Should India declare a net zero emission target?

Updated on Mar 30, 2021 05:02 PM IST

Net zero emission by 2050 is emerging as the latest war cry on the climate front. And the drum beat is getting louder as the Glasgow climate conference draws nearer

Representational Image. (File photo)
Representational Image. (File photo)
ByRR Rashmi

Net zero emission by 2050 is emerging as the latest war cry on the climate front. And the drum beat is getting louder as the Glasgow climate conference draws nearer.

John Kerry, the United States (US) special presidential envoy for climate, while addressing the World Sustainable Development Summit in Delhi in February, made it clear that “net zero” and “shut down of coal plants globally” will be his two important priorities in Glasgow.

India’s challenge has deepened because, in at least 12 of the G20 economies, the net zero goal has either been adopted or is under discussion, with China being one among the latest entrants to the club. A net zero goal by 2050 is not an unqualified demand of the Paris Agreement, which only asks the signatories to furnish their commitments in a time-frame of five or 10 years. There is, of course, an expectation that each country will develop a long-term low-emission strategy for growth. But, the goal of net zero has caught on after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mentioned, in its 2018 report, about limiting global warming through net zero emissions by mid-century.

Also Read | UK’s 2020 emission drop sees it almost halfway to net zero

IPCC did not attempt a common definition of net zero. The notion of net zero ranges widely enough to include net zero carbon emissions, net zero greenhouse gas emissions, carbon neutrality, deep decarbonisation or simply put, long-term low-carbon growth.

Technically, India can shrug off this demand by saying that it has already taken significant steps in decarbonising its existing energy system. It has ramped up its ambition of renewable energy generation capacity to 450 GWs by 2030 and has achieved renewable penetration of about 38% in terms of capacity and 10% in demand. The system cost of solar energy with battery storage may also gain parity with that of coal-produced power latest by 2035, signalling that the days of coal-fired power are numbered, despite structural and commercial issues affecting the penetration of solar and wind energy in the grid.

The real issue in adopting a net zero goal lies in political and economic constraints. net zero in the energy system is technologically feasible in the long-run, but economically challenging. 2050 is a dateline whose validity depends on four factors — high penetration level of renewables in the energy system, high level of electrification of energy grids, introduction of cost-effective green hydrogen-based economy, and biomass based biofuel production at scale. There is also another dimension. Despite these measures, there will still be a humongous amount of carbon left in the system that we have to resort to artificial ways of carbon removals continuously at a massive scale. There is no getting away from this; scientists know it well.

So, it is not the desirability of the goal but its technological feasibility, economic costs and social impacts which are at the core of the debate. There is a trade-off between the environmental gain and the social and developmental benefits. How should we structure our response then? Should we go for a top-down target or create conditions for transition to carbon-using sectors, such that the transition causes least damage to social and developmental goals?

This requires three things to be settled. First, India must know its emissions peak year. If we do not know the peaking date, the net zero target year remains indeterminate. We need to factor in the growth of energy needs and technologies to be able to do so. China announced it more than five years ago and decided on 2035; it may achieve it sooner than later. China has announced a net zero goal for 2060. That will give them 25 years or more for turning net zero, with nearly five times bigger an economy. How much time will it take for India to reach there?

Also Read | India debates the net zero emission target— what is at stake

Second, India should work towards carbon neutrality at a sectoral level. The power sector is ready to make the transition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already announced 450 GW target for renewables. This needs to grow massively to around 5,000 GW of solar alone to be able to support full decarbonisation in 2050. The transition to solar energy means that coal use will shrink, though not vanish.

Can we, therefore, first think of a cap year for coal emissions? This will depend on how, and by what date we can scale up renewables along with storage to replace coal not only in the grid but also in the furnaces. At the same time, we have to ensure that the transition away from coal is just, and there is no net loss of incomes and jobs to people.

Three, even after coal emissions from power production fall, the emissions in industry and transport remain unaddressed. Neutralising them is possible only if we advance application of hydrogen and biofuels at industrial scale. Can India wait till the late 2040s for the hydrogen economy to deliver? There is clearly a need for a global push for the development and application of these technologies within a specific time-frame. The global community should be asked to create an international platform for financing innovations and CO2 reductions in harder to abate sectors.

The Multilateral Fund under the Montreal Protocol, set up for fighting ozone depletion, is a good example. The financing platform can be modelled after it to support the incremental cost of each unit of carbon reduction in these applications.

We may not agree with cynics who feel that the call for net zero emission by 2050 is an attempt to shift the goalpost from 2030 to 2050. But, one should certainly take precautions to ensure that the 2050 goal does not turn out to be a Trojan horse.

RR Rashmi is a former special secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and a climate change negotiator .

The views expressed are personal.

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