Explained | Why is it difficult for India to get to net zero?

What are the hurdles? How contentious is the issue of heavy reliance on coal? What is India’s stand?

September 19, 2021 04:40 am | Updated November 22, 2021 09:58 pm IST

Chimneys of a coal-fired power plant in New Delhi. File

Chimneys of a coal-fired power plant in New Delhi. File

The story so far: On his recent visit to India ahead of the U.N. Climate Change conference in Glasgow, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said he had not received any assurance that India was working to raise its ambition to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Mr. Kerry is trying to build momentum, under the Paris Agreement framework, for countries with high CO 2 emissions to commit themselves to a target date when they will reach net zero, meaning when they will achieve nil man-made emissions or ensure removal of such emissions to achieve neutrality. India, as the country with the third largest emissions, is under pressure to come up with a higher ambition on cutting CO 2 emissions. The net zero concept, according to the United Nations, has appealed to 130 countries that have either committed themselves to carbon neutrality by 2050, or are considering that target.

What is India doing to lower emissions?

India is working to reduce its emissions, aligned with the goal of less than 2°C global temperature rise, seen in its headline pledge to cut the emissions intensity of GDP by 33%-35% by 2030 over the 2005 level. But it has not favoured a binding commitment towards carbon neutrality. It is also not aligned with the more ambitious goal of 1.5°C temperature rise. Among the contentious issues it faces is heavy reliance on coal. According to the International Energy Agency’s India Energy Outlook 2021, coal accounts for close to 70% of electricity generation. Cutting greenhouse gases which heat the atmosphere and contribute to climate change involves shifting power production away from coal, greater adoption of renewables, and transforming mobility through electric vehicles. India is praised by some for its renewables target: scaling up power from renewables such as solar and wind to 450 GW by 2030.


In recent comments, after the discussions with Mr. Kerry, Union Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav said net zero was not the only goal of national policy. Moreover, domestic political opinion favours room for some growth in CO 2 emissions before peaking. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) provides for common, but differentiated, responsibilities of nations, favouring countries like India. Some politicians support a net zero target as it can put India on a green development trajectory, attracting investment in innovative technologies.


How are other big countries pursuing net zero?

As the largest emitter of GHGs, China told the U.N. in 2020 that it would move to net zero by 2060. Its pledge to peak CO 2 emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality three decades later is among the most high-profile commitments. To operationalise this goal, China’s State Council has issued a guideline on the transition to a green and low-carbon circular economic development system, focusing on industrial production, logistics, infrastructure, consumption, innovation, and enabling policies. But changing winds in global politics, resumed U.S. leadership of the climate campaign, and likely taxes on unsustainably produced export goods could influence Chinese policies. The U.S., as the second biggest emitter with large historical emissions, returned to the Paris Agreement under President Joe Biden with an ambitious 2050 net zero plan. Its Department of Energy announced two programmes that are also expected to boost employment: slashing the current cost of solar power by 60%, and putting up 30 GW of offshore wind power by 2030. The European Union (EU) member-states have committed themselves to reducing emissions by at least 55% by 2030 over 1990 levels. In July, the EU published a climate law that binds the bloc to its 2030 emissions target and carbon neutrality by 2050.

Why do some analysts see net zero as controversial?

Although a global coalition has coalesced around the concept, an increasingly vocal group views it as a distraction, useful only to score political points. Carbon neutrality looks to nascent technology to suck out CO 2 from the atmosphere. Youth movements and some scientists call this procrastination, since it enables the fossil fuel industry to continue expanding. Many fossil fuel companies support net zero goals.


What are India’s choices?

Getting a stronger economic dividend for the same volume of CO 2 emitted by reforming energy, industry and buildings, and achieving higher energy efficiency in all sectors can slow emissions. State governments must be part of such a climate plan, and climate governance institutions must be set up at the national and State levels.

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