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Luxembourg: On Monday, the second day of the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow – which is being billed as the last chance to save the planet – the world got its first major climate commitment, from India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the podium in the evening to announce that India would aim to become carbon-neutral by 2070.
That is, by 2070, India will be able to capture, absorb and/or sequester all its greenhouse-gas emissions such that what it emits is equal to what it puts away.
At the moment, carbon capture technologies are too expensive and not implementable at scale, thus presenting one significant challenge, among many, that India will need to overcome in the next 49 years.
Modi’s commitment comes after months of developed nations pushing India and other major emitters to announce a net-zero target this century. And until Modi’s speech, India had vociferously pushed back against these calls. Only a few days ago, Union environment ministry secretary R.P. Gupta had said India wouldn’t set a net-zero target because, he argued, the path to lower emissions was more important than simply achieving that target.
The target year of 2070 is also at odds with the economically developed nations’ demand for other major emitters to commit to net-zero by 2050. However, it isn’t entirely new. In a policy brief published in March 2021, a member of the Council on Energy Environment and Water, a think-tank, wrote that India should have until 2070 to hit net-zero because that’s also when the country will meet the World Bank’s definition of being developed: an income of $12,500 per capita, at the current CAGR of 5.5%.
Now, India has become the last major emitter to get on the net-zero bandwagon – a move that is certain to bring plaudits from as many corners as criticism from others. Many experts have criticised the world’s focus on long-term net-zero targets if they will come at the cost of urgent action to reduce emissions in the next decade.
The definitive panel of experts on climate change – the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – has already established that global emissions need to drop by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels to limit warming to 1.5º C above pre industrial levels. This means net-zero emissions targets situated a few decades away may be necessary but are definitely not sufficient.
The importance of not breaching the 1.5º C threshold was articulated in an impassioned speech by the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, earlier on Monday. “For those who have eyes to see, for those who have ears to listen, and those who have a heart to feel, 1.5º C is what we need to survive,” she said.
“2º C is a death sentence for the people of Antigua and Barbuda, for the people of the Maldives, of Dominica and Fiji, of Kenya and Mozambique, and yes, for the people of Barbados.”
In his speech, Modi described net-zero by 2070 as one element of the ‘Panchamrit’ (Hindi for ‘five-part elixir’) to deal with climate change – although it may well be the principal ingredient.
Achieving net-zero for a country of India’s size as well as ambitions won’t be easy at all. For example, in August 2020, the world’s largest producer of coal, Coal India, said it is “poised to become” a net-zero PSU. This was an obviously insular statement, considering the Indian government also wishes Coal India to produce more coal by 2024.
This feeds into the next, and related, problem. If India’s carbon capture and storage capacity doesn’t scale quickly enough – and it’s unlikely to – the country will be faced with a much more limited option: to rapidly reduce its fossil-fuel-based power generation in favour of renewable energy. The latter will be much more expensive, exclusionary, and, to quote M. Rajshekhar, will “only hasten the inevitable creative destruction that will accompany decarbonisation”.
In addition, India already has, and seems keen to further, environmental policies that privilege the forest’s timber over the forest-dweller, rapid afforestation over the rejuvenation of native species, and ‘pay and pollute’ over ‘don’t pollute’. Just earlier in October, officials of the Union environment ministry crafted a proposal to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 that, if realised, will weaken the law’s ability to check deforestation for vaguely defined industrial and strategic projects.
Taken together, to echo Rajshekhar, “India is seeing a pairing of extractive political and economic institutions” – one outcome of which will be “rising inequality”.
The four other targets that Modi announced as part of India’s improved commitments under the Paris Agreement lie in the next decade.
India has announced that by 2030, it will have installed 500 GW of non-fossil-fuel electricity generation capacity. This is a major improvement over India’s existing commitment to have 40% of its electricity generation capacity to be from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030.
The country had already installed 39% of this target, but the new target is ambitious. As of the beginning of October this year, India had 154 GW of non-fossil-fuel based generation capacity. So in the nine years until 2030, India will have to add about 38 GW a year to its installed capacity to meet the 500-GW target.
The 500 GW is a version of the target set by Modi at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York when he announced that India would aim to install 450 GW of renewable energy electricity generation capacity by 2030.
But there are two crucial differences between the New York summit and COP26 announcements. First, the New York announcement wasn’t part of India’s commitment under the Paris Agreement. Second, it was worded as “renewable electricity generation capacity” as opposed to “non-fossil-fuel generation capacity”. This means the target India has now committed to under the Paris Agreement includes large hydroelectric projects.
This in turn is a significant problem because the Indian government’s programme to build such projects in the northern states, especially in Uttarakhand of late, has been antidemocratic, ecologically damaging and unsustainable in the long run. As such, experts in the country have characterised these projects as an anti-scientific quest for (electric) power at the cost of the ability of the people, the land and the wildlife around these projects being able to withstand climate shocks.
Back in Glasgow, Modi’s second commitment seemed even more daunting: “India will meet 50% of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030.”
Details on the nuances of today’s announcements are still awaited, but Modi’s words may be interpreted to mean that 50% of electricity generated in India will come from renewable sources by 2030. That will need spectacular change.
In the first ten months of 2021, India generated 70% of its electricity from coal, and just about 25% from non-fossil-fuel sources, including large hydroelectric projects, according to Charles Worringham, an independent energy researcher who follows India’s energy sector.
“Achieving 50% non-fossil generation within a decade will require an immediate, substantial and sustained increase in the installation rate of solar capacity – challenging but possible with clear policy signals to attract the necessary investment,” Worringham said.
Third, Modi announced that India would reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 46-48% from 2005 levels. This is an improvement over the current commitment to reduce emissions intensity by 33-35% – but is also another target India has almost met.
Fourth, and finally, Modi introduced a new target: that India would reduce its total carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030. However, the prime minister’s speech didn’t mention an extant commitment of India’s under the Paris Agreement – to create 2.5-3 billion tonnes of additional carbon sinks. As Article 14 recently reported, the government has no clear plan on how it will achieve this target – much less reduce its total carbon emissions.
As such, a more detailed pathway is awaited to better understand the nature of India’s commitments. At the same time, there should be no doubt that India’s expanded bouquet of pledges vis-à-vis climate action, as announced today in Glasgow, represent a major increase in ambition and set the stage for other nations to follow.
Modi seemed to acknowledge as much, with a remark pointed at what is expected to be COP26’s principal point of contention: “While we all are raising our ambitions on climate action, the world’s ambitions on climate finance cannot remain the same as they were at the time of the Paris Agreement.”
The Paris Agreement of 2015 required the world’s economically developed nations to come together and provide $100 billion a year to developing nations to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change. That promise is yet to be fulfilled. According to one recent analysis, the target is likely to be met only by 2023.
In his speech, Modi also urged developed nations to increase their climate finance ambitions multifold to provide $1 trillion in climate finance “at the earliest” – and to ‘pressure’ those countries that make financial promises they don’t keep.