Episode 11: Can Bureaucracy Build a Climate Revolution?

Between 2009 and 2019, India brought electricity to half a billion citizens, and then turned around and presided over a grid where power from wind and solar became cheaper than electricity from coal in 2018. India’s carbon-heavy government ministries have shown a surprising ability to engineer deep change. Kartikeya Singh, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, talks with us about what role these ministries—which employ upwards of 20 million people—could play in creating an energy sector that is ecologically and economically sustainable.


Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a publication of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University, and we feature new essays most days on our website at issues.org. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues. On this episode, we talk to Kartikeya Singh, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has spent his career engaging with India’s energy concerns. In his winter 2022 Issues essay, “Bureaucracies for the Better,” Singh details how government institutions could be redesigned to combat climate change.

Kartikeya, thank you very much for speaking with me today. To start off, I’d like to ask you about this weird question that we’re going to start on: can bureaucracies start a climate revolution? I mean, we tend to think about climate revolutions coming through technology, entrepreneurs, money, big policy changes—and you’ve come up with this answer of bureaucracy.

Kartikeya Singh: Yes. And based on my experience and observation and engagement with bureaucracy in a couple of different countries, but one in particular, a place that I was born, India, I would like to believe seeing the arc of progress that has been made in terms of the revolution in the power sector in particular, that the bureaucracy can really be behind a climate revolution.

Margonelli: So let me dive a little bit into that. We’re talking about India, which is a huge country, and we’re also talking about how climate policy is not one size fits all. There are certain opportunities and certain possibilities in different places. And what you suggest is that there is a particular way of approaching the issues in India, and that grows out of your experience, because you’ve been going there as an academic and as a policy person and as a thinker for at least 15 years as an adult. Tell me what you’ve seen. Tell me about this revolution that you’ve already seen in India.

Singh: Yeah, and it has, I think in the last 15 years, the country from a climate and energy standpoint has been transformed. So when I first went as part of a fellowship to Delhi—to very naively think I was going to solve India’s climate and energy problems and write the policies—I was very quickly told that in India I needed to focus on the question of energy poverty, and how could a country like India address climate change when 500 million people at that time didn’t have access to electricity.

And rightly so, India in the international climate negotiations that we hear about on an annual basis that have been going on for decades, India was advocating for the right to emit more carbon to provide more cheap electricity powered by firing coal to this unelectrified population. And I think at that time when I went and did surveys in villages and started to really ask about, OK, what are the alternatives to providing access to electricity, not through a grid, which was much smaller at that time in its reach—what could be some of the solutions? And so I really started to focus on the decentralized renewable energy solutions that had been being tested out for many years prior, I would say probably about 10 years prior, there had been many experiments and deployment efforts. And by “these kinds of technologies,” I mean solar home lighting systems, a panel, couple light bulbs in a house to provide basic lighting, other solutions like taking a small stream and attaching a generating unit to it and generating electricity from a small hydro unit, or taking biogas that people could generate at their house if they had cows—allow the cow manure to ferment and feed it water and stuff. So figuring out how people were interacting with this.

Margonelli: You’re talking right now about the before times. You’re talking about, like, 2006. The thinking then was solar lanterns—moving from kerosene lanterns to solar lanterns. It was moving from maybe animal-powered processes to something that had a small hydro power process. Where are we now? I want to give people the sense of this revolution that happens. So where are we now? What happened to the 500 million people with no grid?

Singh: Yeah. So a lot happened to the 500 million people with no grid. In that backdrop of trying to deploy smaller systems, the government amped up its efforts and its grants and programs to extend the grid aggressively out to literally every home. So around 2018 is when the government managed to get wires and poles out to every home, to basically electrify every single household.

And what I was trying to say before is that even the smaller home lighting systems that had barely brought about integrating LED bulbs—so India was not really a place where LED bulbs existed, today the cost of LED bulbs by over 80% have decreased in a country like India. And hundreds of millions of these bulbs are everywhere because of new institutions designed by the government to get this energy efficient lighting solution out everywhere.

So that was on the power sector side, the conversation changed dramatically. And then people wonder, do we even need these small solutions anymore? I think of course we can get to it, but the conversation’s coming back full circle to the value of decentralized, renewable energy. But that transformation has been one of the starkest, getting electricity to nearly every household.

The other thing that I witnessed, I was participant in a journey, 2,500 miles across the country in an electric vehicle that was manufactured by an electric vehicle manufacturer back in 2009. That manufacturer was since acquired by a larger conglomerate called Mahindra. And we were trying to demonstrate that this indigenously manufactured, lithium ion battery powered Indian vehicle could have a role to play in India’s mobility solutions at a time when electricity was not available everywhere. And today we’re talking about government policies that are fully backing an electric vehicle revolution for the country. We’re talking about banning the internal combustion engine in the not-too-distant future and all kinds of incentives for the deployment of electric vehicles—not just four wheelers, but three wheelers and two wheelers.

So I would say that the India of 15 years ago and the India of today has made tremendous progress in terms of the direction it’s headed, and we haven’t even touched on the fact that on the renewable side, the equation has really been turned on its head in terms of which kind of energy will dominate India’s power sector.

Margonelli: I want to get to that. So first, hooking 500 million people up to the grid and thinking about a future of electric vehicles is not trivial. I mean, it is changing the whole concept of energy poverty. It is making things available to people, other sorts of income streams. It’s potentially transformative on many levels, from political, to inside the home, to India’s position in the world. And that alone would enough. But let’s talk a little bit about this thing that happened in 2017 when renewables suddenly became cheaper than coal. So 70% of India’s grid right now is coal. Is that correct?

Singh: Yeah. And in 2017, India was really hitting its stride in terms of designing auctions led by state government agencies for the bulk procurement of power from solar through long-term contracts. And one state in particular, the state of Madhya Pradesh, that’s in the heart of India, really managed to crack this code and get all kinds of relevant financing institutions from international financial institutions, as well as structure the project in a way that would drive down the cost and the bidding that was done by the developers to an incredible low. And since then, India hasn’t really looked back. And just, I think, last year, the latest of auction for solar brought the cost of solar power down to another tremendous low.

So we have reached a point in India where the cost of new renewable energy is certainly cheaper than the cost of new coal-fired power plants. And the projections are such that coupled with the declining costs of energy storage technologies and the combination of packaging these technologies together, renewable energy plus storage will be cheaper than existing coal-fired power plants. So we’ve come a long way, I think, in terms of which type of electron is going to really be the dominant force in the electrify-India future, if you will.

Margonelli: So there’s a couple of interesting things here that you’re talking about, and I want to reflect them back. And one is India accomplished this incredible thing of getting the cost of renewable energy beneath coal-fired electricity. And that set off a chain reaction because if your power sector is all set up to use coal, and they’re all dependent upon coal and someone can suddenly undercut them in cost, then what starts to happen?

Singh: Yeah. Then if you are having too many institutions that are locked into the coal value chain and they are being financed by public financial institutions, in many cases, for more and more projects, then you’re end up left holding a bag of stranded assets, potentially really bad debt, that you need to figure out what to do with. And there’s a lot of people that are at work in trying to solve this problem. But one of the things is that the planning process, I think, maybe didn’t envision the rate at which both business innovation and technological innovation pace would pick up to really allow renewables to start undercutting the cost of power generated by coal. And so now the challenge is really ensuring that this coal-centered economy can really start to pivot and be a part of the energy transition story and the green electrons that we really want to bring on.

And I think that’s critical for a place like India, where so much of the coal value chain is state owned and not just privately owned, because they are responsible for the welfare of entire communities where they operate.

Margonelli: How many people are we talking about?

Singh: We’re talking about somewhere between 20 to 30 million people, according to some estimates, that are dependent on the coal-based economy in India. And not just that. I mean, coal is really embedded as part of government revenues for the central government, as well as certain states. And I think this is the case in other parts of the world as well, where part of your state budget comes from revenues from extraction of certain mineral wealth. That’s a hole in their budget that they’re going to have to try and find a way to fill.

And then coal is transported by the Indian Railways, which is a national carrier, and it’s a part of their business plan. It’s something that’s burned by the National Thermal Power Corporation. And it’s certainly something that’s controlled and mined by the largest [government]-owned coal mining agency, Coal India Limited. But these institutions are really important to the economy. So I think their business plans will need to reorient to be a part of the growth story as the cleaner source of electricity really starts to dominate.

Margonelli: Now we’ve got all the balls in the air here. We’ve got 500 million new people online, on the grid. You’ve got that renewable energy is suddenly cheaper than coal. You’ve got 30 million people tied to the economy of coal, including all of these different structures. The railroads are also dependent upon coal. You’ve got all of these things moving. You’ve got India also moving to take a center role in dealing with climate change and reducing carbon emissions. And you also have India moving to take a central role in providing solar solutions to other parts of the country. Tell me how bureaucracy can help get this thing moving in the right direction.

Singh: Yeah, well, I think we need to understand a little bit about the bureaucratic structure of India. And there are far smarter people than I that have studied the Indian bureaucracy. I have had the privilege of engaging with a lot of bureaucrats in the Indian administrative system, which is one of the oldest bureaucracies in the world.

Margonelli: How far back does it go?

Singh: Definitely to the time of the British Empire. So it was definitely a part of the system that the British brought to help govern a pretty large area across South Asia, I would say. So a system that was meant from the district level to the capital to have people be able to track processes, to tax people, to deliver government services. And it’s obviously evolved since that time period and since the partition of the subcontinent into several countries. But it is very much adept at trying to deliver those services. So the system is in place and once given a mission, it can accomplish its tasks.

So I think we’ve come to a point where the system in itself can be given new mandates, a new guiding star to really help better leverage the resources that the country is trying to deploy towards this new target, which the prime minister of India certainly this last winter, in December of last year, announced a net zero target for India. So what does this mean? This now means that the machinery is going to have to figure out a way to rethink its mandates to help meet that target.

Now, the challenge is that the energy governing agencies in the country—there are many, right. They are bifurcated, focused on the power sector, which is controlled both by the central government as well as state governments, so state bureaucracies matter there. But when it comes to oil and gas, that’s controlled by the central government. When it comes to nuclear energy, that’s controlled by the central government. And by power, I also include renewables in that. And the drive to electrify everyone, there was a tremendous opportunity now to deploy electrons of any type to every corner of the country. But at the same time, there’s a mandate to create a gas-based economy, to get gas to every home for cleaner cooking fuel. But I think that there is possibly a way to combine these efforts, now when the electron can do so much more, to really bring some of these agencies together and align towards a vision of a decarbonized energy service delivery agenda.

Margonelli: So bureaucracies are known for being big and lumbering and they have a not-fully-earned reputation in the United States for being slow on the uptake. And I wonder how do you get a bureaucracy to do this? Do you just aim a bureaucracy at a new target and tell them to go for it and they do it?

Singh: Yeah. It’s easier to birth new bureaucratic institutions than it is to kill them or wind them down or completely overnight rewrite their mandate. So I think there has to be a gliding path to reorienting them. And I think this is not specific to India, I think this is around the world. This is in the intergovernmental processes. It’s easier to birth new intergovernmental organizations too than to wind them down. So I think it requires some political will of course. You can go down that route to really mandate a pathway to transition.

But I mean, where do we go? 50 years from now, will there be a need for a Ministry of Coal, not just in India, but anywhere? What happens to that? Do we know what that looks like? Do we know how we slowly meld that into something else? And I would say that there you need to examine the mandates and roles of the different departments in a ministry and think through how you can start to tweak them. The mining section of a Ministry of Coal being reoriented towards critical minerals mining, which is so important to the building blocks of renewable energy, to a department that focuses on just transitions, which is really the topic that everybody is starting to coalesce on.

Margonelli: Explain what that means, just transitions.

Singh: What that really means, and I think this is what I’m trying to say about even these energy institutions and bureaucracies, we’re talking about changing mandates and technologies. And we’re not talking about leaving behind the people, even of these ministries, right. They’re part of a process. And so as the energy transition happens, from fossil fuels to renewable sources, there will be new jobs created and people who will get them. There will inevitably be people who will be left behind, who may, if we don’t plan for it, really be in dire straits and the entire communities that depend on them.

And we see this in the West all the time. I think the classic examples is West Virginia is one key geography here. I’m here in Europe. We’re talking about it in Germany and Poland and Bulgaria and places. So India is at this place where publicly run institutions that are responsible for the welfare of people that are wedded to the fossil fuel value chain have the time and space and the resources to begin funneling capital towards transitioning their own business models and whatever the communities might need to do next.

And I think that’s what a just transition is, is making sure that those people aren’t left behind. And I do think it’s a little bit easier to do with fossil fuel institutions that are state run, because it’s not private sector. So the shareholder is the government and it’s taxpayers and the voting public. They can actually take care of pension plans in a way that I would argue bankruptcy is not the same pathway for a state-owned enterprise as it is for a privately owned one.

Margonelli: I want to jump ahead a little bit, and talk about taking very creative mandates so that the coal company, for example, is no longer earning their keep by finding coal and digging it up, but perhaps by cleaning up previous industrial accidents or areas that have been heavily mined. How do you start to redirect this all in a much more futuristic direction? And I think you have done a lot of creative thinking about these mandates. It’d be very cross-cutting, affect poverty, affect industrialization, affect pollution. Let’s talk a little bit about that creative mandate.

Singh: Well, let’s take the example of an environmental pollution watchdog going around to make sure that industries are compliant in whatever they’re releasing, is it clean and up to standards, the emissions into the air. One typically thinks of a bureaucratic system that’s in the environmental pollution monitoring space as going around to check, to offer citations, to force implementation or closure. Instead, imagine an institution that is able to bulk procure pollution control technologies. And when they’re going to a firm that is making whatever it is making and seeing whether or not they are emitting pollutants—rather than a citation, making sure that everybody has the pollution control technology to at least mitigate for that particular externality, so that we’re not actually generating economic activity at the expense of the environment.

Margonelli: Lay that out a little bit more. So the inspector goes to the ice cream factory and right now the inspector is likely to say, “Hey, you’re shut down. You are dumping something into the water.” So then the ice cream factory shuts down, people lose their jobs, who knows what happens, provided everything works. But then in your scenario, you’re saying the ice cream inspector goes, he looks at the factory. He says, “Look, we have a contract to get scrubbers for your water. We will get those ice cream particles or whatever’s in there out before they go back in the water. Plus, we are also supporting this industry of scrubbers, which also employs other people.” So what you’re saying is that it’s this virtuous circle of environmental protection and jobs.

Singh: Yeah. I imagine then you are potentially creating an ecosystem where you have new firms setting up to not only manufacture, but also innovate upon that incredible amounts of new kinds of pollutant control technologies.

So I think in coming with solutions rather than citations, that whole conversation is changed. And similarly, if a mandate is to get fossil gas into every household for cooking, and by the way, you have to import large amounts of that because you don’t have it for any particular country, why not make it that you are basically ensuring that you can provide cooking energy solutions, and at the same time make the country more energy secure by reducing imports. What does that do to the mandate? In what ways could a bureaucracy start to rethink its own mandate within those confines, rather than, “We will just dig it up, lay pipelines and find more ways to pump those molecules through the pipelines to every home”? Which the price fluctuations on that fossil gas will continue to be a political headache time and again, and subsidies will have to be found from some part of the budget to make sure people are kept happy so that they can cook their food.

Margonelli: And so this is moving to electric food cooking it runs on, that uses this grid and uses all these different sources. So a word I’ve heard you use is “intrapreneurs,” and that is bureaucrats as creative as an entrepreneur. Tell me about your experiences with this. Tell me why you believe in an entrepreneur.

Singh: I have had a short stint in a bureaucratic structure myself, and I know what it’s like to be a part of a process, work things up a chain, make sure that bilateral or multilateral policies are in line with what we want domestically. And I think that you get used to a process, but I think there are windows where you can then think about ways to improve the process. And particularly, depending on at what level of governance and the chain of bureaucracy you are in, my experience has been in conversation that, particularly in federal systems, where states have quite a bit of power, there is ample space for innovative new things to be tested. And for those ideas to end up becoming national policy. And we’ve seen this in the US, we’ve seen it in India, other parts of the world where such structures exist.

And so I think as we are at the cusp of more clean energy, more disruptive technology being deployed, it’s at the subnational level, where the money is being deployed, where the technologies are being deployed, that there is scope, if given the space, to individuals who are willing to put their ideas out there to be able to test these waters and to innovate new types of policy design for sure, and that happens, but even think through how the institutions at the state level can be recast.

Margonelli: It’s interesting because the story that you’re telling about bureaucracies, we tend to think it’s top down, but you’re also saying it’s bottom up, and that the experiences from the states or the towns or counties can percolate up while also directives can come down and support can come down. And you can end up with this meshing of the different levels that you don’t necessarily get with higher level climate policy. And in fact, part of what you’re talking about is getting the whole bureaucracy engaged in this process.

Singh: Yeah. And I think the ways that I have seen it play out, and I think I’ll use a very specific example, if there’s time. I’ve traveled to an Indian state of Assam. It’s in India’s northeast. I’ve been there a couple times. There’s the state-based arm of India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy called the Assam Energy Development Agency. I’ve gone there to have a meeting outside the agency, where the relics of the agency’s past, right, from an era when the states and the central government was really trying to socialize the importance of renewable energy and educate the masses about what it was and the real government push behind it, right? So there’s a huge demo vehicle with a solar hot water heater, a solar panel, a wind turbine not at scale, and solar lights and things like that.

It is in this moment in time when I visited, I think it was in 2014, tires were deflated. It was rusted and dusty. Outside the agency was also a government-run solar shop, again, meant to help people buy subsidized solar products, cobwebbed, dust covered. Went inside and the flurry of activity in this place was unbelievable. I mean, a passionate group of committed staff talking about floatable tanks, which is basically how to leverage ponds and water bodies as a means to deploy solar panels on top of them to generate electricity in places where you don’t have much land, but maybe you’re living in a water world situation, which is Assam. And calling up a local entrepreneur who is busy setting up an electric vehicle charging business for a booming three wheeler automotive market, that three-wheelers are used to basically transport goods and people and are cheap, and anybody can get in the business of maybe putting together a vehicle or buying a vehicle and recuperating their costs to transport goods and people. And so it was a completely different thing happening on the inside than the shell, which was the outside.

So the technologies had changed. The times have changed. The business models had changed. The people were still the same and they were one step ahead, if not several, in trying to make sure that they were mastering the changing energy transition around them. And I think that’s what we’re talking about here.

Margonelli: That’s such an interesting thing of really, really figuring out how to deploy the people who understand how all the little parts fit together. And for floatable tanks you really need to understand your local farmers and your local ponds and solar. And you can’t fly in and come up with a wacky idea like floatable tanks and expect it to work. Can you say a little bit about what kind of retraining would be necessary for the bureaucrats? What sorts of process funding process changes would be necessary?

Singh: Yeah, well, listen, I think that I’d be curious to know if such models have been tried by different governments. One way that I have seen it play out in India more recently is giving a certain level of autonomy to bureaucrats to approve projects above raising the threshold of budget line item that a bureaucrat might be able to approve a project for, or use discretionary funds for. I think that would be a really interesting way to allow bureaucracy or those in leadership positions in bureaucracy to be able to experiment with new ideas.

I think exchanges with innovative institutions or think tanks or labs as it may be within the country or outside the country to get exposure is a way to get one out of a system they’re so entrenched in and where resources are not there. I mean, I think that’s where funding could be made that is more nimble to allow that flexibility for creating flexible ministries, like transition ministry even. Can we pilot this out, this new initiative, park a team somewhere together whose time will be covered if we’re afraid to use taxpayer dollars to do it?

And I think those are solutions that are worth trying where governments open to it, of course, because we don’t know what kinds of solutions might emerge from such a process. So those are some of the ways that I think could be tried, and maybe are already being tried by certain governments somewhere.

Margonelli: I wanted to ask you a little bit. We tend to frame the policies as having winners and losers. And I think another way of framing it is that everyone has burdens to bear in the global climate regime. And one of the things I thought was very interesting about this thinking through the bureaucracy is that you start to see that there are opportunities to share, you start to see the problem in an entirely new way. So talk to me a little bit about that. How did this start to open up for you as you started thinking about it? And how can it be applied to elsewhere?

Singh: I think some of these ideas were coming more fast-paced post pandemic, of course. Right? You hit a wall, you shut the global economy down, and then you’re emerging from that, and it’s a struggle. And there’s a lot of talk about “building back better,” right, in many parts of the world and unleashing tremendous amounts of capital, the likes of which we haven’t seen, even in the US, for quite some time. I think that’s even the infrastructure bill is an incredible infusion of funds that we’re still figuring out how it’s going to be used.

And so that all that money needs to be guided by a rethinking on the institutional side. And also every dollar spent now matters more than ever, and it should be going towards building a more climate resilient society and one where we have less social unrest caused by economic insecurities is what I’m really getting at here, because there’s no time to lose. I mean, I think the pandemic really showed that we need to build back better. So the guiding paths really need to be making sure that we create jobs and that we’re repairing ecosystems while we’re doing it because the pandemic is also, let’s not forget, driven by a zoonotic disease that really came out of the problem that we have, the constant battle with the ecosystems that surround us.

And I think to get at can this be done around the world, in other parts of the world? Is that what you were wanting to—

Margonelli: Yeah. I’m wondering is this a thinking that we should apply elsewhere? When you make carbon the center of the problem, you have winners and you have losers. And how do you figure out more winners?

Singh: Carbon, we have made that the problem, right? And you see at the global stage: who’s going to emit how much more carbon before we all burn up, right? That’s been part of the reason why the global debate and the negotiations on climate have been slow. And many would say that climate change is happening, it’s going to happen, now we need to survive what’s coming, and build a more resilient society fast and find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

So, I mean, I think now we need to bring everybody along and not be antagonistic entirely. I mean, it’s true that many more ships need to be guided in the right direction and there needs to be more advocacy. But I would say that this is where the just transition piece really becomes, again, critical to making sure that the machinery in place that is fossil fuel value chain driven, that is carbon driven, is made a part of the electron delivery value chain, and is part of the opportunity unleashed by the discussion of everything getting electrified. And I do think that the fact that we’re headed in that direction of a electrify-everything moment really presents that opportunity for so many more jobs to be created, for so much more ecosystem to be restored, and so much better use of our financial resources.

Margonelli: This does present an exciting opportunity to really rethink industrialization so that it benefits more people without harming the environment. Thank you, Kartikeya, for speaking with us today about how bureaucracy can be used for energy and climate innovation. And thank you for listening to this episode of The Ongoing Transformation. To learn more, check out Kartikeya Singh’s article, “Bureaucracies for the Better,” on issues.org. You can also look at our show notes to find links to these articles and more. And please subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. You can email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions, we’d love to hear from you. And if you enjoy conversations like this one, visit us at issues.org, consider subscribing to our magazine, and definitely sign up for our newsletter, so you know what’s going on. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for joining us.