An economic case for curbs on carbon growth

For India to reduce its carbon emissions, an increase in ‘survival’ emissions for the basic needs of the poor will have to be matched by a reduction in ‘luxury’ emissions from the wealthy

November 28, 2014 12:39 am | Updated 12:39 am IST

ENVIRONMENT FRIENDLY: A modest change in lifestyle could help reduce carbon emissions. Picture shows passengers in the Delhi Metro.

ENVIRONMENT FRIENDLY: A modest change in lifestyle could help reduce carbon emissions. Picture shows passengers in the Delhi Metro.

Recently in Beijing, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping made a surprising announcement about the U.S.-China agreement on climate change. As per the agreement, the U.S. would reduce its CO emissions by 26-28 per cent from the 2005 levels by 2025. China agreed to peak its emissions by 2030 and increase the share of non-fossil sources in primary energy to about 20 per cent by 2030.

Based on the agreement, the U.S.’s carbon dioxide emissions would be about 4,500 million tonnes in 2030, about 12-13 tonnes per capita. China’s present CO emissions are 9,000 million tonnes and are expected to reach about 18,000-20,000 million tonnes in 2030, or about 12-13 tonnes per capita. It is important to note that there is convergence of per capita emissions for the U.S. and China by 2030.

According to Meinshausen et al. in Nature , if, between 2000-2050, emissions are limited to 1,000 billion tonnes CO on a cumulative basis, then there is a 25 per cent chance of warming exceeding 2°C. Given this scenario, these commitments are far lower than what is required and much lower than what they may be capable of in order to have any chance of meeting the 2°C lakshman rekha .

The Indian position

This agreement turns the focus on India. Even though India is the world’s third largest CO emitter, it is third by a distance, with just 6 per cent of the total emissions. India’s present emissions are about 2,000 million tonnes, 1.5 tonnes per capita, well below the U.S. and China. Even under robust growth scenario assumptions, India’s emissions in 2030 are expected to be about 4,000 to 5,000 million tonnes, about 3-4 tonnes per capita. Hence, it is clear that our per capita emissions in 2030 would still be well below that of the U.S. and China.

What about actions within the country? In Copenhagen, India committed itself to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20-25 per cent by 2020 in comparison to 2005 levels. India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change has led to State Action Plans that are now in different stages of implementation. The Indian government also commissioned an Expert Group on Low Carbon Strategies for Inclusive Growth, whose final report was published in 2014. According to the report, the inclusive growth path reduces “average GDP growth rate by 0.15 percentage points, while per capita CO emissions drop from 3.6 to 2.6 tonnes.” The report also indicates that access to electricity and other modern energy services for all would be made a priority, but it focusses primarily on technological changes to improve efficiency and reduce the rate of emissions growth. It also estimated that it is possible for India to get 30 per cent of its electricity from fossil-free sources by 2030.

Several other studies show that the proposed climate mitigation efforts of India appear modest in the face of the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Other studies have shown that India’s overall emissions could be reduced quite significantly over the next two decades while also meeting the energy needs of the poor, but that would need structural changes in terms of dematerialising the economy to some extent.

Reducing emissions

Within India, there is no clear elaboration of what “inclusivity” would look like for the bottom 30 per cent. Ideally it should imply energy services, employment, food, clean water, modest housing and convenient transportation. For the rich, it could also imply a modest change in lifestyles to reduce their emissions. If India’s overall carbon emissions will have to decline, an increase in “survival” emissions for the basic needs of the poor will have to be matched by a reduction in “luxury” emissions from the wealthy.

There are several opportunities for India to reduce emissions through technological change as well as lifestyles. The government could consider going further than its current policies by making a transition to the most energy-efficient options available globally for industry, buildings, and transport. The scenarios developed to understand and analyse the transitions must keep the bottom 30 per cent at the centre. The needs of the micro, small and medium enterprises also need to be addressed if employment is to be a priority. Beyond this, we need clarity on technological and institutional lock-ins in different sectors that are already taking us along high emitting paths and are reducing equity and climate resilience.

As part of domestic policy, addressing the galloping emissions of the rich and upper middle classes are also critical, not only to reduce emissions, but also because their lifestyles build aspirations for the poor. This need not compromise their quality of life and could in fact positively transform communities, cities and health. We need clear scenarios elaborating these options with the carbon cost of various decisions.

Moreover, the experience of the last five years demonstrates that there is an economic case for low carbon growth pathways. A large number of energy-intensive manufacturing industries have adopted and are implementing energy efficiency targets. The cost of solar electricity reduced significantly and the government is targeting 1,00,000 MW of solar power. There are similar ambitious targets for wind as well. It is important to note that the above are motivated by India’s aspiration for energy security and not climate change per se, since coal alone will not be able to meet our energy requirements.

India’s argument could therefore centre on three pillars. First, we should go beyond Copenhagen and further commit to reduce the carbon intensity to GDP by at least 40 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Second, increase the share of fossil free sources in electricity generation to at least 40 per cent by 2030. Third, without taking lessons from the low bars set by China and the U.S., India needs to work with other developing countries and push for further reductions and equity. We need increased capacity to decarbonise our economies and build climate resilience for adaptation. The know-how and funds needed for these need to be part of the equity aspects of the international climate agreement.

(Sujatha Byravan and Anshu Bharadwaj are with Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Bangalore.)

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