When will India peak before reaching net zero emissions? Top experts weigh in

ByJayashree Nandi
Nov 02, 2021 04:24 PM IST

India’s announcement at the COP26 summit on climate change in Glasgow on transitioning to net zero emissions by 2070 has generated a lot of excitement among economists and environmentalists

India’s announcement at the COP26 summit on climate change in Glasgow on transitioning to net zero emissions by 2070 has generated a lot of excitement among economists, environmentalists and energy researchers, particularly because as an emerging economy with extremely low per capita emissions, India has declared a move towards gradual decarbonisation.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson talk during a session on the second day of the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow on November 2, 2021. (AFP)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson talk during a session on the second day of the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow on November 2, 2021. (AFP)

But this comes with anxiety over disruption in the energy sector and debates over when India should “peak”, the time till when a country’s emissions rise before gradually falling and achieving net zero emissions. The timing of when individual countries’ emissions peak and then decline - especially those of major emitters such as the US and China - is critically important in determining whether the most dangerous climate impacts can be avoided, according to the World Resources Institute.

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China, in its nationally determined contributions (NDCs), for example, has said it will peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. It plans to lower its carbon intensity by over 65% from the 2005 level by 2030. China seeks to bring installed capacity of solar and wind to over 1,200GW by 2030, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 25%, among other plans.

“India’s pledge is very significant. Realistically speaking India should peak by 2040-2045. It takes a pretty long time to change our energy systems. I think 30 years is a reasonable time. So, there will be a lot of growth in the near term,” said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, an economist, who leads Council on Energy, Environment and Water’s work on Low-Carbon Pathways.

India’s short-term targets include increasing non-fossil fuel power capacity to 500GW by the end of the decade from 450GW. Half of India’s energy will come from renewable sources by 2030. India’s 2030 carbon intensity goal — measured as carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product — will be increased from 35% to 45%. The country will also strive to produce half of its electricity using renewable energy and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1 billion tons l by 2030.

The targets will require major financial investments and skilled workers for the deployment of renewable energy.

“We are trying to clarify with the government if it is talking about meeting 50% of India’s energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030. It is not possible. Then you are referring to all sectors. Realistically speaking I think they are referring to 50% installed capacity for electricity from renewable energy,” Chaturvedi said.

India’s installed capacity from renewable energy sources is already 39.8%. Chaturvedi said when it comes to cutting CO2 emissions by 1 billion tonnes, the government may be referring to the cumulative emissions that will be avoided by 2030 because of India’s rapid deployment of renewable energy.

“This is an unprecedented bold announcement from the Prime Minister [Narendra Modi]. This is more ambitious than either the EU and Chinese announcements. For an economy that is expected to grow fast for the next two decades, even peaking in the next 20 years is not an easy feat. This announcement will shake Indian and global energy markets and give a sense of much-needed long-term certainty to investors in the energy domain.”

Chaturvedi said the enhanced ambition of the 2030 target makes the net zero announcement even more credible. “The Prime Minister has stamped India’s leadership in the climate discourse. Any ambitious target would have its share of challenges.”

He said the biggest near-term challenge is in electricity market design and distribution sector reforms. “For the longer term, it would be managing the human resources in the coal sector. Skilled human resources for the new shape of energy markets would be critical. So, challenges galore, but strategic planning would help see us through.”

Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science, said India’s annual greenhouse gas emissions will peak by 2030.

In a statement on Monday, he said, “This was a very significant moment for the summit, with Prime Minister Modi pledging stronger action by India on climate change, with five new targets. These include a further increase in clean energy to 500 gigawatts by 2030, a reduction in the emissions intensity of its economy by 45% by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2070.”

He added together this might mean that India’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases could peak by 2030.

The statement called on the developed countries to follow India’s example. “This demonstrates real leadership, based on a track record of action and ambitious targets, that can deliver on both economic development and climate change, from a country whose emissions per capita are about one-third of the global average.”

It added the rich world must respond to Modi’s challenge to deliver a strong increase in international climate finance.

Sandeep Pai, who studies energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said achieving India’s short-term targets will require major reforms and large-scale finance.

“India’s net zero pledge is bold. For a developing country that has not even carbonized to talk about decarbonization is ambitious and sets the targets clearly. However, the devil will be in the details or in other words what would be the exact plans to achieve this target. In the absence of these plans, this pledge will not mean much. By when India will have to peak to meet the pledge will really depend on the sectoral pathway the country will follow. For example, when will the coal use peak in the power sector?” Pai added India’s 2030 targets are achievable but not easy at all.

“From DISCOM reforms, raising large-scale finance for the deployment of renewables, managing land issues, to aligning Centre-state climate policies will be key determinants of whether India will be able to meet its 2030 targets or not.”

India needs to adopt transformational changes in its energy mix to be able to transition to net zero emissions by the mid-2060s, according to the India Energy Outlook report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) released in February. For India to achieve net zero emissions, energy demand in 2040 should fall nearly 30% below the projected level, based on current policies, with a complete switch from traditional biomass-based energy.

India will have to shift away from coal. Solar photovoltaic cells will have to take up coal’s share of electricity generation a full decade ahead of what current policies envisage, the IEA report said.

In a tweet, Sunita Narain, the director general of Centre for Science and Environment, said India enhanced NDC is a challenge to the world to step up. “We will reduce 1 billion tonnes by 2030; 22% reduction in BAU; per capita will be 2.31 tonnes/as against US 9.4 t/per capita and China 9 t/per capita. No question that this is running the talk #COP26 ,” she tweeted. “Yes, and for the world to go #netzero in 2050; China should go by 2040 and OECD countries by 2030. This is why #NetZero is inequitable and makes combatting #climatechange unambitious and ineffective. We deserve better #COP26Glasgow. RE target of 50%; non-fossil fuel 500 GW; carbon intensity of 45% are all pathways to get to 1 billion tonne carbon emission reduction by 2030. India has laid out its roadmap; this is more than OECD and certainly what China has done.”

Many experts said China has not committed to much more than what it had promised in 2016. Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, tweeted: “China’s new climate commitment under the Paris agreement has been published. It turns the 2060 carbon neutrality target and CO2 emissions peak before 2030 into new formal pledges but doesn’t shed more light on the emissions trajectory over this decade.”

China’s role gains importance considering the carbon budget numbers. A carbon budget is the cumulative amount of CO2 emissions permitted over a period of time to keep within a certain temperature threshold, according to Carbon Tracker.

According to a recent analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment, in the coming 10 years, China will take up 33% of the remaining carbon budget of 409 GtCO2 and India may occupy only 9.54%. Between 1870 and 2019, China occupied 13.4% of the global carbon budget; India 3.16% and the seven historical polluters - United Kingdom, US, European Union, Russia, Japan, Australia, and Canada - 60.53%.

The share changed quite a bit between 1990 and 2019 when China occupied nearly 21% of the carbon budget. This means China went through a very intense phase of development mainly dependent on fossil fuels.

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