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Net-zero and India: To pledge, or not to pledge, that is the question

Can such a pledge derail India’s carefully crafted sustainable development narrative?

Despite COVID-19, the climate decade is off to an exciting start. The global climate scene is bustling. What does this mean for India’s climate action commitment? The new US administration returned to the Paris Agreement and listed ‘climate’ as one of its seven priorities. Biden’s Leaders of Climate Summit in April 2021 revealed climate as a brick if not a pillar of his foreign policy. Resurrected to counterbalance China in the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad–Australia, India, Japan, and the US–recognised climate change as a “strategic priority and an urgent global challenge”. The IPCC’s new reports are due shortly, and the climate community is preparing for COP26, slated for November when more updated emission reduction pledges are expected. The news of the EU approving a landmark climate change law is hot off the press.

Parallelly, there has been a shift in narrative from countries’ individual action plans or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to net-zero, signalling that the Paris Agreement is near its shelf life. According to IPCC’s 2018 report, global net CO2 emissions should become zero by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5°C. Since then, and for a good reason, net-zero has caught on and assumed its larger-than-life personality. Imagine how difficult it must be to make sense of what the unique NDCs of 190+ countries mean for the climate! NDCs were essential to help the world warm up (excuse the pun!) to climate action, but their complexity pales compared to the elegance of net-zero, which means just one future scenario. More than 100 countries have made net-zero commitments. In this flurry of pledges, all eyes are on India to make a net-zero pledge. To pledge, or not to pledge, that is the question.

By the way, net-zero is not a policy panacea. Without interim targets, clarity on international offsets, and actionable plans, net-zero can become a greenwashing tactic. Considering how half-baked existing country pledges are, India can defer its announcement until the fog over net-zero lifts. However, India, one of the world’s top 10 CO2 emitters, cannot be held to the same standard as the rest of the world. When compared to the top 10 emitters per their net-zero pledges and updated 2030 NDCs, India is found to be in the unimpressive company of Russia, Iran, and Indonesia. Therefore, there is an opening for India to upgrade its 2030 NDC en route net-zero and join the US and the EU. It might help India win serious diplomatic gains, especially as China’s position in the world changes. Besides, India’s net-zero plan might even help circumvent a climate disaster whilst reducing energy import bills and increasing investments.

But India is neither the US nor the EU. It has carefully interlinked its climate and development stories in its NDC and reduced the emissions intensity of its GDP by 11% in 2005-18. In 2014-19, India reduced its fossil fuel subsidies by 52% and increased its renewable energy and electric vehicle subsidies by 260%. It has added more than 80 GW of renewable energy and has promised 450 GW by 2030. But shouldn’t this promise be taken with a pinch of salt? Its 2022 target of 175 GW renewable energy is lagging by over 50% as of March 2021. In the past decade, India’s absolute emissions have grown by 38%–more than any other top-emitting country, including China. India’s share of coal in its energy mix has remained consistent over the last 30 years. The country’s fossil fuel subsidies are still more than seven times the amounts set aside for subsidies towards renewable energy and electric vehicles. And 18% of the central and state tax revenues come from the energy sector, of which 92% comes from fossil fuels. Can a net-zero pledge derail India’s carefully crafted sustainable development narrative, especially in the wake of the deadly “second wave”, which has goaded the country into some slow, but sure strides in the right direction? 

Undisputedly, India has come a long way since 2015 when the New York Times mocked it as a sleepy elephant blocking a train labelled ‘Paris Climate Summit’. The question now is whether it wants to portray itself as a war elephant in the fight against climate change and if a net-zero pledge can transfigure it into one. At any rate, India should be careful not to become a circus elephant by making yet another undercooked net-zero promise that is but a trick to win applause.  

Akash Goenka is a senior research associate at Energy Data Service at the Alliance for an Energy Efficient Economy (AEEE). Views presented in the post are personal.