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What India’s new climate goals mean, and why they are seen as ‘ambitious’

India’s net-zero emissions by 2070 target made headlines, but experts are more interested in the shorter term goals for 2030, and the impact they might have.

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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi made five new commitments to help slow down climate change with much pomp and fervour at the COP26 Monday, marking India’s entry into the club of over 100 nations that have pledged net-zero emissions before the turn of the century.

Net-zero emissions implies carbon neutrality, or removing and absorbing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as is produced. 

Apart from committing to net-zero emissions by 2070, India also committed to increasing non-fossil energy capacity to 500 gigawatts (GW), fulfilling 50 per cent of energy requirements from renewable sources, reducing carbon intensity of economy by 45 per cent, and reducing total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes — all by 2030.

While the net-zero target made headlines, experts are more interested in the shorter term goals for 2030, and the impact they might have on India’s emissions and climate change, since they are more measurable. 

Here’s a deeper look at the new commitments, and what experts have to say about them.

Also read: ‘One Sun, One World, One Grid’ — At COP 26, PM Modi calls for global solar power grid

Why net-zero is the ‘least ambitious’

Being the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, India has been under a lot of pressure to commit to a net-zero target by countries like the US and the UK who have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050. India was also the last of the G20 countries — which together are responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions — to make this commitment. 

“The 2070 net zero target was diplomatically necessary — the last major economy to fall in the basket — but more a box to be checked under diplomatic pressure, and ideally should have been linked to developed countries reaching net zero before 2050,” said Navroz Dubash, professor of climate change at the Centre for Policy Research.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report earlier this year warned that the global emissions of carbon dioxide must reach net-zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. 

Developing countries, including India, have argued that developed countries should reach there sooner, since they are primarily responsible for the historical emissions causing global warming today. Emissions are inextricably linked to economic development and growth, and so developing countries have argued for more time before having to cut back on emissions.

“By choosing a target of 2070, India is trying to introduce that idea of differentiation. But one would need to assess the impact it will have on keeping temperatures low,” said Apurba Mitra, Head of National Climate Policy at the non-profit World Resources Institute India.

“What a net-zero target will do is give a long-term policy signal across sectors and industries (to decarbonise),” Mitra added.

Without a roadmap of how India will achieve net zero emissions, Dubash is skeptical that such a long term goal is meaningful. “Net zero targets have to have short term measures to accompany them, a credible accountability system, and details on the use of carbon sinks. Without those things, net zero is just wishful thinking,” he said.

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Renewable energy goals

More significantly, India has decided to ramp up its non-fossil fuel capacity (such as solar, hydro, wind and nuclear) to 500 GW by 2030. India has been moving in this direction for some time now, and pledged last year to create 450 GW of installed renewable energy capacity by 2030. 

India’s grid capacity is currently at 388.89 GW. According to an analysis by non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India’s non-fossil energy capacity came up to 134 GW in 2019.

“This is a very ambitious goal because there are lots of challenges. Both solar and wind energy fluctuate and it is difficult to stabilise the grid because of this. You always need to have a supply of coal to keep power going on standby. Plus, storage for renewable energy is expensive and hard to come by,” Mitra said.

Modi also said India would fulfil 50 per cent of its “energy requirements” from renewable energy — but experts say he may have made a mistake.

India’s energy requirements are likely to skyrocket to 1,123 million tonnes of oil equivalent as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expands to $8.6 trillion by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.

“If he really means energy, this goal is unachievable, because it would include fuel, transport, everything. If he meant electricity, that would be far more viable. There needs to be more clarity on that,” said Mitra.

According to Dubash, this goal — if it pertains to electricity generation — is among the most significant. “This is important because it means actual electricity generated, not just capacity built. It implies a constraint on the future share of coal power which becomes a cap when electricity demand plateaus,” he said.

Coal accounts for 70 per cent of India’s electricity generation, while renewable energy accounted for just 9.2 per cent as of 2019. 

“If we target to meet 50 per cent of our requirements from renewables, then the installed capacity will have to increase from the planned 450 GW to 700 GW. If we consider hydroelectricity as part of renewables — as it is considered globally — then we will need to increase new renewable capacity to 630 GW. This is definitely achievable,” the CSE analysis said.

In a briefing on 2 November, the Ministry of External Affairs suggested this goal pertained not to generation but installed capacity from non-fossil-based energy resources. This is 10 per cent up from the commitment made as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, when India pledged an electric power capacity target of 40 per cent installed capacity from non-fossil-based energy resources.

More clarity is likely when India submits the fine-print of this announcement in the form of an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) a Paris Agreement target to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Carbon reduction

By reducing total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes, India has committed to an absolute reduction in emissions for the first time ever — but there are still some ambiguities about whether this is a fixed reduction or cumulative reduction, till 2030.

India’s emissions are set to reach between 3.8-3.9 gigatonnes by 2030. In 2020, India produced 2.88 gigatonnes of CO2. One billion tonnes is equivalent to one giga tonne.

“It is not clear if the 1 billion tonne reduction is from a baseline, and if so, what is it? It also isn’t clear if this means an increase in tree cover and sinks to absorb this carbon,” said Dubash. “The other ambiguity is the idea of ‘projected emissions’. Various models have various projections. Which will you choose?”

The last goal is a reduction in the carbon intensity of the economy by 45 per cent by 2030. Carbon intensity of economy refers to the volume of emissions per unit of GDP.

This is a step up from the Paris Agreement target of reducing carbon emissions intensity of the economy by 33-35 per cent below 2005 levels. 

“As per CSE’s observations, India has achieved 25 per cent of emission intensity reduction of GDP between 2005-2016, and is on a path to achieve more than 40 per cent by 2030. But this means that India will have to take up enhanced measures to reduce emissions from the transport sector, the energy-intensive industrial sector, especially cement, iron and steel, non-metallic minerals, and chemicals,” the CSE analysis said.

This is an updated version of the report

Also read: Developed nations presenting $100 bn annual support till 2025 ‘unacceptable’: India at COP26


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