Understanding India’s climate pledges

ByNavroz K Dubash
Nov 12, 2021 12:50 PM IST

There is a risk to India that the global community will continue to weigh net-zero targets more heavily than short-term domestic measures

In Glasgow, breaking the suspense on India’s climate approach, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi said that India will aim to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. He also announced a slew of additional measures for 2030: 500 GW of non-fossil fuel electricity capacity; 50% of energy (but likely he meant electricity) requirements from renewable energy (RE); reduction in projected emissions by one billion tonnes; and reduction in India’s emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 45% starting from 2005 levels.

The net-zero targets have become a form of diplomatic tick-box, a minimum price of climate credibility (AP) PREMIUM
The net-zero targets have become a form of diplomatic tick-box, a minimum price of climate credibility (AP)

Diplomatically, India did reasonably well. Modi walked into a Conference of the Parties (COP) desperate for good news: President Biden is struggling to deliver on his intended climate plan, and China’s leader President Xi Jinping didn’t even show up. Delivering the last remaining major economy into the net-zero bag and adding a pledge of a large increase in RE, was received positively, although there were grumbles that 2070 was too late. India probably achieved the basic diplomatic purpose of convincing the world that we are part of the solution rather than the problem.

However, this diplomatic gain was somewhat eroded by the fact that the statement left several elements key to understanding just what India had pledged unclear.

Is the net-zero target for CO2 or all greenhouse gases? Is the 50% pledge for electricity generation or capacity? Are the pledges conditional on receiving finance or unconditional? Is the one billion tonnes cumulative through 2030 or in 2030? These technical details carry great political implications because they determine how the pledge will be benchmarked against others, and its ambition. While a PM’s speech cannot include details, a detailed follow-up document is necessary which, as of this column’s writing, is not available. Although the ministry of external affairs issued some clarifications, a full accounting will have to await such a document. These circumstances strongly suggests the need for a better institutionalised climate decision-making process in India.

Examining the statement, the pledge that India will achieve net-zero emissions by 2070 has got all the headlines. This is a problem. The 2070 date is later than most other countries (China said 2060; most others say 2050), which may well lead some countries to continue putting pressure on India. Yet, starting from a low base of energy use and development, we cannot know if India can reach net-zero by 2050 without placing undue burden on the poor. Instead, that to collectively reach net-zero by 2050, equity demands richer countries have to reach net-zero earlier so that others, like India, can reach it later. It would have helped if the PM had made this point explicitly.

The problem is that net-zero targets have become a form of diplomatic tick-box, a minimum price of climate credibility. But with laggards such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia having recently paid this entry price, India needed more to stand out.

This is where the other 2030 pledges come in. The carbon intensity pledge of 45% maintains the low-carbon direction of travel for India established at Paris. But the most visible of these is the pledge to achieve 500GW of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030, the majority of it likely RE, building on a very similar domestic policy goal. 500GW is a substantial figure (India’s entire existing capacity is just under 400GW). But it will be important to develop a way to integrate such a large RE capacity both technically and in terms of power sector institutions and politics.

However, here the lack of clarity confuses matters. A second statement that RE will account for 50% of electricity capacity in 2030 leaves open the possibility that the other 50% will be from coal and gas. But, if realised, this amount is well beyond the government’s projections of coal plants needed in 2030. India will indeed need to keep using some coal in the short- to medium-run. But given the increasingly unfavourable economics of coal plants, such a statement risks putting off a much-needed conversation on an orderly transition to RE to safeguard coal communities and avoid stranded assets. In 2021, claims to being a climate champion require at least engaging with and asking the coal question.

The PM also called for developed countries to come up with $1 trillion in climate finance for the developing world. In a context where rich countries have struggled to meet their Paris commitment of $100 billion a year, this raised some eyebrows. Modi was likely making a political point — accountability is a two-way street and we will be counting dollars as carefully as you count carbon.

Looking ahead, there is a risk to India that the global community will continue to weigh net-zero targets more heavily than short-term domestic measures. That would be a problem both diplomatically, because it would place India back under pressure to bring forward the net-zero date, and from a climate perspective, because shorter-term, concrete measures are more likely to bring tangible emissions gains than distant net-zero targets. Hence, it is even more important for India’s pledges to be robust, consistent, and clear of ambiguities, all of which require strengthened institutions of climate governance. Since Glasgow is but a way-station in a multi-decade process of addressing climate change, these are good lessons to learn for the future.

Navroz K Dubash is professor, Centre for Policy ResearchThe views expressed are personal

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