Running – not walking – the talk on climate
India’s targets for the climate crisis, announced by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi in Glasgow are bold and ambitious — and challenging. But given the enormity of the crisis, India is not just walking the talk, but running it.
Historically, India has not been a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. From 1870 to 2019, its emissions add up to a minuscule 4% of the global total. It was lambasted as the world’s third-highest polluter in 2019, but its scale of emissions stands at 2.88 CO2 gigatonnes (GT) compared to the two highest polluters: China, at 10.6 GT and the US, at 5 GT. This while India needs to meet the energy needs of millions of its people.
From every angle, India did not have to make these global targets to reduce its carbon emissions. Despite this, India’s climate targets are laudable, and they show the developed world that it means business.
Let’s decode the targets: The most important is the national commitment to “reduce projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes from 2021 to 2030.” Taking a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, carbon emissions are projected to be 4.48 Gt in 2030. This commitment means that India’s carbon emissions would now be 3.48 Gt in 2030. In other words, the country has set an extremely high target to cut 22% from BAU.
But this does not explain the real change that we have set ourselves to achieve. India’s annual per capita emissions would be roughly 3 tonnes in the BAU scenario — still much lower than most industrialised countries. But now, in the new scenario, emissions will be 2.3 tonnes per capita by 2030.
If you compare this to the rest of the world, the sheer scale of the transformation is apparent. The US, even after the 50% reduction target set by President Joe Biden (which it is in danger of not meeting because of the stalemate in Congress) will see a comparable number of 9.42 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2030. China, as it has not set any emission reduction target, will actually see the number go up from 7.3 tonnes to 9 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2030.
India’s climate commitment is a challenge for the rest to follow. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions must be 18.22 GT in 2030 for the world to stay below a 1.5°C rise in temperature. If you take the global population in 2030, this means that every person in the world can only emit some 2.14 tonnes of CO2. India’s per capita comes close.
The Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 target has to be to match this in every industrialised country. The United Kingdom (UK) — the host — has an ambitious climate plan of 2.7 tonnes per capita — higher than India, and above what the world needs in 2030. Australia, Canada, the European Union (EU), Russia, the US, and China are all way above this. Russia tops this at 13.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2030.
Most importantly, as carbon dioxide emissions accumulate in the atmosphere for 150-200 years, they force temperatures to rise. India has committed not to add to this burden. This natural debt of the industrialised world and China now needs to be paid. And this is why PM Modi has rightly said a massive transfer of funds is required, and that these funds must be measurable. It is ironic that funding for the climate crisis remains non-transparent and without verification.
The remaining targets — to reach 500 GW in non-fossil energy capacity; to meet 50% of energy requirements from renewable energy; and to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy by less than 45% — are the roadmap to reach the 1 billion tonnes CO2 emission reduction by 2030.
This is the trajectory of growth for our future and adds substance to the 2030 goal. However, only a few countries — and not the industrialised world — have put out their carbon reduction paths with clarity. This, again, suggests what the world must do before leaving Glasgow.
The question remains: Is all of this possible? In terms of the energy mix, reaching 50% electricity from renewable energy (RE) would mean that India will have to up its RE target from 450 GW in 2030 to around 630-700 GW. This is achievable, but will need huge investment. India’s coal energy in 2030 — as per estimates of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) will be 266 GW in 2030 — which means that we are capping future growth in this globally indicted dirty energy source.
India has accepted a massive transformation of its energy systems, which will be designed for the future, and compliant with the climate crisis goals.
The big issue will be to ensure that growth is equitable, and that the poor are not denied their right to development in this new energy future. As we set ourselves the goal to grow without pollution, we must work on increasing clean, but affordable, energy for the poor.
The last target is net-zero by 2070 — though much in the headlines is a non-issue. The fact is that for the world to reach net-zero in 2050, the industrialised world should have committed to a net-zero target of 2030 and China, 2040, at the latest. India could have then been pressured to also commit to net-zero by 2050. But now, the world has set an extremely unambitious and inequitable net-zero target, with most industrialised countries tom-tomming their goal for 2050. This will not keep the world on course to avoid the devastating impacts of the climate crisis.
The agenda for COP26 is now clear: Raise the ambition of the industrialised world and commit to even greater cuts by 2030; put the spotlight on China to drastically reduce emissions; and provide the finance that is needed for the transformation — not transition — in the developing world. It’s within our reach. But will the rich world’s leaders now really run the talk?
Sunita Narain is director-general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal