India’s distant 2070 net-zero goal holds little immediate accountability. So, how is the country faring in terms of carbon reduction by 2030? Katherine Abraham reports
India announced its goal to become a net-zero emitter by 2070 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in 2021. This important goal has the potential to become a national reality through action and investment.
But will the world’s largest democracy live up to the bar it has set for itself, or will it miss the mark? A closer look at the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) developed by researchers from Yale and Columbia Universities shows India lies at the bottom of the barrel, ranked 180th out of 180 countries assessed in 2022.
The EPI evaluates countries based on 40 performance indicators related to sustainability, encompassing areas such as climate change, environmental public health and biodiversity.
According to the US National Intelligence Council’s report, India: Impact of Climate Change to 2030, climate models project a general warming trend, with an estimated 0.5° Celsius increase by 2030, and a 2°- 4°C increase by the end of the century, potentially impacting northern India the most.
India also currently holds a dual status as a significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter and one of the most vulnerable countries worldwide to the anticipated effects of climate change. The nation is witnessing climate variations and experiencing consequences of climate change such as water scarcity, heatwaves, drought, extreme storms and flooding, and their detrimental impact on health and livelihoods.
With a growing population’s ever-increasing demands, the government may do well to focus on the shorter timeline of 2030 rather than 2070.
According to a cabinet statement last year, India stands committed to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% by 2030. The cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved India’s updated nationally determined contribution (NDC) for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The updated NDC aims to strengthen India’s response to climate change, promote low emissions growth and align with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Today, India’s strategy to go net zero, and its quest to achieve decarbonisation, has led to a mammoth task for the government and private sector.
McKinsey in its 2022 report Decarbonising India, states that despite low per-capita emissions (1.8 metric tonnes of CO₂), India is the third-largest emitter globally, emitting a net 2.9 gigatons of CO₂ equivalent every year from 2019 to 2022. It points to six sectors for contributing about 70% of these emissions – power, steel, automotive, aviation, cement and agriculture.
Further, the report states that India is capable of creating 287 gigatons of carbon space for the world. This amounts to almost half of the global carbon budget for an even chance at limiting warming to 1.5°C. Carbon space denotes the maximum quantity of CO₂ equivalent emissions that can be released into the atmosphere by 2100 while limiting the global temperature increase to 2°C.
India is committed to achieving about 50% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030. India possesses the fifth-largest solar power capacity and the fourth-largest wind power capacity globally, boasting a total capacity exceeding 100 gigawatts.
“India has made significant progress in meeting its NDC commitments since 2016 … India’s emission intensity of gross domestic product (GDP) has reduced by 24% between 2005 and 2016,” says Bhaskar Padigala, head of WWF India’s climate change hub in New Delhi.
Harsh Vardhan Bhati, an independent environment lawyer in Uppsala, Sweden, and former professor at OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana state, says that most households are still deprived of basic electricity needs. “I have my doubts when it comes to achieving the 2030 decarbonisation target in terms of equity and energy justice.”
He is not alone in this assessment. The Climate Action tracker – a collaborative effort by German non-profits Climate Analytics and the NewClimate Institute to provide independent analysis to policymakers since 2009 – rates India’s overall rating for its decarbonisation goals as “highly insufficient”. In November 2022, India became a formal signatory to the UN Breakthrough Agenda, under which governments representing more than half of global GDP set a 12-month action plan to make clean technologies cheaper and more accessible everywhere.
Coalitions comprising committed countries including the G7, the European Commission, India, Egypt, Morocco and others, alongside prominent international organisations and initiatives, will collaborate to implement actions under each breakthrough. These endeavours will be led by a core group of leading governments and bolstered by private finance and industry initiatives.
Advancement in fuel cell technology and improvements in recycling technologies could also prove beneficial. In a recent article by the Energy and Resources Institute, emphasising the significance of such a road map to decarbonisation, Dr Vibha Dhawan, director general of the institute, said: “While India has the right policy regime in place, we need to adopt new energy storage solutions and technologies that bring stability and flexibility to the grid. We need collaborations for investing in research and development of new technologies.”
2070 or 2030 goals
So, should India wait for 2070, or can it undo a greater amount of damage by 2030? Vanita Bhargava, a disputes and environment law partner at Khaitan & Co in New Delhi, says: “While India will not be completely decarbonised by 2030, it would have reduced its carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by then. A large chunk of India’s decarbonisation goal can be achieved through better shared transport infrastructure.”
Vidya Soundarajan, director, Ecological Footprint for WWF India in Gurugram, adds: “An increasing number of businesses have declared net-zero goals or GHG [greenhouse gas] emission reduction targets. The government’s net-zero target announcement has clearly communicated a policy signal to Indian corporate entities.”
But the roles played by the government and businesses make for only two parts of a broader solution.
Banking and finance plays a critical role in the implementation of India’s strategy. “The traditional DISCOMs [power distribution companies] are already starving for money,” says Bhargava. “In such a scenario, the government needs to work out schemes that involve innovative public-private partnership [PPP] modalities to give the much-needed financial impetus to the sector.”
Bhati adds: “Each Indian state should sincerely look into how it can make its built environment energy efficient and make binding policies for energy conservation in residential and commercial buildings.” He says this with the understanding that it is highly problematic to integrate aspirations and reality due to growing energy demands owing to global warming.
NITI Aayog, the government’s premier think tank, has recommended the move from a linear economy to a circular economy – which minimises inefficient utilisation of resources or assets in the market – with the reasoning that this approach in India holds the potential to yield substantial annual benefits while simultaneously reducing congestion and pollution, which would have a cascading positive impact on the economy.
By maximising resource efficiency, minimising the consumption of finite resources and fostering the development of new business models and entrepreneurial ventures, India can drive its transition towards self-reliance. To institute a circular economy, NITI Aayog recommends setting up recycling hubs in the top 20 Indian cities (which it says contribute 35% of municipal solid waste) as well as mandating specific targets on recycling rates, recycled raw-material use and landfill levies. Also playing a crucial role in the net-zero mission is the National Green Hydrogen Mission, approved by the federal cabinet in January 2022.
According to the government’s national portal, the outcomes of the mission by 2030 are projected to be development of green hydrogen production capacity of at least 5 million tonnes per annum, with an associated renewable energy capacity addition of about 125 gigawatts in the country, more than INR8 trillion (USD96 billion) in total investment, creation of more than 600,000 jobs, cumulative reduction in fossil fuel imports by more than INR1 trillion, and abatement of nearly 50 million tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Companies that make investments may see a green trend aligned with India’s opportunities further opened up by the decarbonisation of other countries (for example, through green hydrogen exports).
At COP26 in Glasgow, Modi talked of four targets to be achieved by 2030. He said India would:
- Grow its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030;
- Meet 50% of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030;
- Reduce the total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes till 2030; and
- Reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by less than 45%.
The fifth target announced at COP26 was India’s commitment to net zero by 2070. One of the key challenges according to WWF’s Padigala is the gap between resource availability and requirements, which poses a challenge in NDC implementation. “The availability of adequate and affordable finance remains a constraint in India’s climate actions,” he says. “India has so far largely met its requirements from domestic sources only. Along with finance, the transfer of appropriate technologies is also hampering NDC implementation.”
A recent setback is the EU’s announcement of a carbon tax, which is leaving India “slightly challenged”, joint secretary, Department of Commerce and Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Nidhi Mani Tripathi noted recently. The EU is introducing the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) from 1 October this year, which will translate into a 20-35% tax on select imports into the EU starting 1 January 2026.
To add to this challenge, WWF India’s Soundarajan says: “The country’s energy demand is expected to rise sharply over the next decade as the economy continues on its growth trajectory. India needs to develop a robust road map with a lot of ambitious sectoral actions, policy planning and interventions.”
Between September 2021 and April 2022, according to the OECD Green Recovery Database, the global budget of OECD countries allocated to environmentally positive measures was increased from USD677 billion to USD1 trillion, which accounts for nearly 33% of the total recovery spending announced since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic. However, India has not yet prepared an action plan for its decarbonisation strategy.
McKinsey reported that India’s opportunities in an accelerated decarbonisation scenario are green hydrogen; carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS); natural climate solutions; and material circularity – that is, a product following a circular life cycle.
So, what does this mean for India’s 2030 goals? Aurelia Menezes, a partner at King Stubb & Kasiva in Bengaluru, says achieving India’s 2030 goals, although challenging, is feasible. “As per the Climate Action Tracker, India will already achieve its intended nationally determined contribution targets with its current level of climate action, and new targets will not drive further emissions reductions,” she says.
“The intended plan is to transition to cleaner energy by providing tax concessions and incentives across sectors including water, agriculture, forest, energy and enterprise, sustainable mobility and housing, waste management, circular economy and resource efficiency.”
According to a NITI Aayog report in November 2022: “CCUS can provide a wide variety of opportunities to convert the captured CO₂ to different value-added products like green urea, food and beverage form application, building materials (concrete and aggregates), chemicals (methanol and ethanol), polymers (including bio-plastics) and enhanced oil recovery with wide market opportunities in India, thus contributing substantially to a circular economy.”
India’s youth constitute about one-third of the country’s 1.38 billion population, and data from the think tank Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that the country had an employment rate of 37.1% in December 2022. The employment rate refers to the proportion of the working age population that is employed.
“A favourable environment must be created for corporate organisations, especially for small and medium-sized businesses, in order to implement effective, just and long-lasting climate solutions,” says Padigala.
Renewable energy generation costs have plummeted worldwide in the past decade as a result of remarkable progress in manufacturing technologies, economies of scale, competitive supply chains and greater developer experience, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
“With India pushing hard for renewable energy expansion, the government needs to focus on appropriate policies for its expansion and development,” says Menezes. “A strong attempt should also be made for the country to become a cost-effective and competitive manufacturing hub of renewable energy.”
Menezes says that if policies are set in place to create the right demand signals within this decade, then India could add low-carbon capacities in the next two decades.
The road ahead
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), India’s clean energy transition is well under way, exceeding its commitments made at the COP21 Paris Summit. With more than 40% of its power capacity coming from non-fossil fuels, India has achieved this milestone almost nine years ahead of schedule.
Solar power and wind power have experienced significant growth, aided by technological advancements, consistent policy support and a thriving private sector. In addition, India is a major player in modern bioenergy production and aims to expand its use across various sectors. The IEA projects that India will surpass Canada and China to become the world’s third-largest ethanol market in the coming years, following the US and Brazil.
Given the global environmental challenges and India’s high positions on the population and pollution charts, it becomes imperative for the country to lift its game. A detailed plan for 2030 is not yet evident. In fact, a National Informatics Centre report has an annexure on the significant knowledge gaps in understanding the exact position when it comes to India on the environmental charts.
All eyes are on 2070, but the mixed reviews of experts tell us that while the details of a plan for 2030 may be sketchy, there may still be hope.