Indian telecom sector shies away from low-carbon model

Bharti Airtel and the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) have reneged on their commitment of disclosing a detailed and sustainable emission reduction plan, including a substantial substitution of diesel with renewable alternatives to power their network operations by September 2011, environmental organisation Greenpeace India has alleged.

The public commitment was made following a meeting between Bharti Airtel, representatives of COAI and Greenpeace India on June 10, 2011.

“Not only have they failed to deliver on their commitment, they are now looking to backtrack by abdicating their responsibilities to address this problem. While they are happy to make positive statements, they are unwilling to back these up on the ground with tangible and substantive commitments,” said Mrinmoy Chattaraj, Climate and Energy Campaigner, Greenpeace India.

In June 2011, Bharti Airtel, along with Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) representatives met Greenpeace India and promised to disclose its emission reduction plan, and a plan to use clean energy to power its network operations by September 2011. Now they refuse to act.

The meeting between Greenpeace India and the Bharti Airtel led COAI was preceded by a public campaign where over 70,000 individuals from across the country urged the company to substantially shift to renewable sources for its energy requirements.

At that time, COAI had committed that within three months it would develop a clear, detailed and sustainable emission reduction programme with realistic timeframes for achievement and share this with Greenpeace and other interested parties. Such detail would have included issues of a common approach to measurement, comparability of results, common definition of terms, identification of initiatives that have the best promise of effectiveness, efficiency and scalability and defined milestones for implementation. In addition, COAI committed within this timeframe to engage a competent third party entity to assist its members with “best international practices” and provide independent verification of achievement of programs and milestones. Efforts have already begun with the adoption of the GSMA programme for energy use reduction.

Rajan S Mathews, Director-General COAI, had stated that it was time that serious companies with a serious intention of reducing carbon emissions, rolled up their sleeves and focused their energies together on the real task at hand, instead of “dissipating their energies on cheap headlines and sound bites played out in the media.”

Recently, Vodafone Essar and Google have disclosed their carbon emissions and renewable energy goals publicly. In the absence of public reporting by any of the companies in the Indian telecom sector so far, this could have far-reaching consequences for the long-term sustainability and profitability of the telecom industry in India.

Vodafone released its sustainability report in August, the first in the Indian telecom industry. The company disclosed carbon emissions from operations under its direct control and set a tentative emission reduction target of 20 per cent by 2015. The company will finalise its emission reduction target by early next year. Though, the content of the Vodafone sustainability report in terms of disclosure and target-setting is far from satisfaction, it sets the stage for transparency on the use of energy sources in its operation and is being seen as an important development. This will push other major telecom operators in India to follow the same path. So far, however, this has not happened.

“Quite clearly, we now have a precedent to suggest that the transit to a low-carbon profitable model is feasible for India’s telecom sector. The question before Bharti Airtel is whether it is willing to act in line with its professed commitments to decouple its growth from growing carbon emissions, in a manner befitting a responsible market leader,” said Chattaraj.

The issue grabbed centre stage earlier this year through Greenpeace India’s report Dirty Talking – A case for telecom to shift from diesel to renewable which exposed how the subsidy on diesel has been aggressively exploited by the telecom sector, resulting in an annual loss of around Rs 2600 crore to the state exchequer. The report also showed how the sector can become a transformative force by adopting renewable energy for their business operations and advocating economy wide climate and energy solutions.

Since the release of this report, Greenpeace has been urging Bharti Airtel to:

  • Publicly disclose the carbon emissions of its entire business operation and establish progressive emission reduction target.
  • Commit to shift the sourcing of 50% of its energy requirements towards renewable energy sources and phase out diesel use in its business operations by 2015.
  • Catalyse a low-carbon economy wide growth, by using its brand power to advocate for strong policies that promote renewable energy.