Net-Zero Target Not A Magic Potion. But India Should Set One.
India has held out on setting a deadline for achieving net-zero emissions even as expectations have intensified ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties.
The world's third-largest polluter is the only one among the top 10 largest economies that is yet to set a net-zero target. That’s when at least 130 countries across the globe have either codified a target in law or are deliberating over it.
India's stance is largely justified, according to climate policy experts BloombergQuint spoke with. The country is barely responsible for the bulk of historical emissions, which have been mostly caused by the developed world.
And for its massive population, it only emits 1.91 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita, 144th in the world, according to data from Global Carbon Project. That's much lower than the U.S. (16.1 tonnes), Canada (15.4 tonnes), Europe (7.54 tonnes) and even China (7.1 tonnes).
According to India, it's the developed world that has to do more. Citing the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report, new Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav urged developed countries to undertake "immediate, deep emissions cuts".
"The report reaffirms India’s position that historical cumulative emissions are the source of the current climate crisis," Yadav wrote on Twitter. "Our cumulative and per capita emissions are significantly low and far less than the fair share of global carbon budget."
But the push isn’t going away anytime soon. The overarching goal of the upcoming COP26 talks in Glasgow, Scotland is to secure global net zero by 2050. The U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry and UN’s Christiana Figueres have already hinted that India will have to do its bit.
Developed nations such as the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Japan, and Canada have announced a 2050 net-zero target. Other smaller European nations are discussing putting it in their laws.
Yet, these are not enough. According to the Climate Action Tracker, that assessed the targets based on 10 factors, most of the pledges made by these countries are insufficient to mitigate global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.
The European Union, Canada and the U.S. are doing less than what it will take. A CEEW study showed that even for their pre-2020 climate committments, industrial nations exceeded their carbon space by around 25.5 gigatons of CO2.
Vaibhav Chaturvedi, the lead for low-carbon pathway research at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, however, argued that a net-zero target can still send a strong policy signal for stakeholders to align themselves.
"The power of signals cannot be overstated," he said. "We talk about India's 100-gigawatt solar target by 2022. We are not going to achieve it. But we will achieve 70-80GW. The earlier target was 20GW. Just because of that policy signal we achieved more. Of course, signals have to be backed by very credible policies."
Being an outlier, thus, may not be the best option for India. The global narrative is already tilted towards seeing net zero and climate action as synonymous with each other. And there is scientific backing for achieving net zero by 2050 to keep the rise in temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius.
"Delegitimising the debate won't help our cause,” Chaturvedi said. “The only option we have is to become part of it and shape the debate. Try to introduce equity in the conversation."
Navroz K Dubash, despite his reservations over longer term targets, agreed.
"For our own sake, India needs to be a part of the virtuous cycle of more action and more pledges and more policies," the climate policy expert and professor at Centre for Policy Research said. "But it cannot be just about targets. We have to ask countries what you're doing today and tomorrow—the near term—and not in 10-20 years. We should be leading the voices calling for that."
The goal will say you'll hit net zero in 2050. I want to know how? What are the milestones? Show us how you will actually achieve this.Navroz K Dubash, Professor, CPR India
Equity becomes key here. Rich countries will have to hit net zero much sooner than they've pledged and give up fair share of carbon space for the developing world. After all, if India and the U.S. were to both hit net zero by 2050, then the U.S. would have emitted five times more than India.
"All countries do not need to reach net-zero CO2 emissions at the same time," said Apurba Mitra, the national climate policy head at WRI India. "If we go by the principles of equity such as historical responsibility, per capita emissions or capacity to act, developed countries should be aiming to get to net-zero emissions much before mid-century."
Pledging for net-zero could give India more persuasive power to push rich countries in going for more aggressive cuts. “It is in our interest that every country look around, sees everybody else do more, and therefore decides to do more. India has to play its part in driving that cycle,” Dubash said.
Beyond Targets: What We Need?
Decarbonising India won't be easy. Especially when so much of its economy is embedded in industries that are polluting. According to CEEW, if India wants to hit net zero by 2050 then the share of fossil fuels in its energy mix will have to fall to 5% from 73% in 2015. Simultaneously, share of renewables will have to go up to 83% from 10% in 2019.
That's a tall ask.
"It may lead to regional disparities in job creation and also impact the quality of jobs," Mitra said. "We need to first try and understand the potential direction and extent of these impacts, and account for these within our decarbonisation plans."
Any net-zero target will need to have an underlying plan that talks about the institutional framework, finance and capacity building for such efforts, she said.
Unless the effort needed to reach a net-zero target is translated and distributed to sectoral and sub-national levels in a just and methodical way, it will only remain a target on paper.Apurba Mitra, Head—National Climate Policy, WRI India
Dubash has batted for climate legislation that enables decarbonisation. That could avoid government ministries from being in “silos” and help them coordinate better for the transition.
"We need to have a law and an institutional structure that makes it possible and likely that across government we are systematically thinking for low-carbon transitions," Dubash said.
He said short-term plans should be formulated for multiple sectors analyse how a low-carbon future can be made a possibility. "What will India's transport future look like?. How do we make sure future buildings are more efficient and require less active cooling? Can we move cooking from gas-based to renewable electricity-based? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking."
Chaturvedi said governments and stakeholders will only be able do this when they start seeing climate change as an economic problem and not just an environmental one.
"The reality is that decarbonisation and net zero is actually about an economic transformation," he said. "Everyone needs to realise this, that it is about our economy, and the economy of the future."
There’s also an obvious economic opportunity too. According to Deloitte, India could gain $11 trillion in economic value if it can take the lead in climate action. “We have a narrow window of time—the next 10 years—to make the decisions needed to alter the trajectory of climate change,” the report said.
Clearly, there is progress being made. The country is well on track to reduce carbon emissions intensity by 35% over 2005-levels by 2030—a pledge it made in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a target to install 450GW of renewable energy by the end of the decade—100GW of which has been achieved already. On the country's 75th Independence Day, Modi launched the National Hydrogen Mission aimed at making the country a global hub for hydrogen production and export. Even the country's railways aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030.
"Because we are growing, because we are locking our infrastructure, it is very important that we think about low-carbon future in the infrastructure that we lock in," Dubash said.
"There's a lot of urgency, but we have started to make some changes in the right direction. We just need to build on that."