is he talking about? Is it just fiction?” And the answer was, it was part fiction because the way he thought about it was wrong. But there was an actual technology that could capture emissions after coal was burned and trap them and not let it go into the atmosphere. And it got me started into looking at solutions.

What I found out was this technology called carbon capture had existed for 50 years and was being deployed at scale, but not for climate purposes. So, my quest was to see whether there are solutions around the world, not just in America, not just in rich countries but in countries like India and China, that are being deployed at scale today.

And that’s what the book became about—how it is actually happening all across the world. We hear dire climate reports and dire climate predictions, which are true. We are going to head towards more extreme weather events, but it is also true that we are deploying climate solutions at a pace never seen before. So, it’s a two-track world that we live in, and I wanted to try and help people make sense of what seems like conflicting ideas.

Also Read | The world is grappling with a climate challenge that has defied predictions

You’ve written about China’s Electric Vehicle (EV) revolution (in Chapters 2 and 3). In September 2023, India said that it aims to be a “global giant” in the EV sector by 2030. What is your assessment of this claim? China’s already making more than half of the EVs in the world.

Let’s understand how China did it to see whether India can. The Chinese approach to EVs was not driven by climate change. It was driven by an interest in ensuring that its people can have the kind of quality of life that was being enjoyed in Europe or America. And that in the process, it’s able to create a technology or an industry that is going to be something it can export, or it can become a world leader in.

All that came from this character that I have in the book named Wan Gang. He grew up in China, he’d seen poverty, but he wanted to do something about it and so he went and studied in Germany and became an automobile engineer. And he used to work for Audi when he realised that if China wants to live like the Germans do, we need to come up with not a car that runs on oil because there’s just not enough oil in the world. We need to find alternative fuel sources. And so, he convinced—this is in early 2000—the Chinese government’s leadership at the time to try and back him to find a different way of powering a car.

Now we know hydrogen existed and batteries existed, but they have never been deployed at scale. There was a company that had done it in the past, some 100 cars here or there, but nothing at the millions that you would need for a solution. The Chinese government backed him, and he said, “I will need 5 to 7 years.” He was given a secret program with very good funding to work with research institutes and come up with the answer.

By the time China had the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he had something to show for it. He worked with companies and research institutes to come up with electric buses and electric cars to showcase. That got him the government’s long-term backing for what was going to come through in scaling up solutions on electric cars. Between 2009 and 2017, the government spent $60 billion in trying to create not just the industry for making electric cars, but also the batteries that would power them. And batteries kind of won out over hydrogen and we can get into why, but that level of support for two decades is what enabled China to now be the world’s largest maker and seller of electric cars not only in China but also abroad.

When it comes to India, the challenge is that India will need that level of systemic, long-term support to be able to come up with the answer. Now it doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, it doesn’t need to figure out whether hydrogen is something it needs to back or what type of chemistry of lithium-ion batteries it needs to back. That work has already been done for you by China. But it still does require its own capacity to be able to make both batteries and those cars in India.

Now India does make some of them, we have Tata [Motors] and Mahindra [Automotive] who are making EVs. We have interest from other makers and foreign car companies coming in, wanting to make EVs in India. So again, it’s not something that India needs to reinvent from the scratch. India has certain capacities, but it does require government support to push that over to become commercial and viable. That requires policy support, maybe incentives and subsidies for people to buy these cars, because they’re still much more expensive than fossil fuel cars.

And that’s also something China did—it didn’t just throw money at the problem. It created an incentive system on how to buy it. In many cities, say large cities like Shanghai or Beijing, you could not buy a fossil fuel car without paying a huge amount of money on top, sometimes as much as the cost of the car itself, thus doubling the price of it. But if you wanted to buy an EV, you could just go out and buy it.

So, there were both carrots in form of subsidies, but also sticks in the form of not making people buy cheap fossil fuel cars. And India will have to use some of those policy tools to actually get this industry going.

BYD electric cars waiting to be loaded on a ship stacked at the international container terminal of Taicang Port at Suzhou Port, in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province in September 2023. The level of government support for two decades is what enabled China to now be the world’s largest maker and seller of electric cars not only in China but also abroad.

BYD electric cars waiting to be loaded on a ship stacked at the international container terminal of Taicang Port at Suzhou Port, in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province in September 2023. The level of government support for two decades is what enabled China to now be the world’s largest maker and seller of electric cars not only in China but also abroad. | Photo Credit: AFP

Batteries are getting way cheaper, which is great for fighting climate change. But mining the stuff (cobalt) for them, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo can be bad for people and the planet. Should we just focus on making batteries even cheaper, or should we also figure out how bad the hidden costs really are?

A hundred per cent. I think one of the things that we’ve not done in the past is we’ve ignored or sometimes, on purpose, not looked at the environmental impacts of all the things that we consume. Now that we are much more aware of them, we should think about environmental impacts of everything that we deploy, whether it’s a clean energy solution or not.

Let’s look at the facts. Yes, when you build an electric car (versus a fossil fuel car) the amount of embedded emission—how much CO2 [carbon dioxide] would have been released in the process of making that car—an electric car is actually much more polluting at the start than a fossil fuel car. But over the lifetime of that vehicle, even if the electric car is powered by a coal powered grid, it consumes way less emissions because it’s just a much more efficient way of moving a car. For every unit of energy that an electric car consumes, it goes three to four times the distance that a fossil fuel car does, because most of the fossil fuel car’s energy is just being burned, wasted as heat. And so overall, an electric car is in any scenario, a cleaner option, if you’re going to run it for its life.

But we are also aware of the environmental problems that come from mining these metals. And we should be aware of them, their human rights issues, their environmental issues. But the nice thing is that there are alternatives. Now the dominant source of battery material is not cobalt, it’s iron—it’s lithium iron phosphate. That’s the battery material that is being used in Tesla cars and in vast majority of Chinese cars. India doesn’t need to find new cobalt. India has plenty of iron already: it just needs to figure out how to make lithium iron phosphate.

So, what happens is when you think about these problems, you do come up with alternatives and those alternatives, which require innovation and support, can be much better than what the environmental problem was such as cobalt, where we thought for a long time, there couldn’t be a better option. But we do now have one.

“We should think about environmental impacts of everything that we deploy, whether it’s a clean energy solution or not. I think one of the things that we’ve not done in the past is we’ve ignored or sometimes, on purpose, not looked at it.”

Chapter 4 of your book talks about how India’s big push for solar power could inspire other developing countries. But, a recent study by a top Indian institute (which is the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy) warns that India’s ambitious goal of 500 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy by 2030, might actually widen the gap between richer States in the west and south (lots of sunshine for solar), and poorer states in the north and east (coal reserves, but not much sunshine). These poorer States might have to even buy their electricity from the richer ones to meet their climate goals. So how can India be both a green leader and ensure everyone benefits from this shift to renewables?

That’s a very good question. Given the size of India, it’s very good to look at it within India but it’s also true globally. If you look at certain countries, they just have more potential for a certain type of resource versus other countries that don’t. You know, take an example of Saudi Arabia: blessed with oil, but it’s also blessed with the sun. It’s not really tapping into the sun, it’s tapping into the oil right now.

So, one way in which the nice solution, at least for an intra-country problem like the one that you’ve raised, is that India can deploy a lot of transmission lines. One thing that we know that renewable energy versus coal does is that renewable energy is intermittent: that sun doesn’t shine all the time, that wind doesn’t blow all the time. And you do need ways to store that energy, but that’s quite expensive. But the other one is to be able to move it long distances from the places where it’s being produced to the places where it is being generated.

If you have more transmission lines, then you will be able to ensure that [in] the places that do not have enough sun. And it’s not quite true in all eastern States—it’s true in north-eastern States to some extent, but solar resources are quite well distributed in the country. Wind resources are less distributed. But yes, land itself is a very precious commodity in India. So, it is important that you allow for a lot more transmission to happen.

The other thing—which is also very important and you raise this point—is in eastern States where a lot of coal is mined, if we start reducing the consumption of coal and thus its production, those States will have to have a transition plan to be able to move workers in coal, to be able to move the income for that State from coal to other forms of income. And the federal government has a responsibility to think about these changes. Because if it doesn’t, then there will be tensions created that are unnecessary.

The nice thing about this is: this is not happening tomorrow. This will be a transition over the next decade, two or three decades. So, you have time to be able to ensure that a plan can be laid out. But it’s an absolutely crucial point.

Bill Gates (right), Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, speaks with the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at Reaching the Last Mile Forum 2023, during COP28 in Dubai. Critics have accused Gates of focussing too much on technological solutions to the climate crisis and ignoring its other aspects.

Bill Gates (right), Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, speaks with the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at Reaching the Last Mile Forum 2023, during COP28 in Dubai. Critics have accused Gates of focussing too much on technological solutions to the climate crisis and ignoring its other aspects. | Photo Credit: THOMAS MUKOYA/Reuters

In the chapter called “The Billionaire”, you talk about Bill Gates and how he’s trying to fight climate change using fancy new technology through his investments. While he puts a lot of money into green solutions, some people worry he’s focussing too much on tech gadgets and ignoring the bigger picture. They say that the climate crisis is more than just tech fixes, it’s also about politics, money, and making sure everyone benefits from the solutions. And right now, most people think that we should all come together and figure out how to tackle this problem as a team. So, isn’t it a bit one-sided for someone as powerful and rich as Gates to have so much say in how things are done? It doesn’t sound very democratic, does it?

The point of that chapter is, what he supports—the core message that I feel is worthy of other people listening and recognising—is that technology development is very important for the energy transition. Because what technology development does is it gives you options for being able to solve the same problem in multiple ways. And that’s really important because not every country has the same resource, doesn’t have the same metal that is needed or solar or wind that is needed. Every country has its own unique mix of problems that it needs to deal with. If it has technology options available, that makes the problem easier to solve.

The second thing that that chapter does is to look at finance. Now, technology innovation is something that is difficult because the problem itself is hard and requires capital investment upfront, when you don’t know whether you will get that technology developed or not. So, you’re taking a risk. Typically, that risk is taken by governments because governments can take that kind of risk. They can produce scientific research and not have something tangible to show for it. But what he goes on to show is that through private capital, not just his money but other people’s money, you can actually fund these ideas.

Now, as for the non-democratic part of it, I think that is a weird one because it’s not like he is a political leader. What he is trying to do is shape, take his money, and try and invest in the areas that he thinks is important. Now, it’s his money and he can do whatever he wants with it.

For the democracy part, it’s really important for governments to ensure that if there are technologies that are developed, say, through the work that Bill Gates has done—whether those technologies are something they would like to take on and deploy or whether they are right for them to be able to use. So, the democracy is still whether very much within the power of the country and the government where the technology is deployed and thus in the power of people, at least in democratic countries where you can vote for the right politicians to take on the technology that is of benefit to them.

“There is a lack of connecting the dots in the Indian understanding of what is being caused by climate change and what could be solved if we take climate solutions on. Until that happens, then people won’t vote for it.”

In the recently concluded COP28 climate meet, there were discussions suggesting that we should invest in technology that captures and stores carbon dioxide underground (carbon capture and storage or CCS). In the book, you write that worries about leaks in this system are probably not scientifically true. But a study by the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis recently found that most CCS projects haven’t worked well. Even the IPCC (or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is worried about leaks and how good CCS really is. If even they’re unsure, why should we trust CCS?

Carbon capture is a multiple step technology. The first [step] is to separate the gases that are produced from, say, a coal power plant or an industry like a steel plant where you get a mixture of gases. You’ll get carbon dioxide, nitrogen, some unburnt oxygen, and you separate carbon dioxide. Then you have to move it—that’s the second step. You have to take it, compress it, make it liquid, move it in a pipe or trucks sometimes. And then, the final step is where you put it underground and store it.

What has happened, and this is true, and I talk about it in the book as well: the problem with carbon capture as a technology is not one thing. It’s because it’s multiple steps and all of them have to work in tandem, not just from a technology perspective but also from an economic perspective. Like, the price of capturing and transporting and syncing has to be paid for by somebody. If they don’t work in tandem, then the technology fails.

The leakage side is not true, what you’re saying is not true. And I can point to a scientific study report from the IPCC but the IPCC doesn’t do scientific studies, it just collates and assesses what already exists. From a storage perspective, we know we have for the past 50 years been storing CO2 underground. In fact, it’s going in the same places where oil and gas comes from most of the time. And in fact, there are CO2 stores underground—there are entire fields where instead of gas, there is actually CO2.

So we know that underground, we can store them. It’s not like a tank, it’s really rock with pores in it. And you put CO2 as a liquid in there.

And yes, leakage: I never say in the book is not a concern. It is something you need to monitor and verify and ensure. So, any place where you store CO2 is, at least in countries where CCS is being deployed, required by regulation to monitor for leaks. There’s a case in Algeria [the In Saleh project], where a company built a carbon capture project and realised after a year or two of operation that there was leakage happening. So, they had to seal the project and continue to monitor it.

We can get into the entire debate about carbon capture, if you would like. But from a storage perspective, there are issues that need to be monitored. It’s not that we cannot do it at all. So, none of the scientists, at least at a level of meta-analysis or at a level of multiple studies, say that you should not use it. What the scientists do say—and this is perhaps an addition beyond the book—is: because the technology requires these multiple steps and it’s so complicated and the economics have been difficult, only deploy it for the things that you absolutely have no other option.

In the chapter about climate litigation and the power of climate activism (“The Campaigner”), you write that the UK’s climate law offers a good template for other countries to adapt. But in India, things are tough. As several media reports suggest, recent laws actually made it easier to chop down forests and punish polluters less. Experts even said, forget new laws, even court orders just end up in committees or reviews. So, how can climate activists in India push for better laws and policies.

So, governance is a huge challenge. I take the example of the UK because the way the law was structured and the way the law came about allowed for power for those laws to actually work quite well.

Just to go through the story briefly, the UK passed the Climate Change Act in 2008. When it passed it, every party in the parliament voted for it. So, it had cross-parliamentary support and created the law. It ordered the government to create something called a Climate Change Committee, which is going to then do annual analysis of what the government must do and what it is doing. So, it would not just give them suggestions and directions, but also check whether progress is being made or not.

If India copies that, there is much more likelihood for climate action to happen. But the challenge in India is that you still require a level of personal awareness in the public about the climate challenge that many of the problems that India faces right now—from water issues to air pollution issues—these are problems that can be solved if you tackle climate change. Or that many of the problems India faces through droughts or through lower productivity on agriculture or through heat waves, which are many and increasing, are because of climate change.

There is a lack of connecting the dots in the Indian understanding of the issue on what is being caused by climate change and what could be solved if we take climate solutions on. Until that happens, then people won’t vote for it. And if people don’t vote for it, then people won’t have governments that would respond to what the people want, which ideally should be to try and tackle these issues, because India is among the most vulnerable when it comes to climate change.

Of course, from its history, India has contributed much less than America or Europe or China. India is suffering even though it’s not [a historic contributor], it’s suffering in an unfair way. But India does have the solutions to deploy for it. And so, what I think climate activists or anybody who cares about these issues must do is to try and make sure that people are aware of these issues, and that they are given choices to vote for the right politicians who would support this idea.

Also Read | COP28: Historic agreement reached on fossil fuels, but developing nations unhappy

You were at COP28. How do you see the two major pronouncements of the conference: the Loss and Damage Fund as well as the final resolution to “transition away” from fossil fuels (as opposed to “phase out”), besides the central question of climate finance and adaptations?

Yeah, so COP28 was a very important COP because going into that meeting, it was the meeting that was supposed to take a global stocktake on where things stand. We knew going in that, for the goals that have been set, which is keeping warming below 2 Celsius—ideally 1.5—you need to have emissions globally by 2030. And we’re nowhere on track to do that.

So, what you needed as a response from the leaders from the countries going to COP28 was to come up with steps that would allow you to actually get to that point. And one of the steps inevitably means using fewer fossil fuels. The transitioning away is a global goal to transition away.

But the interesting thing is, in the 30 years of climate diplomacy, “phasing out” or even “transitioning away” from fossil fuels had never been mentioned as a political outcome at a COP meeting. Which might seem strange, given the science is very clear that you have to move away from fossil fuels. But the reality is that a COP outcome comes from consensus—every country has to agree. And many of the countries in there are fossil fuel producers who wouldn’t want to agree because their business model depends on producing fossil fuels.

So, it is a big deal that in COP28, you did get all countries agreeing to transitioning away from fossil fuels. However, the outcome and the success of it will only be determined if countries actually follow through on the commitment that they’ve made.

Now, the Loss and Damage Fund. The best way to think about climate change is to think about it in three buckets. One, you have to deal with the source of the problem, which is emissions coming from fossil fuels, so you reduce them. The second is, because we are late in trying to tackle with this problem, there’s a bunch of warming that’s already happened or will happen. That requires you to then create systems that will be adapting or will be adaptable to that level of warming. And that requires a bunch of innovation.

So, things like weather warning systems, which India has done really good job on, where when we have cyclones and hurricanes coming through Bay of Bengal most of the time but sometimes from the Arabian Sea. We now have warning systems that want people that moved into shelters that take them away from harm and thus, we’re able to reduce the number of deaths. But other adaptation techniques, such as what do you do in heat waves—are there places that are cooling centres where people can go and get away from the heat? Because long term exposure to heat can be quite harmful and even lead to deaths.

So, there are many things that we can do to adapt to the many impacts that are caused by climate change. And we got some progress at COP28 on that. There was a global goal on adaptation, just directionally setting aims on the types of things that we need to adapt and what countries must do. But over the next two years—by COP30—they need to then set numerical targets on how we’re going to reach those adaptation goals. So, the work was done, but only half done.

And then the third bucket, which is if you don’t deal with the source of the problem or adapt to the warming, there will be damage from climate impacts. So, you need to create a system such as the Loss and Damage Fund that was created, where rich countries put in money and that allows developing countries to deal with the impact.

Pakistan suffered from spectacularly bad floods in 2022, which costs $30 billion worth of damage. Who deals with that? That’s where the Loss and Damage Fund can come through and help countries at least start to recover quickly. And that was important. But again, the amount of money in there is quite small—only $750 million. You require billions and hundreds of billions maybe, eventually.

So, the next goal will be: how do you get countries to commit to more money? Are there many other sources of money for that part? So, there was plenty of progress at COP28. But COPs are places that are slow moving, and they are only successful if the governments who then committed to these goals actually deploy them in their home countries.

With inputs from Mridula V. and Sanjanna K., who are editorial interns at Frontline.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment