To become real from being a mere global buzzphrase, carbon neutrality would require comprehensive strategies and concerted actions across all sectors at different levels across the world. The significance of such actions may be understood from US President Joe Biden’s statement at the CoP26 climate meeting in Glasgow: “None of us can escape the worst of what’s yet to come if we fail to seize this moment.”
Carbon neutrality, or net-zero emissions, refers to balancing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions with anthropogenic removal or offsetting of the greenhouse gases so that the net effect is zero emissions. In simple terms, this requires two different approaches, one focusing on reducing emissions by adopting cleaner, greener and efficient technologies, and second by removing the emitted greenhouse gases by creating carbon sinks.
India, a signatory to the Paris Agreement that aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels, has made an ambitious pledge of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2070 at the CoP26 meeting. Becoming a net-zero will require huge efforts in different sectors and at different levels. However, setting up such goals is the need of the hour to gear up and attain carbon neutrality by adopting concrete and effective methods without ignoring the required economic growth for a developing country with the second-largest population in the world.
Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that human activities have already warmed the planet by 1 degree Celsius since the pre-industrial era. India has always remained committed to addressing climate change challenges, and has considered it a key national priority for more than two decades. The country launched its National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008 with eight different national missions spread across different sectors to focus on sustainable development.
A large number of actions and programmes under different missions have been launched to mitigate and neutralise carbon emissions. Among them are solar energy, wind energy, a green energy corridor project, an international solar alliance, energy efficiency standards for appliances, an energy conservation building code, fuel consumption standards, a national smart grid mission, a framework for energy-efficient economic development, an energy efficiency financing platform, a national afforestation programme, a national clean air programme, a climate change action programme, a smart cities mission, a national policy on biofuels, fuel efficiency norms, a national electric mobility mission plan, faster adoption and manufacturing of (hybrid and) electric vehicles in India, a steel scrap recycling policy, and establishment of the National Green Tribunal.
All these missions, policies and programmes are implemented through different ministries and departments, and are co-ordinated by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Given the emerging climate change reality, the federal government has focused on enhancing the required actions for adaptation, mitigation and capacity building, and is planning and launching new initiatives like constituting a Prime Minister’s Council and Executive Council on climate change for constant review of all national missions.
The responsibility and commitment to climate change from India are evidently reflected in the conscious actions of Indian companies. Even before the government submitted nationally determined contributions (NDCs), many Indian companies pledged to adopt measures and strategies to achieve carbon neutrality. Many other companies are synchronising with the 2050 Pathways Platform, Climate Neutral Now, RE100, EP100 and EV100 to minimise and mitigate the effects of carbon footprints and come up with models for others to follow.
India has been projected as the fourth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. However, it is equally important to appreciate that, considering per capita greenhouse gas emissions, India is in 134th position. There seems to be no rationale in the projection as it ignores all other facts, particularly greenhouse gases emitted by countries during economic development in the past century.
From 1870 to 2019, India’s contribution towards total global greenhouse gas emissions was less than 4%. Even currently, India emits only 7% of global emissions, despite having 17% of the world population. Owing to its huge population, India emitted 2.5MT (metric tonnes) of CO2 per head, lower than other major emitters of greenhouse gases in 2018. Emissions of greenhouse gases from the US, Russia and China was 18.4MT, 17.6MT and 8.9MT, respectively.
As part of the NDCs, India has three goals: (1) reducing the emission intensity of GDP, by 33-35% by 2030 from the 2005 level; (2) achieving about 40% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030; and (3) creating an additional carbon sink equivalent to 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
The Indian government revised these goals at the CoP26 in Glasgow, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a five-fold strategy to attain the NDCs goals. These five points include: (1) attaining non-fossil energy capacity of 500GW by 2030; (2) fulfilling 50% of the country’s energy requirements from renewable energy sources by 2030; (3) reduction of total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030; (4) reducing the carbon intensity of the economy by less than 45% by 2030; and (5) that India would become carbon neutral and achieve net-zero emissions by 2070.
Environment experts believe that India is doing more than other countries to reduce emissions and to achieve net-zero targets by 2070, and consider India’s NDCs as “real climate action”. Experts believe that, as per new NDCs, India will occupy 9% of the remaining IPCC 400Gt (gigatonne) carbon budget for 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, 8.4% of world emissions in this decade, and 4.2% of world emissions between 1870-2030.
It would be impractical to think of economic development and the low carbon economy for a developing country like India unless carbon emissions from the energy sector are substantially reduced. India has chosen a massive transformation for its energy system, aiming at the future and compliant with climate change goals. Energy is the driving force for the diverse forms of developmental activities, and almost three-quarters of carbon emissions in India are from the energy sector. Focusing on energy production using renewable sources without CO2 emissions, and targeting 50% of the energy from renewable resources by 2030, are crucial steps.
India’s conscious and continual efforts in this direction with sustainable development are also manifest in different enactments. For example, the Energy Conservation Act, 2001, was targeted at energy security through conservation and efficient energy use, and setting up the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, the National Electricity Policy, 2005, was aimed at increasing the share of electricity from non-conventional sources, and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act. All of these are aimed at achieving the broader goals of climate change.
Estimates suggest that India will have a power requirement of 2,518 billion units in 2030. To meet 50% of energy requirements from renewables, India will need to increase its capacity to 700GW. Projections suggest that a major chunk of renewable energy will come from solar power.
Considering the targeted cutting of 1Gt from projected CO2 emissions in 2030, India’s expected per capita CO2 emissions would be in harmony with the contributory per capita CO2 emissions according to the IPCC recommended global CO2 emissions limit of 18.22Gt in 2030.
To reduce carbon intensity by 45%, India will have to take enhanced measures to reduce emissions from the transport sector and the energy-intensive industrial sector. Usage of coal and crude oil across sectors will need to be substantially dropped and replaced with cleaner and efficient alternatives like solar and hydrogen. It will be equally important to put in place adequate measures to neutralise increased greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors.
Stringent Bharat stage emission standards to regulate the output of air pollutants from compression ignition engines, and faster adoption and manufacturing of hybrid and electric vehicles in India are examples of such efforts. Agriculture, land use, land-use change, forestry and waste are other sectors that need addressing.
Several issues will still need to be seriously addressed so India can attain the uphill net-zero target, like the pricing of greener and efficient technologies, which always acts as a barrier to adopting such technologies on a larger scale. Geopolitical and socio-economic factors involved in the transition from coal to renewable energy sources, and the trade-offs associated with the adoption of alternative energy sources and technologies, are other factors requiring deliberation.
Additionally, India needs to build on efficient climate governance, and strong institutional and public participation and co-ordination among different sectors, to eventually have clean and affordable development for all.
Attaining a net-zero energy system for India is a technically feasible target, but the transitions in achieving this goal are challenging. While the country is already acting fast to adopt the required transformation, it will essentially require a change in the way people live, use and manage resources, particularly energy resources, and invest conscious and continual efforts across all areas of human intervention.