Meeting climate commitments will be a challenge, say experts

Things will become clear once India spells out how it plans to go about achieving targets

India’s headline announcement at COP26, to become carbon neutral by 2070, suggests that it has committed itself to decisive action to curb runaway greenhouse gas emissions from mid-century.

However, experts say that much will become clear only after India submits its updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). This document spells out the minutiae on how exactly it plans to go about achieving these targets.

India’s five-fold plan, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi spelt out on Monday say India’s non-fossil energy capacity will reach 500 GW by 2030; it will meet 50% of its energy requirements with renewable energy by 2030; it will reduce its total projected carbon emissions by a billion tonnes by 2030; and reduce the carbon intensity of its economy to less than 45% and achieve net zero by 2070. Net zero is when a country’s carbon emissions are offset by taking out equivalent carbon from the atmosphere, so that emissions in balance are zero.

Peaking year

However, achieving net zero by a specific date means specifying a year, also called a peaking year, following which emissions will start to reduce.

China for instance has announced a peaking year of 2030 for a purported net zero emissions year of 2060. The U.S. had a peaking year of 2007 and expects to be net zero by 2050. The United Kingdom peaked in 1973, but expects to be net zero only by 2050.

Though there is no clarity yet from the government, experts in the run up to COP26 have wrestled with these questions.

A March 2021, study by analyst Vaibhav Chaturvedi, at the Council for Energy, Environment and Water, suggested that for a 2070 net zero year and peaking year of 2040, India would have to reduce the emissions intensity (emissions per unit GDP) by 85% — it has so far reduced it to 24% from 2005 levels. The share of non-hydro Renewable Energy has to increase to 65% from the 11% today; the share of electric cars in passenger sales has to go from 0.1% today to 75% by 2040; and the share of fossil energy in primary energy has to decrease from 73% to 40%.

For a peaking year of 2030, these targets would be stiffer.

Renewable energy

India, as part of its NDC in 2015, had committed itself to installing 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022. Till 28 February 2021, the country had achieved 94 GW, comprising 25 per cent share in total installed capacity for power generation. If large hydro installed capacity is included (45 GW by February 2021), then India’s non-fossil energy capacity is 139 GW — close to 38 per cent of installed capacity — according to the Centre for Science and Environment.

Diplomatic compulsions likely forced India to announce a net zero date as it was the only one among major economies not to have specified a net zero year until now. India, however, should have said that it will reach net zero by 2070, only if other developed countries themselves commit to reaching net zero before 2050, said Navroz Dubash, Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. “The net zero pledge will be much less consequential to what India actually does than the detailed sub-pledges.”

However, Prime Minister Modi’s plans to decarbonise the Indian Railways by 2030 was a good example of how India ought to be demonstrating change at a sectoral level — and that in turn would be more politically palatable than making huge transformations, he added.

Carbon dioxide reduction

There is also no clarity on how many of the announced targets are unconditional and how many are onditional. “The statement on the required $1 trillion in finance suggests that India is telling the developed countries we are watching you on providing finance, the way you are watching us on emissions,” said Prof. Dubash.

He added that the billion tonnes of carbon dioxide reduction in the next decade also needed more clarity. The billion tonnes would be premised on a reference point that shows what the emissions would be in a business-as-usual scenario. “We don’t yet know what scenario has been considered. This is the time we should have more careful and broad modelling over a consistent period to detail our emission trajectories towards 2030,” he noted.

“India’s national targets are bold and ambitious, and will be immensely challenging as well to achieve. Going by our comparatively low contribution to global emissions and considering that our economy needs to grow and meet the energy needs of millions of poor citizens, we did not need to make such an ambitious pledge. But these are a challenge to the already rich world to step up — the time for procrastination is over,” said Sunita Narain, Director-General, CSE.

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