Ahead of the 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP 27), in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November, the Union Cabinet has approved India’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), a formal statement detailing its action plan to address climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement requires countries to spell out a pathway to ensure the globe does not heat beyond 2°C, and endeavour to keep it below 1.5°C by 2100. The subsequent COPs are a quibbling arena where countries coax, cajole and make compromises on the cuts they can undertake over multi-decadal timelines with the least impact on their developmental priorities. While the end product of the COP is a joint agreement, signed by all member countries, the real business begins after, where countries must submit NDCs every five years, mapping what will be done post 2020 to stem fossil-fuel emissions. India’s first NDC, in 2015, specified eight targets, the most salient of them being reducing the emissions intensity of GDP by 33%-35% (of 2005 levels) by 2030, having 40% of its installed electricity capacity sourced from renewable energy, and creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through forest and tree cover by 2030. Being a large, populous country, India has high net emissions but low per-capita emissions. It has also, by participating in COPs for decades, made the case that the existing climate crisis is largely due to industrialisation by the U.S. and developed European countries since 1850. However, years of negotiations, international pressure and clearer evidence of the multi-dimensional impact from climate change have seen India agree to move away from fossil fuels over time.
At COP 26 in Glasgow in 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out five commitments, or ‘Panchamrit’, as the Government references it, which included India increasing its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030 and achieving “Net Zero” by 2070, or no net carbon dioxide emitted from energy sources. However, the press statement on the Cabinet decision was silent on whether India would cut emissions by a billion tons and on creating carbon sinks. While India is within its right to specify its emissions pathway, it should not — at any forum — promise more than what it can deliver as this undermines the moral authority that India brings to future negotiations. India has expressed its intent, via several legislations, to use energy efficiently and many of its biggest corporations have committed to shifting away from polluting energy sources. Going ahead, these should be grounds for India, at its pace, to be an exemplar for balancing energy use, development and meeting climate goals.