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EFSAS Commentary

India’s surprise announcement of its net zero target has been one of the key takeaways from COP26


The World Leader’s Summit at the 26th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) that was held in Glasgow on 1 and 2 November had all the makings of an initiative that when looked back upon several years down the line would be seen as an event that took all the crucial and correct decisions that were imperative to save mankind from a terrible human-inflected disaster. It could equally well have been looked back upon as the moment when world leaders were presented with a last ditch opportunity to save our planet, but self-serving arguments and avoidable squabbling caused them to fail. As it eventually turned out, COP26 will likely be remembered as having achieved something in between these two emotion-laden extremes. It succeeded in laying out a broad pathway towards combating climate change, even though the President of the largest polluter, China, did not even deign it necessary to attend a gathering of such great import to all of mankind.

From the South Asian point of view, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intrepid announcements and pledges at the gathering dispelled much of the skepticism that had hovered over the country’s commitment to the critical cause. Modi’s announcement at COP26 that India will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2070 was one of the most ambitious targets committed to by a developing country, and it represented an unmistakable demonstration of India’s response to the carbon crisis. Net zero was the most hotly debated subject at the COP26 talks in Glasgow as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had said achieving net zero by 2050 is a must to limit an overall global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius to pre-industrial levels by the end of 2100. Net zero basically refers to the balance between the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted and the quantity removed from the air. A country is said to have reached net zero when the quantity of greenhouse gases it adds to the atmosphere is equal to the quantity it manages to remove from the air, cancelling each other out.

In addition to the net zero carbon emissions, the other commitments made by Modi included India bringing its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030, reducing its economy’s carbon intensity down to 45 per cent by 2030, fulfilling 50 per cent of its energy requirement through renewable energy by 2030, and reducing 1 billion tonnes of carbon emissions from the country’s total projected emissions by 2030. Modi also advocated for a global solar power grid by giving out a call for “one sun, one world, one grid”. India’s five-point climate action plan at the COP26, which Modi described as “panchamrit (five values)”, envisages a firm push to India’s plans for increasing renewable energy, and switching to electricity and hydrogen fuels for transport. India’s commitments at the COP26 are significant because India is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, the US and the European Union, and it will be among the most severely affected countries from climate change. There is unanimity among energy experts that India’s dependence on coal will have to be cut drastically in the next two decades to achieve its net zero target, and the country will have to swiftly switch to cleaner fuels.

In spite of the unprecedented commitment by India, some experts, including John Gummer, chairman of the Climate Change Committee set up by the UK government, were critical of India’s plans to reach net zero only in 50 years’ time, saying it “really won’t do”. Gummer seems to have made a rather narrow assessment of India’s pledge, as Casey Crownhart pointed out in her article in the MIT Technology Review titled ‘India’s 2070 net-zero pledge is achievable, appropriate, and right on time’. She contended that “India has officially joined the net-zero pledge club, and its 2070 target presents a reasonable, if challenging, timeline for the country. While the target date is still decades away, and later than the 2050 goal set by many other countries, experts say it’s an ambitious and meaningful commitment by one of the world’s fastest-developing nations. Now it’s time for wealthier countries that have polluted far more for far longer, like the US, to step up their support for efforts by India and other developing countries to hit their climate goals. India is currently the third-highest-emitting country in the world. However, it’s also home to 17% of the world’s population, so in per capita emissions, it’s at less than half the global average — well below other top emitters. Tens of millions of people in the country still don’t have access to electricity. When the historical record is taken into account, India is responsible for less than 5% of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions (the US accounts for 20%, more than any other country)”.

Adam Vaughan pointed out in an analytical piece in the New Scientist magazine that “India has said it will reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. This is decades later than many other countries, but it marks the first time the country has put an end date on its contribution to climate change”, and that “the pledge means that the world’s major emitters now all have an end in sight for fossil fuels”. Vaughan quoted Thomas Hale of the University of Oxford as saying that “A year ago no one would have expected India to announce a net-zero target at COP26”. Hale also pointed out that the fault for climate change lay firmly with “richer countries, which used much of the world’s ‘carbon budget’, leaving little room for countries like India to grow their economies”. Developed countries have used fossil fuels to power their industrialization for centuries and therefore have more resources available now to transition away from them. Vaughan added that “With a population of 1.38 billion, India is the world’s fourth biggest emitter after China, the US and the European Union. But it has some of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions, at 1.9 tonnes per person in 2019, compared with 5.5 tonnes in the UK and 16 tonnes in the US”.

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK) and the host of COP26, welcomed Modi’s announcements at the Summit, as did a host of climate experts. Johnson tweeted, “India has today announced ambitious plans for half its energy to come from renewables by 2030. This will cut carbon emissions by a billion tonnes, contributing to a worldwide decade of delivery on climate change”. Nicholas Stern, chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, called the 2070 net zero target announced by Modi a “very significant moment” for the Glasgow Summit. Stern added that “The rich world must respond to PM Modi’s challenge to deliver a strong increase in international climate finance”.

Climate experts in India also welcomed and praised the commitments made by Modi at COP26. Rahul Tongia, senior fellow at the Center for Social and Economic Progress in New Delhi, emphasized that for India a 2070 commitment was still “an enormous shift that tries to balance equity issues with meaningful action”. Sunita Narain, environmentalist and director general of the New Delhi-based policy group Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) was of the view that “In fact, by announcing these targets, India is not only walking its talk, it is literally running the talk — and recognizing the urgent need to reduce GHG emissions and combat climate change. Going by our comparatively low contribution to global emissions, coupled with the fact that our economy needs to grow and meet the energy needs of millions of poor citizens, we did not need to make such an ambitious pledge. But these are a challenge to the already rich world to step up”. She added, “As far as the net-zero 2070 is concerned, India’s target matches the commitment of the already industrialized. The fact is that the world must reach net-zero by 2050, which means that the OECD countries should get there by 2030 and China by 2040 (not in 2060 as announced by the country)”.

Terming Modi’s announcements of a net zero pledge as a pleasant surprise that very few experts had anticipated, Ulka Kelkar, climate director of the India chapter of the World Resources Institute described India’s new goals as “clear upgrades” from previous targets. She felt that India’s commitments at COP26 were “equitable and just” in the context of India’s current stage of development. She, like Narain, also said that “If it is net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, I would say it’s on par with western commitments. The fair comparison is not with the US and Europe as of today, but with the US and Europe of 20-30 years ago”.

Even as PM Modi made the ambitious announcements in Glasgow, India was acutely aware that financing and technology could well determine whether India is able to deliver its promised emissions reductions. As Chandra Bhushan, president of New Delhi-based International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology explained, “In the last few months, India has been lining up policies that can take it towards these (climate) goals, policies about hydrogen, electric vehicles, renewable energy and industry decarbonization. Now India needs investments”. Along with the dozens of developing countries for whom it has been a voice on climate issues, India would now be hoping that it would be enabled to do its pledged bit by the affluent nations whose living up to their financial promises and shouldering their fair share of responsibility will be decisive in the eventual success of the collective initiative. In a recent report by the International Energy Agency, researchers laid out a scenario by which India would hit net-zero emissions in the mid-2060s. By their estimate, reaching that goal would require $1.4 trillion in additional capital for clean energy projects between now and 2040.

Awake to this reality, Modi did not mince words at COP26 while flagging the shortcomings on these counts. He said, “So far, all climate finance promises have been empty ones. Developed countries must ensure 1 trillion dollar climate finance at the earliest. It is the need of the hour to put pressure on those countries that have failed to deliver on their promises about climate finance”. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate finance as money from government, private and alternate sources of financing that is needed for mitigation because large-scale investments are required to significantly reduce emissions. It is also needed for the adaptation process, as significant financial resources are needed to adapt to adverse effects and reduce the impact of changing climate. Till the end of 2020, the rich countries had been unable to provide the $100 billion a year that developed countries had in 2009 pledged to raise by 2020 to help developing countries deal with the impact of climate change. Anticipating a possible deadlock at Glasgow over this failing, finance ministers of developed countries used the opportunity presented by a G20 meeting just prior to the COP26 Summit to push back the deadline year to generate the $100 billion from 2020 to 2023. India believes that if the developed world is as serious about combating climate change as it claims it is, it must put the money where its mouth is.

Addressing climate change is not something India is becoming deeply invested in only because it is the right thing to do or because the developed world is asking it to do so. Extreme weather events like heat waves, floods and disruptions to the monsoon season are already becoming more frequent in India, and further increase of this trend will have devastating impacts on the country.

India’s seriousness in arresting climate change stems from its own interests and vulnerabilities, even if global warming has mainly been caused by copious emissions of carbon dioxide by those rich countries that had industrialized first, often through colonially exploited wealth and resources, and which thus far have come across as reticent in meeting their pledged financial commitments.