India’s climate policy establishment is engaged in an intense debate on a key policy question which will determine the future development and environmental trajectory of the nation — will, and should, India join the elite club of nations that have announced a net zero emission target by the mid-century in the run up to the United Nations climate change conference (COP 26) in Glasgow this November?
Though a net zero target may sound reassuring when the severe impact of the climate crisis is already being felt in several parts of the country, experts point out that it is extremely difficult to achieve and will have long lasting implications for India’s economic story.
The enhanced global pressure
Around 58 countries, accounting for more than half of the world’s emissions, have announced net zero emission targets so far, according to Climatewatchdata.org. Only six parties, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand, have legally binding net zero emissions targets while 26 parties presently have it in their policy documents.
Achieving a net zero emission target implies that all remaining human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are balanced out by removing GHGs from the atmosphere in a process known as carbon removal. This may be achieved by various modes, including restoring forests or through direct air capture and storage (DACS) technology, according to the World Resources Institute.
In September 2020, China announced that it will peak its GHG emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. The White House announced on January 27 that President Joe Biden will take steps to put the United States (US) on an “irreversible path” to a net zero economy by 2050. Consequently, Biden has also called for a summit of major emitting nations on April 22 in order to persuade them to commit to ambitious mitigation targets.
“Yes, India will participate in the summit called by US. But I haven’t heard any plans of announcing a net zero emissions target. It requires complete transformation and could derail our development plans. India cannot take on net zero target at the moment,” said a senior official of the environment ministry, on condition of anonymity.
In reply to a question in Rajya Sabha on India’s stand with respect to global carbon space, Union environment minister, Prakash Javadekar said on March 15: “India has repeatedly noted in climate negotiations that the developed countries have historically consumed far more than their fair share of the global carbon budget..India continues to uphold the need for equitable access to carbon space as among the key principles guiding implementation of the Paris Agreement, as well as the achievement of the larger goal of sustainable development in keeping with the needs and aspirations of its people.”
Is net zero a panacea?
India is under diplomatic pressure to join the net zero club. But even before rejoicing at the fact that countries representing more than half of the global emissions have announced carbon neutrality by mid-century, there are two major issues to consider.
One of them is whether a net zero emissions target can actually secure the planet from the devastating impacts of the climate crisis. Dave Elliott, an emeritus professor of technology policy at the Open University in UK wrote in Physicsworld, that the net zero formulation does not usually specify how net zero emissions are achieved; so, in principle, any project will be acceptable if it can claim to avoid, or compensate for, carbon dioxide production. These can include carbon offset and carbon removal projects, as well as renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes.
But this could mean some countries will focus more on offset technologies of the future which may or may not work.
“Beyond “Net-Zero”: A Case for Separate Targets for Emissions Reduction and Negative Emissions,” a policy brief published in the journal, Frontiers, in 2019 had also raised this concern. “Targets and accounting for negative emissions should be explicitly set and managed separately from existing and future targets for emissions reduction. Failure to make such a separation has already hampered climate policy, exaggerating the expected future contribution of negative emissions in climate models,” it said.
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Prof Duncan McLaren,,a research fellow at Lancaster University’s Lancaster Environment Centre, wrote in Carbon Brief, “The main problem is that most NETs are still only prospective technologies – they do not exist as large-scale socio-technical systems ready for deployment…Net-zero plans that rely on promises of future carbon removal – instead of reducing emissions now – are, therefore, placing a risky bet.”
Experts have raised concerns about whether India should bet on such long term uncertain strategies.
“The problem with the term ‘net zero’ is that it’s enabling governments and corporates to make pledges that evade responsibility, delay real action and in some cases even scale up fossil fuel extraction and increase emissions. Too many ‘net zero’ plans heavily rely on unproven technologies, which are unlikely to ever work at scale, and tree-planting that will require such vast areas it will drive land-grabbing and rising hunger in the global south. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon by setting far-off, false targets, India has the opportunity to lead with real zero actions that radically reduce emissions, rapidly green its economy, tackle air pollution at home and help achieve climate goals globally,” said Harjeet Singh, global climate lead at ActionAid.
The idea of climate justice
The other dimension to net zero targets is that it brushes over one of the most important principles of 2015 Paris Agreement — “common but differentiated responsibility”. This requires richer countries to lead and take historical responsibility for the emissions caused in the past by them. Linked to this is the concept of climate justice, which underlines that the devastating impacts of the climate crisis will not be borne out equally by the rich and poor. Developing countries will have to suffer a higher burden and hence climate mitigation policies should be differentiated to put a higher onus of mitigation on the developed world.
When asked about what India’s stance should be, Shyam Saran, former special envoy and chief negotiator on climate change said: “For India and other developing countries, it is important that mitigation does not overshadow other key elements of the Paris Climate agreement. Adaptation is a bigger challenge for most developing countries than mitigation is. The consequences of climate change are already upon us and even with the most ambitious mitigation action, will continue to impact the world since greenhouse gases accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere diminish only gradually. Adaptation should have equal billing with mitigation.”
In a recent opinion piece, Saran also pointed that under the Paris Agreement, developed countries had committed themselves to providing $100 billion a year in climate finance to developing countries up to 2020 to enable them to expand their climate action. There was a pledge to increase the size of this funding significantly in the period 2021-2025.
Even by the very accommodative accounting methods used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the actual flows have fallen far short, being only $79 billion in 2018. The finance ministry has estimated that there has been only a billion dollars in new and additional finance transferred to developing countries annually against the $100 billion pledge. It is important for India to highlight the finance component as this will also enable the mobilisation of other developing countries.
The developmental implications
India will also need to make very quick and transformational changes to its energy mix to achieve a net zero emissions target, which could also hurt its development prospects.
To achieve net-zero emissions by the 2060’s India’s energy sector will need “profound transformation”, the India Energy Outlook of International Energy Agency had said last month. India is the fourth largest global energy consumer now after China, the US and the European Union. As per current policies, it overtakes the European Union by 2030 to move up to third position.
But even with more than 1.35 billion people, India’s per capita carbon footprint is only around 2 tonnes CO2equivalent (CO2e), much lower than the global average of 4.8 tonnes and a fraction compared to the footprint of countries like Australia at 17 tonnes CO2e.
A modelling report undertaken by The Energy and Resources Institute and Shell released on March 23 suggested that India needed to grow the power sector by a factor of more than four in 30 years, dominated by renewables (around 90%); target 13% hydrogen in final energy, including as a fuel for industry and transport; transform bioenergy, with liquid biofuels surpassing petroleum products by 2040 to fuel industry and transport, including hard-to-abate sectors such as aviation to achieve a net zero target. It will also have to resort to carbon sequestration to an extent of around 1.3 Gt CO2, using nature-based solutions and /or carbon capture and storage (CCS).
According to an assessment by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), India would need to generate at least 83% of its electricity from (non-hydropower) renewable energy sources by 2050, if it were to commit to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.
Arunabha Ghosh, CEO, CEEW, said in a statement: “India has already demonstrated climate leadership and is the only G20 nation on track to surpass its Paris Agreement targets. However, if India were to announce a net-zero target, it must choose a year that not only minimises climate impacts but also gives it enough space to develop. Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 or 2060 would need rapid systemic changes across all sectors and sections of society. This, in turn, would require significant international financial investments and technological transfer from or technology co-development with the developed world.”
Ulka Kelkar, director, climate program at World Resources Institute suggests that India shouldn’t abandon the idea of a net zero emissions scenario. “Net-zero is a daunting target for India but the quest for a net-zero emissions future could bring new jobs and better health for Indians. Much depends on infusion of international capital and disruptive technologies.”