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India has shown what climate leadership looks like

Arunabha Ghosh writes: It has silenced critics who suggested it had no bold vision for the planet, by setting out its vision and backed it with action, without falsifying its intentions.

Written by Arunabha Ghosh |
Updated: November 6, 2021 6:43:11 am
modi glasgow india climate change conference israel pmPrime Minister Narendra Modi looks on during the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 1, 2021. (Reuters)

On November 1, the first day of the UN climate conference in Glasgow (COP26), Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a bold statement for low-carbon development. He committed to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2070 and backed that up with strong near-term commitments. This changes everything for India, for the planet, for investors and technology developers, and for climate negotiations.

The Prime Minister spoke for developing countries, in effect calling for a deal for development that would be just, equitable, people-centric and planet-positive. The much-anticipated announcement of India contained five elements: Non-fossil electricity capacity of 500 GW by 2030; 50 per cent electricity capacity from renewables by 2030; one billion tonnes of emission reduction by 2030; 45 per cent reduction in emission intensity of GDP by 2030; and net-zero emissions by 2070.

It is important to recognise how transformational these commitments are. Currently, India has 101.5 GW of renewables plus 46.5 GW of large hydropower capacity. Combined with 6.8 GW of nuclear power, this amounts to 155 GW (40 per cent of power capacity) coming from non-fossil sources. In 2021 India has already met one of its important commitments, which had originally been set for 2030.

Now it has upped the game. Getting to 500 GW of non-fossil capacity will not be easy. If, say, India builds another 50 GW of hydropower and nuclear capacity, it would still mean installing about 300 GW of additional renewables capacity. This will be a breathless marathon: Every working hour, six days a week, 365 days a year, for the next nine years, India would have to deploy at least 10.5 megawatts of renewable energy capacity.

Similarly, a reduction of 1 billion tonnes of emissions reduction by 2030 amounts to about 3 per cent absolute reduction, in addition to the avoided emissions that would accrue from already stated targets for clean energy, electric mobility, industrial energy efficiency, and LED lighting. To put this in context, industrialised countries reduced emissions by only 3.7 per cent during 1990-2019. Calculations by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) show that the near-term target for renewables capacity would result in 246 million tonnes of CO2 saved in the electricity sector alone in 2030.

Overall, the net-zero target is a call for economic transformation. CEEW analysis, published in recent weeks, shows how a 2070 net-zero scenario will change the outlook for many key sectors. With (green) hydrogen but without carbon capture and storage, by 2070 industrial energy will shift significantly. Electricity from non-traditional sources provides less than 20 per cent of industrial energy currently, but its share would have to jump to 65 per cent by 2070. Hydrogen’s negligible share would have to grow to 19 per cent of industrial energy by 2070. Electric vehicles would have to be 84 per cent of all four-wheelers and 79 per cent of all trucks sold in 2070. Coal-based power would have to be completely eliminated.

Once the dust settles over COP-26, India would do well to have legislative backing for long-term targets. Performance and progress towards net-zero by each successive government should be monitored by the Parliament. Developing near-term and mid-term sectoral roadmaps would give businesses policy and regulatory clarity. Further, a National Commission on Climate Change, as a constitutional body, should be formed to deal with climate change as a strategic risk and an overarching development priority, and improve inter-ministerial and Centre-state coordination.

The economic cost for net-zero transition will amount to between $ 9,400 billion to $ 14,000 billion (in 2015 prices) between 2030 and 2100. The cost variations depend on whether hydrogen and CCUS have a big or small role in India’s energy transition. An economy-wide carbon price will be needed sooner than later to raise resources and nudge investments.

Having set the targets, there will be a need for hard investment. The net-zero announcement is an invitation to institutional investors. It is a challenge laid out for innovators. Not every answer is known. That is also an opportunity to develop next-gen smart appliances, grid storage, solar panels, wind turbines, energy-efficient industrial boilers, electrolysers for green hydrogen, or EV batteries.

We will need a mindset change. Everything will now have to become sustainable, regardless of the economic sector. Use, reuse and misuse of resources (land, water, air, carbon) must become guiding principles to pursue jobs, growth and sustainability. The transition must be just for those impacted by economic shocks and by climate shocks. None of this is a given, nor will it be easy.

Yet, India has put the ball firmly in the court of developed countries. First, despite a 2070 net-zero year, its cumulative emissions from 1900 to 2100 would still be lower than that of the US or the EU (which have declared 2050 net-zero targets) or China (with a 2060 net-zero year). Second, India’s transition from peaking emissions to net-zero would be faster than any other major economy, which are taking a slow-motion route to net-zero stretching from four to more than seven decades.

Third, India has called out the shifting of goalposts around unmet climate finance promises. Just days ago, the $100 billion that was meant to be delivered by 2020 has now been pushed to 2023. There is no guarantee that this new deadline will be honoured. India has, instead, demanded $1 trillion “at the earliest” for developing countries. Effectively, $100 billion is now a floor not a ceiling for climate finance.

Fourth, India continues to show institutional leadership. This week it launched the Infrastructure for Resilient Island States – an initiative under the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure to support vulnerable island countries. It also launched the Green Grids Initiative — One Sun One World One Grid in partnership with the UK to interconnect grids across countries and tap into renewable energy resources everywhere.

Will there be naysayers? Certainly. Some will be concerned about the feasibility of these ambitions. Others will criticise that the net-zero date is too far into the future to be meaningful. A third set will question specific sectoral numbers. A healthy debate is welcome. Investments are welcome even more. But India has silenced critics who suggested it had no bold vision for the planet. It has set out its vision, backed it with action, is requesting cooperation, but will not accept any falsification of its intentions.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 5, 2021 under the title ‘ A climate leader’. Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy,  Environment and Water.

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