Can Modi’s India keep its promise of net zero emissions?
That Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a penchant for springing off surprise when it comes to India's engagement with the world has once again been proven at the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.
Be it his invitation to all Saarc leaders to his swearing-in ceremony as prime minister for the first time in May 2014, or turning his Bharatiya Janata Party's stated position on its head on the issue of signing the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh in 2015, or making a previously unannounced stop-over in Lahore on his return from Kabul to meet the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in December 2015—Modi has broken new grounds in India's foreign policy initiatives and, in the process, has challenged himself. He did an encore in Glasgow where he laid out India's five-point action plan to tackle the threat of climate change.
The two most surprising and bold components of that plan are, of course, India pledging to achieve net zero target in emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) according to the capability to absorb the emission by the year 2070, and the commitment to cut one billion tonnes of projected emission in the next nine years. The three other parts of the Modi plan are promising that half of India's energy needs are met by renewable sources by 2030, building an installed capacity of 500 gigawatt of renewable energy, and reduction in the Indian GDP's carbon intensity by at least 45 percent. In committing to all three, Modi has gone beyond what India had promised at the climate conference in Paris in 2015.
The five-point action plan by Modi has ensured that India is no longer an outlier when it comes to enhancing international efforts to restrict the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The US, the European Union (EU), and many other countries, particularly small island countries which are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, have been pressing India to come out with a net zero commitment over the years. According to official estimates, India represents 17 percent of the global population and its historical cumulative emissions of GHGs are only four percent, while its current annual emissions are only about five percent. India has also succeeded in achieving a 24 percent reduction in emission intensity of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) between 2005 and 2014.
By announcing the initiatives in Glasgow, Modi has stepped up and bitten the bullet, strengthening India's image as a serious player on the issue of climate change. That was needed, because India is not only a major economy, but also the fourth largest GHG emitter. What made Modi's action plan in Glasgow stand out is the failure of developed countries to bring to the table fresh concrete near-term and long-term plans to address the issue.
The question now is: Post-COP26, how does India go about responding to the challenges thrown up by Modi's plan of action? A lot more light is expected to be shed when India follows up with a fresh Nationally-Determined Contributions (NDC) to fight climate change. This will set the direction of India's transition to a low-carbon economy, whose GHG is set to peak by the year 2040. The most important challenge is to ensure progressive decoupling of India's economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions without undermining development.
Environment experts are unanimous in holding that considerable success of India's march towards net zero emission and other short-term commitments to fight climate change hinges on a number of factors. Foremost among them are availability of green technologies and funds for future energy generation, an issue flagged by Modi in Glasgow, and power sector reforms including a big shift away from coal-fired plants and an unprecedented growth in renewable and nuclear power generation. Building green energy capacity remains a great challenge for India, which has to look forward to climate finance and technology transfer for the expansion in scale and scope of its mitigation and adaptation activities.
The electricity sector in India, so heavily dependent on coal, and the manufacturing sector are the two biggest contributors to the country's GHG emissions. According to one estimate in 2016, electricity generation is the top contributor to emissions. Any attempt to reform the power sector to connect all power plants and grids across the country to ensure uninterrupted supply and to stop the wastage of an estimated five percent of electricity due to inefficient distribution networks is politically sensitive, because it would do away with free or subsidised power. All this will call for huge investments, which most distribution companies are in no position to make.
Secondly, the issue of free or subsidised power is a highly contentious political issue linked to electoral calculations. Will the political parties agree on doing away with freebies to lure voters, or remain engaged in the competitive populism of offering doles? India has long been roiled by the debate between economic empowerment of the people through reforms with a human face (though it entails hardships) and the politics of doles that never addresses the real issue of poverty and development.
Environment experts are waiting for much more clarity on the Indian prime minister's promise made in Glasgow about achieving 50 percent of its energy requirement through renewable sources by 2030. It needs to be remembered that electricity is just one part of the much larger energy basket, and all previous commitments made by India were formulated keeping in mind the electricity sector specifically, and not energy in general. The experts expect the issue to be clarified when India submits its next NDC to the UN climate secretariat.
Another key area of concern is India's forest cover which acts as a GHG absorber. Modi's speech in Glasgow did not talk about forest cover, and India did not sign on the COP16 declaration on the subject because the country is struggling to achieve the desired forest cover. India's forest cover has been increasing, but the pace of growth is so far not in keeping with what is required to reach the target. Official figures point out that India's 15 percent of total carbon dioxide emission in 2016 was removed from the atmosphere by the land use change and forestry activities strategy. Between 2015 and 2019, India's forest and tree cover increased by 13,031 sq-km and mangrove cover increased by 235 sq-km.
India's journey towards net zero carbon economy also must take into account the major revenue implications for the central as well as the state governments of a near-total shift away from fossil fuel sectors, which fill a considerable section of their coffers. All in all, India's journey is set to present several challenges, including the issue of striking a balance between the energy needs of faster economic development and a concern for climate change.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.