Carbon emissions growth incompatible with Paris agreement

No room to expand: Unless the West leads rapid decarbonisation efforts, it remains highly unlikely that India and other developing countries will get their fair share of the carbon pie | Photo:

How long can India lean on a dwindling global carbon budget?

The global pandemic may have given us a glimpse into what a low-emission world would look like and renewed hopes of a better future amidst all the doom and gloom. But the United in Science report, published by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) last week, has dispelled this unfounded optimism by revealing just how far away we are from flattening the climate curve. 

The report, a collation of previously published literature along with updates, has flagged the 2016-2020 period as the warmest five-year period on record — a trend which is likely to continue. It further highlighted major increases in the global population vulnerable to floods in coming decades. Polar ice melt, it said, was pushing sea levels up by one metre every year, placing coastal populations across the world at increasing levels of risk. The report also flagged changes in land use and predicted major disruptions in agriculture and the food supply chain as climate impacts and extreme weather conditions worsen.

But the most worrying trend is the rise of global GHG emissions. Global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are still rising, according to the report. The rate of growth of fossil fuel CO2 has fallen to close to 1% per year in the decade since 2010 compared to 3% per year in the preceding decade. This should be good news, but it fails to inspire confidence when seen in contrast to the reductions that would need to be met in order to achieve Paris Agreement goals. Total human-induced emissions in 2019 were found to be around 42.9 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2). 

Carbon emissions are directly correlated with the earth’s warming trend. So the cumulative carbon budget is basically a box, the dimensions of which are determined by levels of warming — the lower the acceptable level of warming, the tighter the dimensions and vice-versa. With allowable carbon fixed at a certain volume, if one country overshoots its carbon budget, others have to compensate by forfeiting parts of their share, if the accepted limit of warming is to be met. The West, especially the EU and the US, has consistently overshot its budgets, posing a problem for developing countries such as India, which are trying to achieve high economic growth while also being amongst the most vulnerable to climate change. But there may be a way out of this conundrum — it entails delinking carbon with growth. India’s coal separation anxiety, however, may prove to be a hindrance.

Where does the global carbon budget stand?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5°C warming (IPCC SR 1.5), released in 2018, the world has a cumulative budget of 770 GtCO2 before the warming limit of 1.5°C is breached. In the past two years alone, more than 11% of this budget has been spent. At current levels, the entirety of the budget will be exhausted in about 16 years in the absence of rapid expansion of capacities to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Adding to the uneasiness that these numbers provoke is the fact that global emission profiles and budgets do not account for natural variations in GHG emissions through events such as wildfires and permafrost melt, which are likely to eat up substantial chunks of the remaining carbon space.

Simulations included in the IPCC report show that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require CO2 emission reductions by up to 45% relative to 2010 levels by 2030. Since 1990, the rate of CO2 emissions has been rising at more than 0.5 GtCO2 every year. Reductions recommended in SR 1.5 imply that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require emission levels to drop to 18.63 GtCO2 per year by 2030, a reduction of nearly 57% compared to 2019 levels.

So just how well has the world responded to this challenge? Not very, according to the Global Carbon Project report from late last year. Although the US and EU, which together represent about a quarter of the total global emissions, have registered moderate emission reductions of 0.5% and 1.4% respectively over the 2009-18 decade, this falls way short of the required reductions. Global lockdowns to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic saw fossil CO2 emissions fall by an unprecedented 17% in April, sparking beliefs that fossil fuels would never see pre-pandemic peaks again. Initial reports following reopening measures around the world show these theories to be premature. According to the United in Science report released last week, CO2 emissions had returned to within 5% of levels seen in 2019 by early June 2020.

India’s share of carbon pie

Over the past 30 years, India has rapidly climbed the global emissions listings. China, the US and India now occupy the top three places in terms of national CO2 emissions. Along with the EU, the trio contribute nearly 60% of the world’s total CO2 emissions. 

Over the past decade, India saw a 5.1% growth rate in CO2 emissions. After years of sustained growth, the trend was bucked in 2019, when emissions growth fell to just 1.8%, while fossil CO2 emissions actually registered a decline. The reductions, attributed to a slowdown in the Indian economy, is likely to continue in 2020 following months of disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While India’s environment ministry expects to see a fall in absolute emissions by up to 8%, the reductions have come due to massive impacts of the pandemic on energy demand in the country and not due to measures taken at the policy level.

Although India’s rising emission levels have attracted the ire of western observers, the absolute emissions give only half the picture. India has long led developing nations’ argument in climate negotiation that the principles of historic accountability and equity be applied to carbon emissions and reduction commitments. Despite the recent rise in emissions, India has historically contributed just 3% of cumulative emissions since 1751. In comparison, the EU and US account for almost half. Further, India’s GHG footprint is distributed among over 1.3 billion people who each account for 2 tonnes of CO2, while per capita GHG emissions in North America are close to 10 times as much.

What has ensued is a high-stakes game of poker where each player is vested in keeping their cards as close to their chest as possible. “Industrial emissions are tricky and are highly politicised. While monitoring of emissions is still not extensive yet, we can extrapolate our industrial emissions through other data sets. We have to be careful with what numbers we give official weight to since these could conceivably be used against us on the international stage. This is why official estimates have been limited to the GHG flux from India’s vegetation. Although this provides only half the picture, it also helps India protect her interests,” R.Krishnan, executive director at the Centre for Climate Change Research in Pune’s Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, told Carbon Copy when asked why this crucial detail was left out of India’s first climate change assessment report, released in June.

If shares of the carbon pie were to be decided in accordance with current national shares of the global GDP, India would be allotted about 77 GtCO2 from the common carbon budget of 770 GtCO2 for warming to be limited under 1.5°C. However, since the carbon budget, which estimates future volumes of carbon in terms of its warming effect, is an extension of historic accumulation of carbon, the historic disparity is a key point of contention in determining national shares of any common budget. Independent analyses have provided an estimate of what India’s share under different scenarios should be if such historic responsibilities were accounted for.

“India is yet to reach its peak energy demand as our growth trajectory is still being fully carved out, especially post the pandemic recovery process. As the country strives to make adequate provisions for improving livelihoods of its large population, it rightfully has some space to still expand its carbon footprint along the way. Through the climate justice lens, we can expect some congruence between pathways where the West supports ambitious emission cuts, while emerging and growing economies like India incorporate better carbon efficiencies to collectively reduce impacts”, says Vivek P. Adhia, Country Director at the Institute for Sustainable Communities.  

According to estimates published in the Asian Journal of Environment & Ecology in early 2019, India’s share of the global carbon pie in a 2°C warmer world (with a 66% probability) would be about 194 GtCO2 if a baseline of 1990 was considered. Under more recent baseline emission conditions of 2005, the projected Indian share was found to be just below 180 GtCO2 over the next 15-30 years. By comparison, India has an annual footprint of just around 4.3 GtCO2 and it would take 40-50 years, under current Indian emission levels, to reach these cumulative levels.

Why India should delink growth from carbon

India, and other developing nations that have had low contributions to climate change historically, may rightfully be owed a bigger share of the carbon pie. However, there is a catch. Since the carbon budget is a common global pool, the realisation of expanded budgets for developing countries is predicated on the ability of developed nations to suck carbon out of the air. So far, there has been little evidence to suggest that carbon sequestration capacity is set for any significant scale up.

What further sets the odds against India is the fact that the country is also among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Thus, any increase in carbon emissions, while it may be righteous, will likely lead to increased public health costs and damages from climate change impacts.

India has long argued for the continued use of coal citing the principles of equity and historic responsibility, which allow the country to expand its carbon footprint significantly in the foreseeable future. While India’s stress on RE capacity addition has contributed to the slowdown in its emissions growth, leaning on its rights to a larger share of the carbon pie might eventually prove to be counter-intuitive. 

“There are valid equity-based arguments for the country to have a longer decarbonisation time-frame. In spite that, India has done well overall to stay amongst the better performing nations in terms of climate action. Deep decarbonisation trends are much clearer in the private sector, where tools to evaluate stresses on ecology and natural resources are widely applied to aid decision making. However it could go either way, for public investments, given prevailing gaps in ecosystem services valuations and socio-economic cost benefit tools available to justify low-carbon fiscal expenditures,” says Adhia.

Conventionally, economic growth and carbon emissions have gone hand-in-hand. This correlation, however, has become more challenging as renewables become cheaper and new associated costs of fossil fuels in terms of damages to environmental and health emerge. While India has done well in terms of improving emission intensities in the industrial sector, coal still remains a huge drag on India’s climate efforts. Although the RE sector has hit a bump over the past couple of years, India in recent months has made all the right noises to state its intentions to become a renewable energy manufacturing hub. While the transition to cleaner transport options has got off to a slow start, newly released state-level EV policies (and more in the pipeline) are seen as crucial to improve India’s demand and manufacturing capacity. Infrastructure and agriculture remain areas where nascent steps towards decarbonisation have been seen, but this is yet to evolve into a larger trend. The potential though is unmistakable.

For India, the question seems to be moving away from ensuring its rightful share of the global carbon budget. The country’s policy makers must now contend with whether pursuing this share is even desirable.