New Delhi: The United States (US) will support India's bid to achieve ambitious renewable energy targets by facilitating affordable access to green technologies and finance, US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate John Kerry told Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting on April 7.

The Kerry-Modi meeting took place a fortnight ahead of a virtual Global Leaders Summit on climate when 40 countries are expected to make bold climate pledges and set targets for future decades. There is growing pressure on countries, including India, to move toward net-zero targets--that is, announcing the year by when they will have close to zero net emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). This can happen if countries reduce their emissions substantially and also remove residual emissions through afforestation and deployment of expensive carbon capture technologies. (These involve capturing carbon dioxide emissions from industries and power plants for underground storage and reuse.)

The third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world after the US and China, India plays a critical role in any global action on climate change. It is also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate risks and could benefit from bolder actions.

Both China and the US have indicated their climate action plans. In September last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly that the country aims to peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. The White House, in its invitation to world leaders for the April summit, stated that it will announce an ambitious 2030 emissions target under the Paris agreement. Further, last month, three Democratic lawmakers also presented a new climate bill in the US House of Representatives aiming to have 80% clean electricity by 2030 and 100% by 2035.

Is India in a position to announce an economy-wide net-zero target? The answer to this will have to take into consideration factors related to energy transitions, protection and rehabilitation of livelihoods in the various fossil-fuels sectors, and striking a balance between transition to clean energy and growth, climate researchers told IndiaSpend. Aiming for a fast switch to net zero could lead to economic shocks that will impact coal and allied sectors.

Why net zero

Achieving a net-zero or close to net-zero target is necessary to arrest global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said in its seminal report in October 2018. But to achieve this, the world has time only till 2050. So far, 77 countries, 10 regions and 100 cities have announced net-zero targets either by passing laws or by publishing action plans.

In 2017, Sweden passed a law to become a net-zero carbon emitter by 2045. The law came into force in 2018. Similarly, the United Kingdom passed a law in 2019 to bring down its GHG emissions to net zero by 2050.

There are potentially multiple benefits of adopting bolder climate action or a net-zero target, said Ulka Kelkar, director, climate programme at World Resources Institute (WRI) India, a global research organisation. "To begin with, India will be contributing even more to the global effort against climate change and reap co-benefits such as reduction in air pollution and water security," she said.

"With many countries making bolder pledges, it is likely to spur technological innovation. This has the potential to create new jobs in India."

'Growth has to happen on energy-efficient pathways'

A recent analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a Delhi-based think-tank, emphasised the need to consider the peaking year in any decision on net-zero targets. The peaking year is when a country's GHG emissions have peaked and have started to decline.

The analysis, released in March 2021, also pointed out that short-term targets cannot be an alternative to long-term targets. It also said that strong policy signals and bold targets are needed to help all sectors plan and prepare for low-carbon growth. For instance, India would need to identify the manufacturing sectors that can use electricity as a fuel instead of fossil fuels.

CEEW estimated that if India chose 2030 as its peaking year and 2050 as its net-zero year, and if carbon capture technologies remained commercially unviable, then 83% of India's energy would have to come from renewables (excluding hydropower). Further, the share of fossil-fuel energy in the primary energy mix would have to be cut down to 5% by 2030 from 73% (2015), the CEEW analysis said.

"Many developed countries have already peaked emissions and for them, the conversation around net zero revolves more around ways to achieve that," said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow at CEEW and the author of the analysis, "However, India is yet to peak, both economically and in terms of its emissions."

Chaturvedi also pointed to the importance of factoring in India's GDP growth vis-à-vis its energy and emissions intensity while deciding on a peaking year. "When there is high GDP growth, it can overpower reductions in energy and emissions intensity," he said. "China, unlike India, had a sustained period of GDP growth before they announced 2030 as peaking year and 2060 as net-zero year. Their growth rates are already tapering. If we want to achieve peaking in the next 10-15 years, our growth has to happen on a low-carbon and energy-efficient pathway. This way, we can reach the peak of emissions sooner."

Impact on coal-dependent regions

Deciding on a peaking year, Chaturvedi said, would also hinge on considerations such as climate risks, the gap between the peaking year and the net-zero year, the possibility of stranded assets in the energy sector and economic trade-offs.

For instance, if India chooses a faster transition towards low-carbon growth, it would affect the revenue of coal-dependent states such as Jharkhand and Odisha. It could render half a million people in the coal sector jobless and lead to higher railway passenger fares, the CEEW analysis said. Coal freight is the core source of revenue for the Indian Railways and reduction in coal consumption could compel the railways to recover their revenue loss from passengers.

India's approach to net zero should be overarching, without resting on laurels and with a focus on sectors where transitions are possible, said Navroz Dubash, professor at the Centre for Policy Research and a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Sixth Assessment).

For a country like India where emissions are increasing, net zero is not a good guide to what needs to be done in the short term. "The thing we lose if we don't make a bold pledge is frankly [just] diplomatic brownie points. The Biden administration's main ask is, please do something serious and bold. Our role has to be to define what we think of as bold," Dubash said. India should signal its seriousness about low-carbon transition by focussing on key sectors that are changing rapidly by promoting both development and mitigation in these, he added.

"Electricity is definitely one of those sectors. We should go beyond renewable energy targets. We could basically say that we are going to accelerate decarbonisation of electricity, which means we have to be more specific about coal, its future role in our energy mix and how we will manage social transitions. We have to start a conversation on just transitions in coal-dependent regions," Dubash said.

Renewable target

India's Biennial Update Report (BUR)-III submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said it is on track to meet its Nationally Determined Contributions goal of 33-35% reduction in emissions intensity of GDP. The reduction is largely due to the rise in the share of renewable energy (RE) in India's energy mix, the report showed.

The share of non-fossil fuel-based electricity generation in India's total installed capacity was 38.18% in November 2020, the report said. As on February 28, the cumulative installed capacity of renewable energy (excluding large hydropower projects) was 92.97 gigawatts (GW), said Minister of State (Independent Charge) for New and Renewable Energy and Power, R.K. Singh, in a Lok Sabha statement on March 25. The total installed energy capacity as on March 14, 2021, was 379.13 GW, as per power ministry data. This means that the RE sector was contributing a little over 24% of the country's installed capacity of power generation.

India's achievements since the Paris Agreement have gone beyond the pledges made as part of its NDCs, said Ulka Kelkar of WRI. "The 450 GW RE target was not a pledge made internationally. This contributes to our target of reducing our energy intensity of GDP. I would say that developments on climate action have been better than what was planned originally and a number of things have happened which were not part of the promised action plan but have helped expedite our actions," Kelkar said.

The important question now is, can we do more given limited land availability, she said. "We are looking at our land to grow food, graze animals, protect and preserve forests, not only from a carbon sink perspective but also to support livelihoods and biodiversity. We need land for solar and wind as well. Obviously, this is difficult and some choices need to be made. Land puts a hard limit on our choices. In this context, government processes and consultations become more important," she said.

"The Paris agreement always had two components--the short-term targets (NDCs) and the long-term targets for decarbonisation, to reach the eventual target. Science tells you that you do have time till 2050. We should use the remaining 30 years for a long-term plan so our targets can be met without an overnight transition," she added.

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