After Paris, promises to keep

India would do well to look at the Paris Agreement on climate change through the prism of opportunity, not adversity, and move to a green growth trajectory. Ramping up renewables output and decarbonising the transport sector are good starting points

December 25, 2015 12:51 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:04 pm IST

India has welcomed the >Paris Agreement on climate change , an important pact concluded by 196 countries to put the world on the track to sustainable development.

Will it now leave the “fake horse race”, as many see it, in which climate responsibility and development are treated as separate competing entities, and move to a green growth trajectory away from fossil fuels? That is the central question for national policy posed by the agreement, one of the most anticipated international pacts in decades, and one that could bring about a fundamental shift in the development paradigm. Important answers will naturally depend on how willing the West is to pay for clean development in India and around the world, since everyone, not just the poor, stands to lose from global warming.

Shrinking space for emissions The national imperative is to adopt policies that can speedily remove carbon from the energy mix, stop the degradation and destruction of forests, conserve water resources, improve resilience in agriculture, and help communities adapt to the destructive impacts of climate-related events that will be unavoidable in the coming years.

At the conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in the French capital, India’s argument rested primarily on the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities which are enshrined in the convention: historical greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from industrialised countries have already occupied two-thirds of the carbon space in the atmosphere, continually warming the atmosphere and leaving little room for India and other emerging nations to grow with some level of unavoidable emissions, especially from coal-fired power plants.

The space for emissions that remains is of the order of 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide until the end of the century. It is now the turn of the developed economies, New Delhi argued, to give this space to those who were deprived of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. In parallel, rich countries should aid the transition of the developing world to a green economy, providing funds, encouraging innovation and transferring technology.

What emerged in the > Paris Agreement is a regime for all countries to voluntarily reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. They would do this through quantified, measurable actions forming “nationally determined contributions” (NDC). On two counts, though, India found itself in difficult situations in the Paris negotiations — first, its demand for a decadal review of NDC compliance did not succeed (the UNFCCC will scrutinise them every five years), and second, it was sometimes in the company of oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, rather than those nations facing severe climate threats that demanded a > tighter goal of pegging temperature rise at 1.5°C .

But the agreement is now a reality and there is little time to lose. The process launched in Paris will get underway soon upon its being ratified or accepted by 55 parties. Transparency, which is not the strongest virtue in India’s governance, is a specific requirement under Article 13 of the pact. Countries are required to, with only some exceptions, ensure that it forms part of their national communications to the UNFCCC. The same will apply to developed countries that have been dragging their feet to come up with at least $100 billion a year in special climate funding to help developing countries, mainly towards adaptation needs.

“A facilitative dialogue among Parties in 2018 [will be convened] to take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal [for peaking of GHGs],” says paragraph 20 of the Paris text, adding that it should inform the preparation of NDCs. Clearly, between now and 2020, India will need to flesh out the promises that it has made in the Intended NDC submitted to the UNFCCC, including the actions to be taken to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on > Climate Change (IPCC) will provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways. The IPCC report on this, sought by many vulnerable countries, particularly island nations, is certain to lead to a fresh wave of citizen action worldwide against fossil fuel companies and their financial investors, with implications for India. In effect, the National Democratic Alliance government has to work overtime to meet the requirements that it has signed on to, and prepare for an impending spike in public pressure.

Scaling up solar power Carbon emissions from economic activity continue to rise and India is the third-largest emitter among individual countries. While it should pursue the legitimate question of historical responsibility of rich nations led by the United States to compensate victims of climate change, the domestic agenda announced in the NDC cannot wait.

Arguably, the most prominent is the scaling up of renewable energy capacity to 175 gigawatts (GW) by 2022, of which solar power will form 100 GW (up from the current level of about 4 GW). Impressive as this goal is, fabrication of solar cells and production of modules need a dramatic “Make in India” plan in which the entire citizenry feels invested. This can lead to mass proliferation of solar photovoltaic rooftop installations on the lines of the mobile phone revolution that swept the country and, in addition, boost employment.

In 2014, China and Taiwan produced 69 per cent of the solar photovoltaic modules, while Europe was in the lead with a 48 per cent share of cumulative solar installations. By contrast the two major producing countries had only 17 per cent of the installations, according to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE in Germany. Moreover, among the portfolio of renewable energy technologies, the International Energy Agency (IEA) report titled “Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2015” says solar photovoltaics is the only technology that is on track to meet the power generation target for a 2°C temperature rise scenario.

Considering that India’s NDC talks of unlocking domestic funds along with new and additional resources from developed countries to meet its objectives, State electricity grids should be required by law to introduce transparent, well-functioning, feed-in tariffs for rooftop solar installations (which Japan has done in recent years), and to amend building codes to make it mandatory for all new constructions.

The IEA points out that policy uncertainty for renewables during 2014 affected their growth in India and China, impacting ambitious targets. India, as the prime mover of the International Solar Alliance that was launched in Paris, needs to demonstrate that it has a result-oriented policy that is worthy of replication.

Decarbonising travel A second “easy piece” in the energy puzzle is the transport sector which accounts for about 14 per cent of national emissions. Road transport policy including urban transport is mainly made by the States and has remained neglected. Decarbonising this sector and increasing its efficiency needs strong mandates for State governments, requiring them to comply with standards of minimum performance. This would raise standards of bus and urban rail travel, encouraging suitable investments, both public and private, and fast-track sustainable urban development. Providing a cross-subsidy for capital expenditure and operations through a dedicated fee on fossil fuels would be the way forward.

Without such measures, carbon emissions from passenger transport are bound to rise steadily. During the rest of the current decade until 2021 (the year India’s NDC should begin), the share of private cars and two-wheelers in the mobility mix is expected to rise, with a marked decline for public modes. Carbon emissions from passenger transport are likely to rise at the rate of six per cent a year. It would defeat the objective if the NDC goes the way of the National Urban Transport Policy, with little action to back up ambitious goals.

There are other elements to the national climate pledge that present tremendous economic opportunity. The plan to trap carbon through expansion of forests and massive tree-planting could transform rural communities if it can combine livelihood opportunity in the form of social forestry produce.

On the corporate side, all financial investments and lending should conform to a sustainability code, to ensure that they do not end up adding to carbon emissions. This is one area that civil society will influence in the coming years.

The ultimate objective is to ensure that all carbon emissions are turned into “net zero” at some point beyond 2050, upon which no man-made greenhouse gas emissions will be a net addition to the atmosphere — they will be captured in some manner. That transition, with its promise of innovation, will be the great story of the 21st century.

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