Millions without power as India struggles to tackle coal emissions

COP21: India's electricity challenge
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Story highlights

  • More than 300 million people across India have no access to electricity
  • India is heavily dependent on coal-fired power stations, which serve 60% of households
  • Country has seen skyrocketing carbon emissions -- increase of 170 million tonnes in 2014

(CNN)As the sun sets on Sukhapur village in India's Uttar Pradesh, residents fire up their only source of light, a rudimentary cooking stove.

"It's like we're living in a cave," resident Aarti Chauhan tells CNN's Sumnima Udas.
    "All we see is darkness everywhere, my children can't even study properly, they have no future here."
    Sukhapur, only 100 miles from the capital of New Delhi, is emblematic of a contradiction at the heart of modern India.
    While the country has seen a skyrocketing rise in emissions -- an increase of 170 million tonnes in 2014, more than any other country -- some 300 million people across India still don't have access to electricity. That's a population roughly the size of the U.S., living in darkness.
    "They say India is progressing, but nothing happens here, they have forgotten about us," said Sukhapur resident Anil Chauhan.
    India's coal challenge
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    Still dependent on coal

    Speaking at the U.N. Climate Change conference in Paris last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated his position that developed countries should shoulder a greater responsibility when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.
    "Democratic India must grow rapidly to meet the aspirations of 1.25 billion people, 300 million of whom are without access to energy," he said.
    The cheapest and easiest way to provide those without electricity access to power is coal, one of the worst offenders when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
    India has the world's fifth largest coal reserves, and the fossil fuel currently powers more than 60% of the country. Last year, 462 million tonnes of it were produced in India, a figure the government plans to double by 2019.
    Environmentalists warn that if Indian emissions continue to grow at the same rate they have over the past 10 years, they will surpass the current emissions of the entire European Union by 2020, according to the U.N. climate agency.
    However, while Modi has said that developing nations shouldn't be held to the same standards as the world's richest countries, India has been leading the way in many areas.

    A solar future?

    Modi's government has sought to promote solar and other renewable power, with a stated goal by 2030 to have 40% non-fossil energy sources compared to the current 19%.
    "What we want to do with renewable energy in the next 7-10 years took Germany 21 years to achieve," said Dr Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive of the Indian Council on Energy, Environment and Water.
    "In our estimates we find the Indian targets are disproportionately greater than the U.S. or Europe have put forward."
    Nevertheless, Modi's India is still highly dependent on coal.
    "Coal is a significant contributor to India's greenhouse gas emissions," said Leena Srivastava, Executive Director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).
    Srivastava said that the government should shut down aging, inefficient power plants and invest in modern ones using newer, less-polluting technology.
    "We can't have a binary discussion on yes to coal or no to it, but somewhere in between," he said.

    Hard hit by effects of climate change

    Devastating floods swamp south India
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    Tackling climate change is of particular concern for India, which like many tropical nations is bearing hard the brunt of existing rises in global temperature.
    Relief efforts are underway in flood-stricken Chennai, where some of the heaviest -- and deadliest -- rains in decades rains have left the coastal city reeling and death tolls nearing 300.
    "This kind of flood risk is something that is going to rise over time," he said. "In Chennai, we're witnessing the highest rainfall in a hundred years."
    Around 120,000 people have been displaced by the rising waters in Chennai and surrounding Tamil Nadu state.
    According to Ghosh, the damage done to the country by climate change-related events has exceeded $30 billion in the last five years.
    By 2050, agricultural losses alone will be around $200 billion a year.
    If temperatures continue to rise at the current pace, Ghosh and his colleagues predict that the risk of a once-in-a-century flood would increase by up to 1,000 times in some Indian cities.
    Speaking at the Paris conference, Marine Franck of the U.N. Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility said that, on average, 22.5 million people have been displaced each year between 2008 and 2014 as a result of cyclones, floods and other climate change related events. The equivalent of one person every second over the last eight years.
    While Ghosh was skeptical of any deal that might come about as a result of the Paris talks, he was adamant that something must be done.
    "Whether you take renewable energy or fossil fuels, the richest countries are still continuing on a pathway that continues to raise the risk of climate change to the whole world," he said.