Cop26: What does India’s 2070 net zero target mean for the world?

Analysis: Experts say India’s net zero target is arguably much more ambitious than that of China or the European Union - despite coming a decade or two later

Stuti Mishra
Tuesday 02 November 2021 07:43
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India won’t hit net-zero emissions until 2070, Modi tells Cop26

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s surprise announcement of a 2070 target for net zero carbon emissions has come with several ambitious pledges.

India, which is one of the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases after China and the US, had earlier stayed away from net zero commitments and instead demanded more action from developed nations.

Before the UN climate negotiations, India also emphasised that net zero targets were less important than the path towards achieving reduced emissions. However, pressure had been building on India ever since China announced its 2060 net zero target last year.

On Monday, Mr Modi’s statement at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow included several ambitious targets — to increase the use of renewables and to curb emissions — that experts believe can be transformative for the country in the coming years.

Mr Modi’s target for India to attain net zero emissions is 20 years later than that of most other countries, and 10 years later than China. However, India’s share of historic carbon emissions is also a lot less than that of more developed nations like the US and China.

Net zero, which is also referred to as carbon neutrality, does not mean that a country would bring down its emissions to zero. It is a state in which a country’s emissions are compensated by absorption and removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through carbon sinks and various other technologies.

One of the most ambitious goals of the landmark Paris Agreement was that the world should cut emissions in half by 2030 and achieve global carbon neutrality by 2050, for a 50 per cent chance of limiting global heating to 1.5C.

Mr Modi said on Monday that India will bring up its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030.

He also pledged that by the same year, 50 per cent of India’s energy would come from renewable sources. Though the country has made great strides in the area in the last few years, this is a big jump from where India’s current renewable energy capacity stands.

Mr Modi announced that India will reduce its total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes between now and 2030. Further, by that period, India will reduce the carbon intensity of its economy — a measure that relates to the amount of goods produced per unit of energy — by 45 per cent rather than the current target of 35 per cent.

More than India’s net zero pledge, though it carries diplomatic relevance, it is the other announcements that will drive real change in the coming years, said Dr Navroz Dubash, a professor at the public policy think-tank Centre for Policy Research.

“Much more intriguing are the announcements on railways, on non-fossil capacity and the benchmark for renewable energy,” Dr Dubash said. “These are what give scope for India to drive a low carbon development transition in the next decade.” Mr Modi had referred in his speech to a commitment to make India’s railways net zero by 2030, a pledge that was actually first made last year.

However, despite India’s fast-paced development of green energy capacity, the country continues to be heavily dependent on coal and it is the world’s second-largest producer and consumer of the dirty fossil fuel. While India’s pledges centre around increasing renewable energy, there are no commitments on how soon coal will be phased out or when the construction of new plants will stop.

“Given the changed economics of the energy sector, with renewables and battery storage now cheaper than new coal, India was well positioned to commit to No New Coal and a coal peak. The fact that it didn’t is worrying and a huge missed opportunity,” said Ashish Fernandes, the CEO of Climate Risk Horizons.

“What’s the plan to stop growing our coal and oil emissions specifically and start phasing down? India cannot afford, for both financial and ecological reasons, to continue expanding its coal sector. There are 26GW of new coal plants in the permitting pipeline. Building these would be a disaster for the climate and lock the Indian economy into expensive electricity,” he added.

Dr Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), said that though India’s net zero target may come later than others, it is actually more ambitious than that of China or the European Union.

“We at CEEW expect this to provide a clear roadmap to Indian and global energy markets and accelerate the pace towards deep decarbonisation and a 1.5C future,” Dr Chaturvedi said in a statement. “This announcement, in line with CEEW’s latest report, will also provide a blueprint for India’s transition to a low carbon economy.

“By announcing the net zero year, the prime minister has also accorded a red carpet to foreign and domestic inventors who want to invest in research and development, manufacturing, and deployment of green technologies in India,” he said.

But Dr Chaturvedi added: “India’s efforts though will have to be supported by the availability of climate finance from developed countries. Without foreign capital, on concessional terms, this transition will prove to be difficult.”

The issue of funding has been at the core of India’s stand at climate summits. At Cop26, Mr Modi reiterated it and demanded $1trillion in climate finance.

“Today when India has resolved to move forward with a new commitment and new energy, then the climate finance and transfer of low-cost technology become even more important,” he said. “Today it’s important to track climate finance just like we track the progress of climate mitigation.”

However unlike in 2015, India’s commitments this year do not come with any financial conditions attached. The country managed to achieve many of its initial Paris targets without any significant climate funding.

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