Crunch time: International pressure on India to update its climate commitments has been rising with several large economies announcing intent to undertake decarbonisation | Photo: CNBC

Is it time for India to update its climate game?

India is outpacing the developed world when it comes to achieving its climate commitments but this does not necessarily mean that it is ready to upgrade its ambitions on the international stage

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement. In a “normal” year, one in which the world was not shaken by a global pandemic, we would be analysing and dissecting the final assault by nations on the remaining chapters of the Paris Agreement rule book. And perhaps, preparing for the operationalisation of the largest such inter-governmental accord. Instead, we are left contending with a public health emergency, the economic tumult brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how these infinitely complicate climate action.

This year was also to be the one in which signatory states had the option to submit updated targets for climate action. These nationally determined contributions or NDCs, which are part of the joint global climate action envisioned in the Paris Agreement, currently lead to 2030 emission levels that correspond to 3.2°C warming by the end of the century — far higher than the 2°C limit set in the Paris Agreement. The just-released Emissions Gap Report 2020 states that while the COVID-19 pandemic caused CO2 emissions to fall by up to 7%, this amounts to a woefully inadequate 0.01°C reduction in temperatures by 2050. To make matters worse, experts have also warned that with governments poised to push aggressive economic recovery programmes, there is a likelihood of a spike in emissions over the coming years.

Worryingly, pre-pandemic numbers from 2019 show total GHG emissions for the year at 59.1 GtCO2eq (gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent) – the highest-ever recorded. According to the Emissions Gap Report, levels of ambition in the Paris Agreement must be roughly tripled for the 2°C pathway and amplified at least five-fold to meet the more ambitious 1.5°C target. This deficit, and the calls for increased climate ambition that have emerged with it, have not gone unnoticed. With several major countries this year signalling their intent to accelerate plans for decarbonisation, countries with mid-century net-zero emission plans now account for over half of the global GHG burden. This intent, however, is in scarce supply when it comes to near-term goals, recent analyses have found.

One such analysis is the Climate Transparency Report of 2020, which assessed climate goals with policy and implementation in G20 countries. According to the report, in addition to NDCs being inadequate, policies in the world’s largest economies are largely insufficient even to meet these NDCs. The report also warned of increased fossil fuel consumption and demand in coming years as countries look for quick fixes to recover from the economic shock of the pandemic. A Vivid Economics report, released in October, found that recovery plans still predominantly relied on fossil fuels, which threatened to derail near-term climate action, and potentially jeopardise plans in the long term.

How India stacks up

While the Climate Transparency Report painted a bleak picture overall of the state of climate action and ambition in the world’s large economies, it does find a lone bright spot in India. Not only is India the only G20 nation to be well on its way to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, but also the only large economy whose NDCs are in line with the global 2°C warming target.

India’s NDCs: Work in progress
Target 1: Install 40% of power generation capacity from non-fossil fuel sources
Progress report: India currently hosts 135.3 GW of RE, including large hydro, which amounts to 36.2% of its total capacity. At the Climate Action Summit in New York in 2019, and once again at the recent G20, India committed to increase its renewable energy capacity from 175GW by 2022 to 450GW by 2030.

Target 2: Reduce emissions intensity of the GDP by 33-35% from 2005 levels
Progress report: India has already achieved reductions of 21% in emission intensity over 2005 levels, and is on track to achieving 35% reductions before 2030, according to recent statements by environment minister Prakash Javadekar

Target 3: Develop an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 GtCO2e
Progress report: India lags behind on this target. The current rate of afforestation amounting to about 35 million tonnes per year carbon dioxide equivalent is only around a tenth of the required additions.

While India’s target to increase forest cover remains mired in uncertainty, there is little doubt when it comes to the leaps India has taken in relation to its two other pre-2030 commitments. India’s share of renewables has jumped some 226% since 2015 and is projected to keep rising as long as RE and battery storage prices continue to tumble. The country has also kept good pace on reducing emission intensity of its GDP, which is currently 21% lower than 2005 levels.

So why has India enjoyed such success in terms of meeting its goals when other large economies of the world appear to be struggling? The answer, to an extent, may lie in India’s peculiar position on the development spectrum. For one, with an economy decades away from peaking and a large young demographic with low per-capita emission levels, India rightfully still has space to grow under a global climate regime. With India projected to set up new capacity in energy and industry, the costs of course correction towards low-carbon technologies are arguably lesser than those of its more developed counterparts. Timing is the other factor that has worked in India’s favour. Its aggressive expansion of RE and improvements in emission intensity have coincided with and been aided by precipitous price drops and favourable cost-benefit assessments in each of these sectors.

“Unlike much of the developed world, which has to retrofit low-carbon technologies within existing systems, India is still in the process of capacity additions and so is in a better position to adopt new low-carbon technologies. This is true especially in the power sector where the recent shift in tide has come on top of decades of policy level groundwork that prioritised energy security. Adding to this, the favourable market forces in the past decade, and enhanced public recognition of the benefits of sustainability has created somewhat a perfect storm for India,” says Amir Bazaz, a senior researcher working on climate change response strategies at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements.

An update in the offing?

With India comfortably on its way to meet its pre-2030 targets, it begs the question whether the country is in a position to up its ambitions.

“There is little doubt that opportunities to expand India’s climate ambition exist, especially through sector-specific interventions. India currently finds itself in a position to take advantage of a lot of commercial and technological developments to aid a low-carbon development agenda,” says Ulka Kelkar, the director of the climate programme at the World Resource Institute’s India office.

And while not as visible as India’s commitments to the Paris Agreement, several sectors already have domestic targets that are far more ambitious than those stated in the NDC, according to Kanika Chawla, a climate policy specialist at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in New Delhi. “India’s approach to climate action has been based around ‘new additions’ rather than ‘transitions’. This makes climate action an embedded part of India’s development agenda. So, we have a situation where India’s action is often better than words, and where domestic targets are more ambitious than our commitments. We already have such targets, both officially and unofficially, for the power sector, mobility and some segments of industry and infrastructure.”

The picture isn’t all rosy though. One constant sore spot is India’s continued reliance on coal despite its rapidly declining market favourability. While India has gone against the tide and doubled down on coal production and thermal power in recent months, round-the-clock RE plus storage projects have gained investor interest and solar tariffs have continued to fall to record lows. According to Chawla, India’s justification of sticking with coal to keep pace with projected demand increases doesn’t cut ice. “India’s preference for short- and medium-term targets rather than long-term strategies has been used to deflect criticism when it comes to coal. India’s growth in industrial energy demand, especially post-COVID, is highly unlikely to warrant increases in India’s thermal power capacity and deserves to be rethought,” says Chawla.

India, according to experts, also has a long way to go when it comes to aligning top-down policy priorities with implementation on the ground due to a highly fragmented and inefficient policy framework over several years. “India still needs substantial additions in institutional and analytical capacities, and institutional structures that can facilitate effective policy implementation,” says Navroz Dubash, a senior fellow working on climate policy at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Similar fragmentation and lack of regulatory framework has also hindered the development of financial mechanisms that could support greater extents of low carbon development. “There is a great potential to incorporate India’s massive MSME sector into the clean development agenda and for the large-scale implementation of energy efficiency services through energy trading. This is essential to generate sustainable finance in the low-carbon shift, but currently remains constricted by financial and regulatory bottlenecks,” says Kelkar.

While there is consensus on the scope and potential for India to ratchet up ambitions for low-carbon development, whether this should be reflected in its official commitments toward the Paris Agreement is more complicated.

The geopolitical case for raised ambitions

India’s impressive progress on its NDCs has earned the country credibility in the international climate community. But while its record has been raised on several occasions by the PM, ministers and other government officials, the pressure seems to once again be on India to commit to greater ambitions. The announcement of net-zero targets in several large economies, most notably China, has left the world watching to see if India will also join the pursuit of decarbonisation. If the US, under newly elected President Joe Biden, who is determined to make all the right noises on climate change, decides to announce its own net-zero ambitions, India will become the world’s largest single-emitter without any plans to decarbonise, despite having a fraction of the former’s per capita emissions.

By most counts though, this is unlikely at this stage. India’s official stance on the matter, thus far, has been a rejection of calls to commit to greater action. India has repeatedly stated that given its progress on NDCs, it will wait until the global stocktake in 2023 to undertake any additional commitments.

“This is an interesting moment in the global climate movement as we see greater momentum for decarbonisation. Over the past year, the narrative of “ambition” has been replaced by long term “net-zero targets”. While this definitely puts pressure on India, these long-term targets are too far away for a country like India where what matters more is what is being done now. Unlike developed nations, India has to try and avoid emissions rather than cut them, and this is not best expressed in ‘net-zero’ terms,” explains Dubash.

This, however, does not mean that India shouldn’t use the NDC updation moment to make a powerful statement, more in line with Indian perspectives. Such a statement, according to Dubash, will shift the pressure back on to developed countries to do more. “The geopolitics of climate change makes it difficult not to say anything for a country like India. While the narrative has shifted decisively to future action and emission reduction plans, India should be looking to bring the focus back to the here and now. This is India’s strong suit and could be used to bargain for more favourable terms for greater finance and technology transfers from developed countries, for which India has been arguing for some years now,” says Dubash.

However, while India’s sharpened focus on near-term action and goals might be effective from a geo-political standpoint, a disregard for the value of longer-term planning could ultimately be detrimental. “India has always been conservative on the international stage regarding climate. The Paris Agreement also requires nations to actively work on longer term strategies. These long-term goals should ideally be achieved through successive near-term strategies, such an approach would benefit India too” says Kelkar. As the world trudges towards the Paris Agreement era, countries have started formulating domestic implementation and monitoring approaches. India, too, last week, announced the creation of a new high-level Apex committee for Implementation of Paris Agreement (AIPA). The panel will include members from 14 ministries of the Indian government and be chaired by the environment ministry. “The purpose of the AIPA is to generate a coordinated response on climate change matters, which ensures that India is on track to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement, including its NDCs,” said the public statement by MoEF&CC. “This is a good first step for effective implementation and stock-take of climate action in India. But the real task is more complicated as it involves creating a brand new template of low-carbon development for society, and devolving strategies that work specifically for the Indian context,” says Chawla.