Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on her Environment and Energy Committee report on last year's trip to India

2 September, 2020


Between 2 and 7 November last year I went to India as part of the parliamentary delegation representing the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy. Parliamentary committees are charged with investigating and proposing solutions to topical issues within Australia. The committee has previously investigated topics as wide ranging as wild flying foxes and water management, and we're currently looking at feral cat management.

For this parliament, the early focus was energy, particularly nuclear, as we sought to understand the circumstances and prerequisites for any future government's consideration of nuclear energy generation. The delegation was sent to India to consider their nuclear system, how it's developing, and the challenges and obstacles facing their environment, cities and climate more broadly. The trip was broad ranging and rich. We variously went through cultural experiences to visiting nuclear power plants and talking to government ministers and think tanks. India is an extremely vibrant and diverse country with on old culture, so it was a privilege to travel there as part of an official delegation.

A major topic is energy transition. One of the assumptions often made in Australia about India is that they are not contributing in the journey to net zero. That could not be more wrong. Prime Minister Modi was re-elected in a landslide at the last national election. One of the key pillars of his success, in his last term, was his plan to electrify India. This plan includes a huge focus on renewable energy. Impressively, India has already met several of its renewable targets. They had an initial target of 20 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022 as part of their contribution to the Paris Agreement. As a result of achieving that early, in 2019, they've ramped up their ambition, shooting for 170 gigawatts of renewables by 2022 and 523 gigawatts by 2030. To put that in perspective, that's 10 times the size of Australia's grid. They believe this initiative will lead to 1.1 million jobs. Analysts have projected that renewable energy will account for 73 per cent of India's generation capacity by the end of this decade. That's made possible as renewables are now the least-cost form of new generation in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently inaugurated India's largest solar power plant with a capacity of 750 megawatts in Rewa, a small district. Amazingly, in the middle of this pandemic, India attracted record applications for a four-gigawatt solar tender. While India has ambitious targets for renewable energy, the challenge will be how to integrate new wind and solar, which is where our experience can be useful. As global leaders in energy transition, there are enormous opportunities for Australia to supply the expertise, technology, material and shared knowledge for their transition. Overall, India was very impressive with their appetite for new energy generation and will continue to impress the world if they keep meeting and exceeding their targets under the Paris Agreement.

They do face environmental challenges. One of Prime Minister Modi's key policies is a national focus on cleaning up waste and air pollution and implementing clean water and hygiene practices. The Indian government in January announced their National Clean Air Program, a five-year plan with a target of reducing air pollution by up to 20 to 30 per cent on the 2017 levels in 102 of their cities by 2024. I must say, when we visited, we got firsthand experience of the air pollution. It was very much a matter of masks being necessary, very poor visibility and very, very heavy air pollution. It was with some dismay that in Warringah, at the end of last year, when we had the bushfires, the smoke blanketing cities like Sydney was not dissimilar to the experience I'd had in Delhi.

Policies to lower air pollution in India include expansion of national air quality monitoring and public awareness, an emphasis on enforcement of breaches and sectoral-specific strategies—even strategies like restricting what days cars can be driven by numberplate. On the worst day that we were there, it was actually implemented that numberplates finishing with an odd number drove on one day and numberplates finishing with an even number drove on the next day. There were some exceptions for the transport of children and women, but other than that it was quite amazing to see the level of compliance. Clearly it is about thinking about and finding solutions.

What was also very visible is every building we went into had air monitoring displays. It was very much in real-time data so you could be aware of the level of air pollution where you were and in the area generally. Ironically, it also showed the source of the air pollution. It could be traced back. For example, if there was a coal power plant in the vicinity, it could actually it trace back to the source. I could only wish that we could start to have that kind of monitoring in some of the areas where air pollution is fast becoming a problem, in particular areas like the Hunter Valley. These policies also align and work in synergy with India's National Action Plan on Climate Change; its plan for electric vehicle uptake, the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan, which will have six to seven million electric vehicles on the road by 2020; and its Smart Cities Mission, discussed below. The roads of India are well-known for being fairly busy. I welcome that ambition to transition to electric transport, because there are a lot of cars on the road.

Although Australia is not on the same level, we do have similar health impacts from air pollution. I would like to see Warringah-wide, in our major cities and across Australia the advancement of air pollution monitoring, national policies to improve pollution—particularly when it comes to a transition of our transport to electric vehicles—and the phasing out of coal-fired power. There is no doubt that, from a transport point of view, we still have some of the weakest emission standards when it comes to vehicles and fuel. These simple things could be improved to make a dramatic difference to air pollution and our emissions. Transport is our fastest-growing emissions sector.

An interesting program was the smart cities and adapting to climate change. On Tuesday the 5th we met with the Smart Cities Council India, which is led by Dr Ghosh. The council was formed under Modi's Smart Cities Mission. The primary objective of this program is to enhance the liveability of 100 cities in India by incorporating innovative technologies like artificial intelligence, retrofitting buildings with solar, increasing walkability and efficiency, preserving open and green spaces, and promoting transport options, amongst many other things. A total of $23.31 billion will be invested in over 5,000 projects across 100 cities. Some $9 billion is already in construction and development, with another series of tenders to go out in 2020.

We're doing similar work in Australia through various programs, including the government's Smart Cities and Suburbs Program. This program distributed $50 million in grant funding to projects last year. I certainly am thankful for that. I encourage there to be more funding for retrofitting and further enhancing smart cities.

Feeding into city design and planning is also a focus on understanding what are the key challenges that cities will face as the climate continues to warm. During the trip we met with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, who are doing great research in this area. These are some of the things that people don't think about. Steady increases in temperatures, changing groundwater levels, increased rain in some areas and solar radiation will affect the durability and functioning of things like road infrastructure. These effects will shorten the longevity of road surfaces, increase cracks, expand bridge joints, affect the ability of drainage systems to cope and affect the inland waterways. This will add huge costs to the infrastructure that we all rely on so much. As a result, in India the government is starting to integrate systemwide resilience and sustainability planning into all levels of the decision-making process to cope with these added climate impacts.

This very much needs to form part of the conversation in Australia. We need to have much better assessment of all the impacts across all sectors that a warming world will cause. That is why, as part of the climate change bill that I will be introducing, we have the risk assessment adaptation plans and the resilience planning that is needed.