India and Glasgow COP26
WELL into the second week of COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, the climate summit is shrouded in a dense fog of uncertainty, confusion and broken or empty promises, while activists both inside as observers and outside fume and fret in sheer frustration. As the days wind down to the conclusion this weekend, various multi-lateral agreements between voluntary sets of countries which are not binding at the level of the COP, are being pushed and signed. These are at least partly motivated by the need to have at least something concrete to show at the end of what is almost sure to be an extremely disappointing conference as far as its primary purpose is concerned, namely to agree on a set of measures that will ensure that temperature rise due to climate change is restricted to “well below 2 degrees C” or 1.5C if possible. The latter target is now emerging as the limiting target fixed by the 26th Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
All countries were required to submit updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) with higher emission reduction targets before COP26. While most had done so by end-September 2021, several others had only made informal announcements recently with minor improvements, like China, and some others like India had done neither. Just before COP26, taking into account all the updated emission reduction commitments in revised NDCs, various agencies including the UNFCCC had projected that temperature rise would reach 2.7C. Now, including all the most recent pledges, the world is still staring at a possible disastrous temperature rise of about 2.4C according to most experts.
A draft text for a COP 26 Agreement prepared by the Conference Chair Alok Sharma, environment minister of the UK, is currently circulating, calling upon all countries to once again submit more ambitious emission reduction targets by end-2022, in other words by the next COP. The skepticism of most commentators, and that of the assembled youth activists led by Greta Thunberg, can hardly be faulted for viewing the COP proceedings as so much “blah-blah-blah” in her now oft-repeated phrase.
We shall review COP26 as a whole after it is over. Focus this week, certainly for readers in India, must be on the surprise announcement of higher emission reduction targets than in the current NDC by Prime Minister Modi in his speech at the Summit on November 2.
BACKGROUND TO INDIA’S
The PM’s dramatic and unexpected declaration of fairly sharp increases in India’s emissions reduction targets, however, did not attract much positive reaction in Glasgow or in the international press except from a few discerning analysts. Most others in fact expressed disappointment that India was promising net zero emissions only by 2070 instead of 2050, the highly misleading and false promise promoted by the US and other developed countries, as explained earlier in these columns. In India, several well-known commentators on climate policy praised the new targets as indicating a new climate-oriented development policy. In fact, closer examination of the enhanced targets announced by the PM as we shall see below, would show it to be neither a weak ineffective pledge nor a possibly transformational policy as claimed by some.
At the outset it must be stated that the government’s raised ambition represents a welcome continuity of the consensus across the political spectrum established at and prevailing since the 2015 Paris Agreement. A new policy paradigm had been set in place at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, departing from the earlier long-established stance that India, as a developing country with a very small contribution of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHG), was not obliged or willing to cut emissions. Thereafter, it was held that although India was not part of the problem it was now willing and had the capability to contribute to global emissions reduction efforts. Despite some partisan political bickering immediately after Copenhagen, this became the consensus Indian position at Paris and after.
In this context, India’s pledge at Glasgow, although not yet formally submitted as an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), continues this consensus and adheres to the Paris Agreement decision that all countries increase their emission reduction commitments to tackle the rapidly escalating climate crisis.
Before COP26, numerous interactions had taken place with high-ranking interlocutors visiting India and at meetings abroad such as the G20 meeting before the Summit. At all these, India gave no indication of any upward revision of its current NDC or accepting a net-zero target. Even at Glasgow, senior Indian officials gave media interviews stating that net-zero was unacceptable and proclaiming higher targets were unlikely. Then came the PM’s speech replete with Sanskrit quotations, various homilies showing India’s moral leadership of the world and, at the very end, the announcement of enhanced emission reduction cuts.
In India people are familiar with the PM’s fondness for dramatic policy announcements taking effect almost or literally overnight, such as on demonetisation, GST, Covid19 lockdown etc, all apparently without the knowledge of even his cabinet colleagues. This has probably contributed to his mystique as a far-sighted leader of unique abilities. However, the value of such secrecy in the climate negotiations is doubtful. India did not communicate the significance of its enhanced commitments, especially compared with the weak pledges of developed countries, leaving delegates and observers at Glasgow puzzled. Further, little effort was made to leverage India’s updated pledge to extract deeper emission cuts from developed countries.
At the time of writing, India has sown further confusion and weakened the effect of its Glasgow announcement, with senior officials giving interviews to sections of the media that the new pledges are conditional upon substantial financial assistance from developed countries, with figures such as $1 trillion being bandied about. Ramifications of such post-facto conditions will undoubtedly unfold in days and weeks to come.
India’s Glasgow announcement consists of five enhanced and new targets, with some confusion and lack of clarity due to flawed language and possibly translation too, as explained later. These are (a) reducing Emissions Intensity (EI), or emissions per unit of GDP, by 45 per cent in 2030 relative to 2005 levels; (b) cutting absolute emissions by 1 billion tonnes, perhaps from projected business-as-usual (BAU) 2030 levels; (c) reaching 500 GW (1 Giga watt = 1000 Mega watts) of non-fossil fuel installed power generation capacity by 2030; (d) reaching 50 per cent electricity generation (or installed capacity, it is not clear which) from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030; and (e) net-zero emissions by 2070.
The easiest of these to achieve would probably be the EI target. Both India’s existing NDC and later submissions to the UNFCCC confirm a steady decline in EI of 2-2.5 per cent p.a. from 2005 onwards. Both the 33-35 per cent decline promised at Paris, and the updated 45 per cent reduction by 2030, are extrapolations of the earlier Copenhagen pledge, and are quite achievable and par for an emerging economy.
Emissions reduction by 1 billion tonnes by 2030 is the first time India has put an absolute number to emission cuts. If seen one way, India’s current emissions are around 2.8 billion tonnes annually and are projected to reach about 4.5 billion tonnes per year in 2030 on a BAU trajectory, so the pledged reduction would be 20 per cent, which is substantial and compares well with reduction rates of several developed countries. However, many other similar figures have been thrown around earlier, for instance the PM’s speech in Glasgow mentioned the Railways’ net-zero 2030 target cutting 60 million tonnes annually, and LED bulbs cutting another 40 million tonnes a year, yielding 1 billion tonnes over 10 years from these two measures alone. Seen this way, the pledged reduction seems easy, which it is probably not.
On installed power generation capacity and electricity generation, there is some convenient stretching of timelines and also some hopeful optimism. India’s present NDC incorporates the government’s upgradation of the earlier goal of installing 20GW of electricity generation capacity to 175 GW from renewable energy (RE) sources including solar and wind by 2022. But the NDC stretched to 2030, giving India ample headroom. Even so, India has reached only around 100 GW of solar and wind due to numerous constraints including land availability, investment slowdown etc and, of late, a lack of interest in rooftop solar. If one adds large hydro and nuclear, both now considered renewable, current RE installed capacity is about 150 GW, amounting to just under 40 per cent of the total, almost achieving the NDC target for 2030 almost a decade earlier! It is little wonder that several international agencies have characterised India’s NDC as somewhat under-ambitious!
Now, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) in a 2020 Report on Energy Mix for 2030 has projected around 525 GW or 64.3 per cent non-fossil fuel installed capacity including 280 GW solar and 140 GW wind. Only 267 GW are projected to come from coal and lignite, compared to 203 GW in 2019, which means that almost all of India’s future growth of capacity is to come from RE! So, India at Glasgow seems to have pledged virtually no additional coal-based power, without saying it in so many words! Even accounting for some confusion whether the PM spoke of installed capacity or electricity produced, India’s Glasgow pledge of 50 per cent electricity from RE by 2030 is just a little higher than the CEA projection of around 45 per cent. Given all the assumptions and politically-directed optimism involved in such projections, and the difficulties as currently witnessed in RE capacity installation, these targets may be somewhat difficult to achieve, given also the need for storage and grid stability.
It is disappointing that India refused to join over 100 countries in a declaration to end deforestation by 2030. India’s pledges also do not mention the NDC target for forests and tree cover, in which India is known to be slipping, harming both the environment and lives and livelihoods of tribals and other forest-dwellers. These confirm the worst fears of many observers regarding efforts to dilute environment regulations in favour of corporate interests. India also did not join the Global Methane Pledge by over 100 nations to reduce emissions of the short-lived but potent greenhouse gas by 30 per cent by 2030 from 2020 levels, when methane is among the fastest growing HGHs emitted in India.
India did launch another international climate initiative called Infrastructure for Resilient Island States (IRIS), aimed at providing technical, knowledge and financial assistance to small island nations with the help of developed countries. One wishes such an initiative were undertaken in India too, where coastal erosion, sea-level rise, and urban flooding due to extreme rainfall exacerbated by haphazard urbanisation are acquiring threatening dimensions.