As the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees, the 75th UN General Assembly was organised in a fully virtual mode for the first time. The pleasant surprise in these demoralising times was China’s announcement to achieve carbon neutrality, that is, effectively generating net-zero emissions, before 2060. This is a welcome step from the world’s largest carbon emitter. Post China’s announcement, India’s global engagement strategy is now being scrutinised, with questions about its long-term strategy and rising expectations of enhancing its Paris commitments.
In order to place India’s existing Paris commitments in perspective, it is worthwhile to step back and compare them with the commitments of other countries, based on an independent scientific analysis carried out by the Climate Action Tracker, which has assessed the promised climate commitments across developed and developing countries. India is one of the only six countries (amongst the 33 that were assessed), and the only G-20 country, whose climate commitments at Paris are on a path compatible to limit warming well below 2°C. Furthermore, it seems that India is well on its way to achieving its carbon intensity reduction and non-fossil-fuel electricity growth capacity commitments well before the 2030 target year.
It is noteworthy that Climate Action Tracker revises its assessments in the light of new commitments (as made by China), as well as due to other events such as the impact of COVID-19 and the resulting recovery packages. Even though China’s commitment is likely to lower warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees C by 2100, China continues to remain in the “highly insufficient” category. India, despite being the fourth-largest emitter, has consistently kept its commitments in sync with its fair share and will achieve, if not over-achieve, these targets.
India and China’s path of economic development and the underpinning political scenarios vary greatly. Development and growth in India are still at an early stage, and our first goal remains increasing the availability of adequate infrastructure for all Indians. A measure of this deficit is that we use only about 0.6 tonnes of oil-equivalent worth of energy per person per year. On the other hand, the average energy consumption in China is 2.36 tonnes per person per year, and is at least four tonnes per person per year in the OECD countries. It is, therefore, essential that we rapidly bridge the energy deficit — and it now seems that we can do so through renewables and in a cost-effective manner.
This cost-effectiveness in renewable electricity has occurred rather rapidly, largely as a result of the global reduction in solar PV and battery prices. Solar electricity is already the cheapest electricity available in India when the sun is shining. It now seems that round-the-clock renewable electricity (either directly from renewables, or through energy stored in batteries) may be cost-competitive with coal electricity in the near future.
This cost-effectiveness of zero-carbon options will emerge in other applications as well. Consequently, over the next decade, as India continues to minimise emissions, its path of transition will focus on synergising rapid and sustainable economic growth in some of India’s vital sectors, along with strong climatic co-benefits. This will involve dedicated action in some of the vital sectors which can generate and sustain employment while adding to the country’s economic growth. As the electricity sector transitions to decarbonisation, electrification of transport through more electric vehicles will replace fuel-based vehicles, and electrification of low-temperature heating applications in industries, will enable a shift away from emissions-intensive fossil fuels, reducing our dependence on fuel imports.
Another area of attention is increasing urban forestry to compensate for the environmental degradation as a result of rapid urbanisation in several Indian cities. This is vital to restore the flow of crucial ecosystem services, including air quality, and increase the resilience of cities to extreme climatic events. Rapid and intermittent urbanisation has resulted in disconnected islands of forests amid urban landscapes. As a result, enhancing biodiversity, minimising human-wildlife conflict and restoring India’s pristine forests by developing dedicated wildlife/biodiversity corridors is an essential next step.
At the developmental crossroads that India stands, the next decade is vital for its own economic growth, its climate action, and its social and ecological well-being. With this in mind, India must focus on its domestic developmental prerogative and disengage them from the pressures that come along with international negotiations, focussing on actions that reduce the development deficits, which also provide strong climate benefits.
At the level of international negotiations, India must initiate a narrative, discussion and dialogue which focuses on each country taking on commitments that move their carbon trajectory towards the Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C. This is necessary not only to reduce the international pressure on India to enhance its commitments — but also to ensure that all countries carry a fair share of the burden. India’s G-20 presidency in 2022 could be a great opportunity to jump-start this process.