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Why India’s net-zero commitment matters for the world

It could make all the difference in humankind’s challenge to avoid climate catastrophe.


Updated: October 30, 2021 9:31:43 am
India’s prime ministers have, fortunately, been forward-looking in assuming responsibility on climate change.(Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Written by Ajay Shankar

India provided leadership to developing countries in getting the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” accepted at the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in 1992. Equity and climate justice imply equal human rights to development, energy consumption, and carbon emissions. The advanced countries were to reduce their carbon emissions substantially. Innovative technologies would emerge in the process. The expectation was that these would be shared with the developing countries who would also be given financial assistance to enable them to increase their mitigation efforts.

The large affluent countries, especially the United States, were unfortunately irresponsible. Most of them — Germany being a notable exception — could not evolve the national consensus needed for bearing the costs for reducing carbon emissions. The US could not even ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Many fell short in achieving what they promised. Then, under President Barack Obama, the US led the effort in getting the landmark Paris Agreement of December 2015, which aims at restricting global warming to 2 degrees through voluntary national commitments (NDCs). Yet, the US walked out of the agreement under Donald Trump and has only now come back under President Joe Biden

Technology transfer to developing countries was never really on the table in the developed countries as technologies were developed by firms who had the intellectual property rights. Financial transfers, though promised, never got any traction within the rich countries. In the run-up to the UNFCCC’s COP-26, slated to begin in Glasgow next week, one can only hope that there is a qualitative transformation in this regard. Conceptually, part of the collections from a carbon tax in the wealthy countries could provide the viability gap grant funding needed to support, say electricity storage projects, through emerging global green climate funds

The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has been coming out with reports over the years with the scientific consensus becoming sharper on the imperative of restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees, on the unmitigated disaster that awaits humanity if this did not happen, and on how time is running out. Extreme weather events occurring with increasing frequency in recent years have been turning public opinion decisively in favour of strong and immediate action. The UK and France enacted legislation in June 2019 to become net carbon zero by 2050. Action on climate change was one of the key pillars of the Biden election campaign. The US has now led by example in getting commitments of more substantive carbon reduction targets from the advanced economies by 2030. Action in the coming decade is critical. Biden wants a fossil fuel-free electricity system by 2035 in the US. Net-zero by 2050 is imperative. It is a goal that has now been adopted by around 125 countries. Major global corporations are in a competitive mode in announcing their own net-zero targets.

Technological innovation has been working wonders. When the sun shines or the wind blows, they generate the cheapest electricity. India has seen the price of solar power fall from over Rs 16 a unit to less than Rs 3 in around 10 years. The price of battery storage has fallen by an eighth in 10 years. Within this decade, grid storage is expected to become cost-effective vis-a-vis fossil fuels for electricity needs during the day when renewable generation is inadequate. Electric vehicles have become commercially competitive earlier than expected. Volkswagen has announced that by 2035 they would stop making internal combustion engine cars. An electricity system free of fossil fuels and electric mobility could make around 70 per cent of the economy net-zero without significant additional costs, or even none. For the rest, as of now, there are technological challenges and costs in getting to net zero. Green hydrogen promises to offer solutions across a wide range of hard to abate sectors.

India’s traditional principled position has been that we would pursue a low-carbon growth path and as the developed countries brought down their per capita emissions, we would ensure that our per capita emissions never crossed theirs, and we would then bring these down along with them. The establishment view in the West never accepted this and sought to limit the growth of emissions from developing countries. Trump’s argument for getting out of the Paris Agreement was that there was no point in the US reducing emissions if China and India were to increase theirs. But the situation becomes qualitatively different if everyone moves to net-zero rapidly. Logically, India’s per capita emissions could rise till they reach the levels of the developed countries which are on a sharp declining curve, then decline and reach zero along with theirs. This implies that India should reach net-zero along with the US, the EU and Japan by 2050.

India’s prime ministers have, fortunately, been forward-looking in assuming responsibility on climate change. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched the National Solar Mission in 2010 with a target of 20,000 MW of solar capacity by 2020-22. At that time, it appeared unaffordable and unattainable. Such apprehensions turned out to be mistaken. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been raising India’s ambitions — the country’s renewable energy capacity has already crossed 100,000 MW. A target of 450,000 MW of RE capacity by 2030 has been set. The Electric Mobility Mission has started delivering transformational results. Batteries and solar panel manufacturing are being supported under the PLI (Performance Linked Incentive) scheme. And now an ambitious National Hydrogen Mission has been launched which could take India to the global frontier.

In the recent Quad Summit, India joined the US, Japan and Australia in the joint statement calling for restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees and the achievement of net-zero preferably by 2050 considering national circumstances. In achieving net zero, India has the late mover’s advantage as its energy consumption must grow manifold and by going the renewable energy way it can avoid the costs of winding down the large fossil fuel-based energy systems that the advanced countries have today.

Instead of being hesitant, we should aim at becoming net-zero by 2050, or, even earlier by 2047, the centenary year of our Independence. This may turn out to be both achievable and affordable. Given India’s size, it would make all the difference between success and failure in humankind’s struggle to save itself from the catastrophe of climate change. It would also make India competitive in the emerging new green and sustainable global economy.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 29, 2021 under the title ‘Sharing the green burden’. The writer, a Distinguished Fellow, TERI , is former secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Government of India Views are personal.

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