- India, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter and highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, announced, at the climate conference in Glasgow, that it would achieve net-zero by 2070.
- India’s net-zero promise puts the spotlight squarely on finance as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanded USD one trillion from wealthy nations to help poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
- Beyond the initial euphoria, India faces tough challenges to make good its commitment as a growing economy, higher energy use and rapid industrialisation call for wiser and more efficient utilisation of resources.
The 26th Conference of Parties (CoP-26) to the United Nations Climate Change Convention in Glasgow got off to a hopeful start when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised world leaders and delegates by announcing that India will aim to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2070.
In the run up to the Glasgow summit, India was expected to upgrade its voluntary national commitment, but Modi went a step ahead by declaring a net-zero target, adding the country to the roster of nations that have already done so, including the US, the European Union and China, the biggest emitters.
The climate conference in the Scottish city started on high rhetoric at the World Leaders’ Summit attended by more than 120 heads of state, where there were repeated calls to save humanity by avoiding a climate catastrophe. The summit is seen as the “last best chance” for stronger climate action to restrain global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with the beginning of the industrial era.
The UN Environment Programme had warned in a report just days ahead of the summit that the measures detailed in all the national plans submitted under the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement would still leave the world 2.7 degrees warmer by 2100. This could lead to runaway global warming and particularly affect billions of people living in more vulnerable developing nations, scientists and experts have warned.
“For many developing countries, climate change is looming large over their existence,” Modi said in his address. “We have to take big steps today to save the world. This is the need of the hour.”
The Panchamrit principles
There will be five key elements to India’s commitment to climate action, Modi said, dubbing it panchamrit (five nectars), referencing a holy concoction in Hinduism. India will reach its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030; it will meet 50 percent of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030; it will reduce the total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes from now onwards till 2030; it will reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by less than 45 percent; and finally, it will achieve the target of net-zero by 2070.
“These panchamrits will be an unprecedented contribution of India to climate action,” the Indian Prime Minister said. In his characteristic style, Modi introduced a new coinage: LIFE. “There is a need for all of us to come together, together with collective participation, to take Lifestyle for Environment (LIFE) forward as a campaign,” he said.
The new targets set by India does not mean its absolute emissions will decline by the end of this decade, but the goals will help the world stem global warming significantly compared with the current trajectory.
To keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees, the world has to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by about the middle of the century and then achieve net zero across all greenhouse gases by 2070, according to scientific projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s most authoritative body of climate experts.
The announcement by India was welcomed across the board by experts. “Prime Minister Modi cut through the rhetoric and delivered a big promise of climate action from India,” said Ajay Mathur, director general of the International Solar Alliance, an initiative to harness renewable energy in tropical and sub-tropical countries that was launched jointly by India and France at the 2015 Paris summit.
Although India is home to 17 percent of the world’s population, it is responsible for only about 5 percent of the total emissions. “Passengers numbering more than the entire population of the world travel by Indian Railways every year,” Modi said. “This huge railway system has set itself a target of making itself net zero by 2030.” This initiative alone will lead to a reduction of 60 million tons of emissions every year, he said.
Focus squarely on climate finance
India’s surprise new commitments to stronger climate action have put the focus on the main contentious issue on global negotiations: finance.
“Today it is necessary that as we track the progress made in climate mitigation, we should also track climate finance,” the Indian Prime Minister said. He demanded that wealthy nations should provide climate finance to the tune of USD one trillion at the earliest.
The developed world has been dragging its feet to provide funds to poorer countries to help them mitigate and adapt to the worst impacts of climate change. In 2009, they had agreed to provide USD 100 billion every year from 2020 to finance such efforts. This collective goal was reaffirmed under the Paris Agreement in 2015. However, in the Climate Finance Deliver Plan, released last week these countries said they will honour their commitment only in 2023, kicking the finance goal down the road for three years.
“India has clearly put the ball in the court of the developed world,” said Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive at Council for Energy, Environment and Water, a New Delhi-based think tank. “Now India demands $1 trillion in climate finance as soon as possible and will monitor not just climate action but also climate finance.”
At the Rome summit of G20 nations, which are collectively responsible for more than 80 percent of global emissions, that took place just before the Glasgow talks, the leaders reached an agreement on climate, which was disappointing as there was no mention of mobilising finance for developing economies. The G20 comprises mostly of rich countries, besides India and China.
“India is rightly asking for climate justice and asking developed nations to fulfill their promise of providing technology transfer and finance,” said Vibhuti Garg, energy economist at Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a research organisation.
Despite finance being linked directly with equity and climate justice, negotiators in Glasgow will struggle to get new commitments from the developed world for further funding, experts said. However, any climate negotiations at the international will now have to keep finance front and centre.
India’s challenges towards net-zero
Although India’s announcement on the first day of the summit has set the tone for the Glasgow talks, a closer look at the five principles show that the country will have to overcome several challenges to make good on its intentions.
The first is on reforming the electricity sector that is crucial to lower emissions because coal is presently used to generate almost 70 percent of domestic power generation. Since 2014, when the current regime assumed office, the country’s solar and wind capacity has increased to about 93 gigawatts.
Meeting the target of 500 gigawatts of renewables by 2030 is therefore a massive increase and will require a dramatic acceleration in installed capacity. International investments in solar and wind energy capacity addition will have to play a significant role, as would policy initiatives by the central and state government such as lower tariffs on solar modules.
About 80 percent of India’s total energy demand, and not just electricity, depends on coal, oil and solid biomass. The use of coal is expected to increase even if the country stops building new thermal power plants. Millions of households still rely on cheap biomass for cooking and initiatives to help them switch to cleaner natural gas will need to be boosted. In short, changing this energy mix will require more than just adding renewables, experts said.
India’s economic growth is expected to lead to a corresponding increase in the demand for energy. It has already doubled since the beginning of this century as millions of homes have added electrical connections and a similar number is buying appliances like refrigerators and ACs as standards of living improve.
Meeting the rising demand would mean not only adding solar and wind, but also hydropower. That might prove to be a daunting challenge as there are strong resistance to new hydro-electric projects on environmental grounds. The country also needs to massively reduce transmission and distribution losses as well as introduce more stringent energy efficiency norms.
It must also be kept in mind that India is still industrialising at a rapid rate. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions from producing steel, cement, chemicals, and other carbon-intensive materials will certainly rise despite good intentions on climate action. In these areas, India would have to deploy more energy-efficient measures, switch to cleaner fuels, and innovate on and invest in carbon-capture technologies.
Read more: For net-zero by 2050, India needs 2.5 percent of its land for clean energy installation
Also: Net zero debate: Where do Indian states stand on the decarbonisation pathway?
Banner image: A coal mine in Jharkhand India. Photo by Srikant Chaudhary/Mongabay.