After weeks of tough talk, few expected India to lead from the front on the opening day of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. And yet it did. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement — a series of ambitious short-term climate targets, and a pledge to hit net-zero emissions by 2070 — was a welcome surprise.
The announcement cements India’s important position in the climate fight. Despite being responsible for a relatively small share of historical emissions, India is now the world’s third-biggest emitter, behind only China and the US. With one-sixth of humanity and millions yet to be lifted from poverty, what India does on climate will inevitably shape the world’s trajectory.
Against this backdrop, net-zero by 2070 may seem a long way off. But the near-term targets that underpin the headline figure matter far more. For one, there is the target to increase clean energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030, up from just under 100GW today. The aim is to have solar, wind and other renewables meet 50 per cent of India’s electricity needs by 2030. This would mean adding nearly twice what the EU achieved in 2020 renewable capacity additions, annually, for the rest of the decade. India also wants to cut the “carbon intensity” of its economy — the amount of emissions per unit of economic activity — by 45 per cent by 2030 against a 2005 baseline. This will mean mirroring the progress that countries like the UK have achieved on decoupling GDP growth from emissions, but doing so at a far earlier stage in the country’s development.
None of this will be easy, but the goals point to a quiet revolution in India’s climate ambitions. According to BloombergNEF, fossil-fuel power generation may have already peaked, and the new renewable capacity goals would slash power sector emissions faster than expected by the end of the decade. The logic of green development — of doing things right the first time round, rather than attempting to “transition” belatedly and at immense cost — has clearly taken root among key decision-makers.
Beyond the economic imperative, India’s sheer vulnerability to climate change may have played a part. Events such as the recent floods in Kerala and Uttarakhand reveal how climate impacts are taking their toll on lives and the economy. Drought, heat stress and flooding are only expected to increase in the coming decades. More than four in five Indians live in climate-vulnerable districts, according to a recently released study by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water, and McKinsey estimates that up to 200 million Indians could experience lethal heat at least once a year by 2030.
To meet the challenge at hand, we see three guiding principles that could help bring this week’s bold pledges to life.
First, India must combine emissions reductions with climate adaptation, embedding environmental justice for people and nature. Justice will involve strengthening a suite of social protection programmes, especially for those facing growing rural distress, and investing in disaster preparedness as extreme weather becomes more common. Inspired by civic movements of the 20th century, India can build climate vocabularies and actions for citizens so they can be agents of change, and protect those who speak up for environmental justice.
Nature can be an ally in all of this. India’s remarkable range of habitats, from the snowline to the coastline, play varied roles, including capturing carbon from the atmosphere, reducing vulnerability to climate-induced disasters, and providing livelihoods. Unfortunately, unfettered development is accentuating climate vulnerabilities, especially in eco-sensitive areas. When considering biodiversity collapse and the climate crisis as mutually reinforcing issues, India must reverse the trend of diluting environmental laws and the rights of those who depend on nature, and instead rapidly build regulatory and enforcement capacity. India’s deep, spiritual bond with nature must be enshrined alongside technology solutions to combat the climate crisis.
Second, corporate India has a vital role to play in complementing government policy. Much like how the independence movement galvanised home-grown industry around a shared vision, India Inc’s 21st century objective must be to foster innovative, inclusive green development. Swadeshi practices weren’t limited to the big players alone — today, MSMEs must accelerate their decarbonisation trajectories, too. Indian business houses must emulate global corporations in making science-based net zero pledges and reporting their progress transparently. Every sector has a crucial part to play, from transportation to manufacturing, cement, and steel. Those who seize the decarbonisation opportunity will find both domestic success and competitive advantages in other markets pursuing green growth.
Third, to deliver decarbonisation and development, India will need data and democratic deliberation. Building state capacity can help the country move from reactive decision-making to proactive planning and execution. But India will also require the analytical horsepower to craft and implement evidence-based policies. A Low-Carbon Development Commission supported by the overarching framework of a climate law, as proposed by the Centre for Policy Research, could play this role. Beyond stakeholder engagement, this would also foster coordinated climate governance across India’s institutional arrangement, which is currently scattered across a range of often siloed ministries, agencies and bodies.
COP26 represents a bold step, but the devil is in the details. Following through on these commitments with transparent, credible action would allow India to demonstrate genuine climate leadership for the rest of the developing world, and secure a better, greener future for its citizens.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2021 under the title ‘Walking the Glasgow talk’. Patel is an MPP candidate at Harvard and Shrikanth is a joint MPA/MBA candidate at Harvard and Stanford.