Declare 2025 as the terminal year to cease adding coal fired generation-capacity.
At the Conference of Parties (COP21) held in Paris in late 2015, India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demonstrated uncharacteristic statesmanship. By joining hands with the host France, it pushed the 150 participating heads of governments to reach a binding agreement to check greenhouse gas emissions before it became too late to take action on the global climate crisis. The agreement moved swiftly to get rich nations to support less affluent ones with an annual development-aid of $100 bn by 2022.
For the first time since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the historic Paris accord meant both developed and developing countries formally accepted the existence of global warming caused by human activity, and committed themselves to limiting the increase in average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) and more ideally 1.5 degree Celsius by the turn of the century. In pursuit of this long-term goal, the Indian Premier committed the country to accepting several timebound, ambitious ameliorative actions, particularly raising the share of renewable power to 40% of the total by 2030, and reducing its “emission-intensity” by 33%-35% from the 2005 levels. Alongside, he was able to get the requisite support for the proposal to constitute an International Solar Alliance with headquarters in New Delhi.
Hitherto, the large comity of developing nations, including China and India, had taken virtually intractable stands on reducing their activities capable of effecting reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs)—in India, 76% of these emissions being carbon dioxide, and the rest comprise methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. Developing nations draw strength from the highly tenable argument that the mantle for effecting reductions in emissions rests primarily on industrialised countries who have historically contributed disproportionately, and no longer have the same pressing needs for social and economic development as poorer countries. While mitigation efforts have to undoubtedly be universal, specific actions have rightfully to be based on differentiated-responsibility.
Despite India demonstrating its readiness to act on each of its commitments made at COP21, and fully backing this up with five years of concrete actions, there has been considerable international pressure of late to accept a steeper goal of attaining net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions or “carbon neutrality” by 2050. Simply put, this new buzzword denotes neutralising our carbon footprint by absorbing into “carbon sinks” any emissions put into the atmosphere. Commonly, these sinks are forests and caverns built underground into which captured gases can be sequestered, i.e., separated, sucked and stored.
The legality of such a demand upon India is not under question. The Paris Agreement does provide for nations to regularly ratchet up their obligations for reducing GRGs from the accepted de minimus Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). At COP26, scheduled at Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021, all signatories to that accord are expected to come up with revised INDCs. The 27-nation EU bloc has tentatively accepted stiffer targets of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, with an intermediate milestone of cutting GRGs by at least 55% (compared to the 1990 levels) by 2030, while a few rich nations such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Russia and the UK are yet to make any definitive commitments.
Of the other G20 countries, specifically China, US and India, which are the three largest CO2 emitters in that order, there have been no binding declarations of their commitment goals. President Joe Biden, who led the US—alone responsible for 15% of all global emissions—to re-join the Climate Change Agreement after a four-year hiatus, however, did indicate a doubling down on the crisis at a 40-nation leaders’ climate summit convened by him on 22-23 April, with a specific promise to reduce carbon emissions by 50-52% by 2030. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who at the last moment agreed to join the interaction, didn’t relent on advancing the goal of reaching net neutrality from 2060 but assured that “coal would be on its way out after 2025”. Similar supportive statements were made by leaders of Russia, Canada , Germany, Japan and UK.
Notable in India’s positive response so far is a credible push to producing clean energy. 40% of GHGs, and 54% of its CO2 emissions originate from the burning of 950 million tonnes of coal annually needed to produce 75% of India’s electricity. In order to reduce these, there is a new thrust on renewable energy. India first set for itself an ambitious goal of creating 175 gw of such generation-capacity by 2022 (which included 100 gw of solar power) and has recently revised that target to 450 gw by 2030. So far, almost 100 gw of renewable-capacity has been created, with another 64 gw under implementation. Exploring the gassification of coal to produce electricity, setting up smart grids, and deploying new technologies to electrify the entire network of its huge rail system and other modes of transportation, are also well under way.
Despite having few lithium deposits, the Union Government is heavily subsidising public authorities to switch to electric buses. Elements of its intensifying electric vehicle (EV) adoption programme also include domestic battery-production, creating the infrastructure for recharging, as well as the promotion of electric two and three wheelers. At this point, almost all credible auto manufacturers, and there are scores of them, have either launched or are actively assembling EVs. Efforts have shown some early fruit since alternative technology development, particularly of hydrogen fuel cells, green hydrogen, and grid scale storage is proceeding apace.
Coal based “dirty power” would consequently see its proportion in total generation decline noticeably. This would occur despite India being well endowed with hydrocarbon reserves of coal and lignite, which at the present pace of usage can last over 200 years. That said, completely moving away from coal and shutting down coal-fire stations, as many developed countries would like India to do, does not appear to be feasible without giving up many of its much warranted developmental goals. Even an affluent country such as Germany only aspires to phase out coal-based power by 2038, and that too after investing a staggering 50 billion euros in the rehabilitation of mining and plant operators, and the impacted regions. Both the US, the second largest CO2 emitter, and China, the biggest with 50% of the global coal-based capacity, have yet to commit to shutting down any of their coal fired stations.
There can be no doubt that attaining net carbon neutrality in India by 2050 will entail making huge sacrifices. Even with 75% coal-based generation, India’s annual per capita CO2 emission of 1.7 tonnes is the lowest amongst G20 countries (Australia and Canada are the highest with 15.3 tonnes). Globally, the average is 4.4 tonnes, and among the G20 nations, only Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and India are lower than the mean. This finding also holds true in terms of per capita consumption of electrical power. At under 3 kwh a day (or about 935 units per year), India languishes almost at the bottom of the ladder when compared to most developing countries, let alone the G20, with the global average being 3,081 units.
While it has done relatively well on the economic front in recent years, India has a large and growing population still in the early stages of overall development. Millions, especially in its seven hundred thousand villages, do not have access to adequate or quality power; at the historical pace of progress of rural electrification, it will take a while for this to change. Despite the emphasis and success in reducing energy intensity, advancing energy storage technologies, and promoting widespread material reuse, there is little doubt that its total electricity consumption will only increase as the country’s energy demand grows.
On the one hand the considerations above cannot be ignored; however, we also cannot continue to operate in a vacuum—the imperativeness of each member of the global community of nations to take immediate actions to ward off a possible climate apocalypse in the not too distant future cannot be understated. To demonstrate its willingness to shoulder more responsibility for decarbonisation, the Indian leadership might urgently consider setting a date for no longer adding to its existing coal fired generation capacity. While we would have to stomach the cost advantages prevalent in continuing to use fossil fuels, announcing 2025 as the year for this move to take effect would be a major measure towards an early decarbonised future. Such a move would also imply the pulling forward of the country’s peak carbon emission date, and ultimately the timing to reach the state of net zero.
Significant international financial assistance—both multilateral and bilateral—as well as other forms will need to be facilitated by developed nations to make progress towards net carbon neutrality. This is most needed in the transfer of appropriate technologies to produce the alternative means of energy necessary to meet India’s inevitably growing demand. In the current context, it includes the manufacturing of solar cells and panels, batteries of varying sizes and types, radioactive fuels like uranium for nuclear power, arrangements for processing and reactors for fissioning, besides all related complex IT hardware.
Extending merely financial help for procuring these technologies from producers or vendors in developed nations, as is currently the case, is neither adequate nor workable. There remain huge hurdles in access to modern know-how, in terms of intellectual property related issues, movements across borders and the cost implications. Creating the requisite legal, financial and technology transfer frameworks for full and effective technology-transfer must remain the responsibility of the countries demanding India to go “clean”.
Dr Ajay Dua, a development economist and public policy expert, is a former Union Secretary.
Part 2 of the article analysing options for meeting India’s energy requirements under different scenarios while driving towards carbon neutrality will appear next week.