Net-zero emission targets are a hollow pledge
India needs a path that shows how a focus on opportunities for low-carbon development is more likely, in practice, to deliver emissions reductions than abstract future 2050 pledges
The year 2021 promises to be a blockbuster for global climate politics. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its report this year, updated national pledges on emission limits are expected, and all this is on the table at a climate Conference of Parties in the United Kingdom (UK) in November. Not least, a re-invigorated Joe Biden-led United States (US) has placed the climate crisis near the top of its foreign policy agenda.
There is plenty at stake for India, including diplomatic, economic and climate outcomes. There is global pressure on India to telegraph its intentions as early as the US-hosted Climate Leaders Summit in April, or a UK-hosted G-7 Summit in June.
What should India say and do?
The options are nicely framed in recent articles. In one corner are those such as parliamentarian Jayant Sinha, who writing in the Economic Times, calls for India to project climate leadership by boldly pledging to reduce its “net” emissions (emissions minus uptake of emissions) to zero by 2050, backed by a climate law. Sinha argues this will make India “hypercompetitive”, attract investment and create jobs. Others advocate net-zero through softer statements of intent.
In the other corner are former Indian climate negotiators Manjeev Singh Puri (in The Hindu) and C Dasgupta (in the Business Standard), who remind us of the long-standing principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” that requires richer countries to lead and argue against any pledge that risks prematurely limiting Indian energy use for development. Puri also flags the threat of future carbon taxes imposed by the European Union on countries such as India.
Both arguments seem compelling, but can they both be correct in their identification of India’s key interests? What is India’s way forward? The answer lies in a close look at India’s diplomatic, developmental, and climate interests.
Calls for an Indian “net-zero” announcement are aimed at signalling boldness and, thereby, reaping diplomatic gains. What counts as bold? US climate envoy John Kerry has stated that nothing less than “net-zero” emissions pledges from all the major emitting economies would suffice and the UK has also called for net-zero targets. This call comes from an important IPCC-defined aspirational benchmark of global net-zero global emissions by 2050, but notably this does not imply net-zero by 2050 for each country, eroding any differences across nations.
Clearly, an Indian pledge of net-zero by 2050 would confer brownie points on India. And allow us to cock a snook at China, by being 10 years ahead of their net-zero by 2060 pledge. Net-zero legislation would be icing on the cake, transporting India into the rarefied territory of climate champions.
However, could these diplomatic gains come at the cost of domestic developmental objectives? We simply do not know conclusively if achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 will cost India developmentally. But we can say that current models uniformly show Indian emissions rising, in many cases through 2050. Without dramatic changes in policy and technology, India, at least, needs the option of increasing emissions to develop.
Analysis by the International Energy Agency illustrates the scale of change — an immediate and dramatic shift is required to shift Indian emissions from stated policies to sustainable development, much more than is true with other regions. And this dramatic shift would still only get us to net zero by 2065; 2050 would be even harder. Moreover, although Indian per capita emissions are an eighth of those in the US and less than a third of those of China, Indian emissions would have to decline starting now, and never again reach levels achieved in 2019.
These considerations lead India’s negotiators to remind us that it would be deeply unfair to expect equivalently stringent pledges from all countries. Undoubtedly, the emergence of new economic opportunities and technologies could dramatically change the landscape, and there may be space for an aspirational statement toward net zero. But, given the information we have today, it would be gambling with the developmental future of India to lock ourselves into a hard net-zero deadline.
Which brings us to India’s climate interests. Given India’s vulnerability to the climate crisis, it is strongly in our interests to support enhanced climate action. And to be credible, we also have to do our part, and not only sit back and wait for wealthier countries to act. But ironically, it is not clear that advocating a hard net-zero pledge is the right answer. A recent article in Nature argues that to be more than “mere announcements”, they need content on scope, fairness and detailed plans. There is a real risk net-zero by 2050 will be a hollow pledge that will only serve diplomatic needs, but do little to actually shift India’s emissions future.
Instead, India needs a path that shows how a focus on opportunities for low-carbon development is more likely, in practice, to deliver emissions reductions than abstract future 2050 pledges. In the second part of this series, tomorrow, I will outline an Indian approach that meets our diplomatic, developmental and climate interests simultaneously.
This is the first of a two-part series on India and climate policy.
Navroz K Dubash is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, and the editor of India in a Warming World: Integrating Climate Change and Development.
The views expressed are personal