Our covid emergency must not detract attention from our slow-burn crisis of climate change. The US, for one, is set to accord it top priority again; President Joe Biden will host a virtual summit on this issue with 40 other national leaders over Thursday and Friday. His administration has signalled a keenness to double down on the menace and is widely expected to pledge a reduction of at least half of America’s carbon emissions by 2030. It has also engaged Beijing in climate talks, stirring hopes of a ‘green race’ for carbon neutrality. Last year, China set itself a target of 2060 to ensure it spews out no more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbs. Some analysts say the US can achieve that sooner. The EU has tentatively agreed to go carbon neutral by 2050. Others have also escalated their efforts. India, however, has not yet declared a net-zero deadline for itself. As the world’s third biggest emitter of gases that warm up the planet, we must not just do our bit, but also aim to enliven the conversation with strategies to mitigate the risks staring us in the face.
Our official stance often seems rather too defensive. On 15 April, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar forcefully said that India would not make any new pledges “under pressure”. While the argument cannot be refuted that this crisis was caused primarily by the past emissions of industrialized countries, dwelling on historical points of culpability does nothing to solve the problem. We should worry about our own vulnerability, which is turning out to be unacceptably high. The rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers and rising sea levels pose multiple threats, marine heatwaves have exposed India to frequent and severe cyclones, and rising temperatures could turn the monsoon even more erratic, imperil agriculture, threaten other sectors, and roil the lives of over a billion people. One source of relief is that we appear on course to meet our emission goals under the Paris Agreement of 2015. India had committed itself to a reduction of 33-35% in its ‘emission intensity’ by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. Yet, despite this efficiency in coughing out less carbon in proportion to our economic output, the country’s quantum of emissions may actually rise over this decade, as some analysis has shown.
The country is betting big on renewable energy. We have a national target of 450 gigawatts by 2030, with solar power projected to contribute slightly over 62% of that. In a recent report, the International Energy Agency stated that by 2040, 30% of our power generation could be solar; the share of bad old coal, which accounts for 70% of our total today, could shrink to 30% by then. A study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water found that for India to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, fossil fuels would have to feed just 5% of our energy needs, while power production via non-hydro renewables must increase 55-fold. Whatever the details, we must raise our overall ambition. Our current agenda is calibrated to help limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, but we should go for 1.5 degrees. Our industrial sector must take on a big chunk of the responsibility, whether or not a market emerges for carbon credits to incentivize gains on decarbonization. The Centre, on its part, should promote such a market, invest more in climate research, and forge global alliances for green-tech transfers. We need a good strategic plan for a low-carbon future, one that lays out a clear path ahead.