Climate change is of great significance for India, both because of its potentially enormous impacts on the country and because India can play a decisive part in the global effort to address it. What India can and should do to address climate change and the support it needs to do so have long been a matter of debate. Successive Indian governments have taken differing approaches to this in climate negotiations, but one of the enduring and entirely legitimate planks of our position has been a focus on equity and fairness.
Understanding how India can continue to contribute meaningfully to greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation, consistent with equity and fairness, is particularly important given a slew of forthcoming climate summits, at which we will be expected to deliver an updated pledge. In particular, India will need to decide whether to join a growing number of countries (over 120 at last count) that have pledged to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050. The “net zero” idea is inspired by an IPCC report that calls for global net emissions – GHG emissions minus removal of GHGs through various means, considered at a global aggregate level — to reach zero by mid-century. This, in turn, builds on a clause in the Paris Climate Agreement, calling for a balance between sources and sinks of emissions by the second half of the century. It is worth underscoring that none of this implies that each country has to reach net-zero by 2050. In fact, such an interpretation flies in the face of equity and fairness.
This emergent trend of net-zero announcements is commendable in that it signals a progressive direction of travel and has the apparent merit of presenting a simple and singular benchmark for assessing whether countries are playing their part in addressing the climate challenge. Yet, there are hidden complexities in this formulation. The use of “net” zero potentially allows countries to keep emitting today while relying on yet-to-be-developed and costly technologies to absorb emissions tomorrow. Its focus on long-term targets displaces attention from meaningful short-term actions that are credible and accountable. And, it calls into question concerns of equity and fairness.
We want to be clear — India has to play its part in mitigating GHG emissions and contributing to the global effort to meet the Paris Agreement’s “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and aspirational “1.5 degrees Celsius” temperature limit. Our first nationally determined contribution (NDC) submitted under the Paris Agreement has been rated by observers as compatible with a 2 degrees Celsius trajectory, and we are ahead of schedule in meeting our contribution. There is definite scope for improvement — both in terms of the specificity, strength and stringency of our contribution and consistency in the domestic mitigation measures we take to fulfill these. Our next contribution must represent a meaningful progression on our first. However, we need to think long and hard about a mid-century net-zero target for India for multiple reasons.
The Paris Agreement, while urging global peaking as soon as possible, explicitly recognises that “peaking will take longer for developing countries” and that this balance is to be achieved “on the basis of equity” and in the context of “sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”. It does not advocate undifferentiated uptake of net-zero targets across developed and developing countries, as currently being advocated by many, in particular the US and the UK (the latter is the host of the next climate conference). Rather, the emphasis in the agreement on equity, sustainable development and poverty eradication suggests a thoughtful balancing of responsibilities between developed and developing countries. A mid-century net-zero target from India would signal that it does not need the benefit of the caveats that it negotiated into the Paris Agreement and that it is ready to abandon its long-standing position that developed countries should take the lead.
Arguably such a step is needed, given the state of the climate crisis. And, we agree that the crisis calls for India to enhance its mitigation actions. But it is not clear that enhancing mitigation action can definitively deliver net-zero emissions by 2050, given that our emissions are still rising, and our development needs are considerable. We cannot rule out the possibility that a not fully thought-through mid-century net-zero target would compromise sustainable development.
Moreover, such a major shift in our negotiating position will have implications for the future, including our ability to leverage additional finance and technology to help shift to low-carbon development pathways. Our 2 degrees Celsius compatible NDC, bolstered by the Prime Minister’s announcement in 2019 that we would achieve 450 GW of renewables by 2030, could be strengthened. Building on this track record suggests an alternate and equally, if not more, compelling, way to indicate climate ambition in the future than uncritically taking on a net-zero target.
Given the massive shifts underway in India’s energy system, we would benefit from taking stock of our actions and focusing on near-term transitions. This will allow us to meet and even over-comply with our 2030 target while also ensuring concomitant developmental benefits, such as developing a vibrant renewable industry. We can start putting in place the policies and institutions necessary to move us in the right direction for the longer-term and also better understand, through modelling and other studies, the implications of net-zero scenarios before making a net-zero pledge. It would also be in India’s interest to link any future pledge to the achievement of near-term action by industrialised countries. That would be fair and consistent with the principles of the UNFCCC and also enhance the feasibility of our own actions through, for example, increasing availability and reducing costs of new mitigation technologies.
India is now rightly recognised for having come of age and becoming a major global power. But coming of age also brings with it the ability to take a stand, and resist being buffeted by the winds of shifting political agendas. While we, like others, have a responsibility to the international community, we also have a responsibility to our citizens to be deliberate and thoughtful about a decision as consequential as India’s climate pledge.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 27, 2021 under the title ‘On net-zero, proceed with care’. Sagar is Vipula and Mahesh Chaturvedi Professor of Policy Studies, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi; Rajamani is Professor of International Environmental Law, University of Oxford & Visiting Professor, Centre for Policy Research; and Dubash is Professor, Centre for Policy Research.
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