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Why India holds some of the best keys on climate

The Taj Mahal in the mist of pollution, climate.org, Photo Vishnudeep dixitv

With the population's electricity demand expected to triple by 2040, finding the right lock will not be easy.

A few weeks ago, China, Japan and South Korea all committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 or 2060, in line with the Paris agreement goal. More recently, the election of Joe Biden as President signalled that the United States would reintegrate the Treaty and fix its own path towards carbon neutrality. Now where does this leave the world’s third largest emitter, India, which has not for the moment made any political statement of the sort?

On 10 November, its capital New Delhi was in fact suffocating as often in the autumn months, with a peak of particle pollution reaching 1021 microgrammes, forty times the threshhold considered safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). India has the highest outdoor air pollution rate in the world, with one million premature deaths in the country per year as a direct consequence, Some, like Le Monde, describe the situation as an “ecological suicide” in the making. But it also has much lower carbon emissions per capita than most, standing at 1.8 tons per person, which is significantly less than in China, the EU (each emitting respectively 7 tons) or the US (16 tons).

The key difference is that India’s emissions are still growing, legitimately driven by economic development and poverty alleviation. And with a population expected to grow from 1.3 bn today to almost 1.6 bn in 2050, what their future will look like becomes critical. Will there be an explosion of carbon emissions, like China between 2000 and 2010 when they were multiplied by four? Or will a decoupling between development and emissions happen thanks to a technological leap and more sustainable land management?

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Why it matters. India ratified the Paris Agreement but pledged for a 33-35 per cent reduction in emissions for each unit of economic output (“emissions intensity”) by 2030, not a reduction in the absolute quantity. This means India’s emissions could still double between 2014 and 2030 even if the pledge is met.

India will become the most-populous country in the world by 2027 and considers development as its first priority in the coming decades, notably to ensure every citizen has access to electricity and clean cooking among other issues. Despite strong political commitment on climate, this will require considerably more energy than India currently consumes. The unknown on how the country generates that extra energy will have critical consequences for the world’s ability to stabilise the climate at 2°C, and could either doom or unlock the transition. Many developing countries are looking at India as the frontline society on this challenge.

A serious coal problem. Despite the hailed successes in double- digit solar energy growth, this is what the reality of India’s energy mix still looks like:

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Coal and fossil fuels make up the overwhelming majority and more coal plants are planned to open for electricity generation. Based on current coal expansion plans, capacity would increase from currently more than 200 GW to almost 300 GW over the coming years. Renewable energy does not yet cover the additional demand for energy every year, while the total is predicted to at least double by 2040. Out of the 2.65 gigatons of CO2 emitted by India every year, 1.11 come from electricity and heat, 0.7 from agriculture, 0.5 from manufacture and construction and only 0,3 from transport.

Climate threats. With Subsaharan Africa, India will be one of the two most affected regions in the world in terms of vulnerabilities from a changing climate, including rising sea levels, melting glaciers and extreme weather events. Floods and drought are both expected to increase in intensity with rising temperatures, and in some regions the country will experience more lethal heatwave episodes as well as humid temperature conditions putting at risk human lives. All studies point to devastating impacts and urge to fast-track the reduction of greenhouse gases as quickly as possible.

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Early policy successes, but the hardest comes next. Paradoxically, despite its coal generated development boom, India is the only major country in the world where commitments and actions are considered to be a fair share of global effort based on its responsibility and capability, compatible with the goal of limiting global warming to an average of 2 degrees Celsius, according to Climate Action Tracker. The government is effectively on track to meet its two major pledges under the Paris agreement ahead of schedule:

  • ensure that 40 percent of its electricity-generation capacity comes from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.

  • reduce its “emissions intensity” by at least one-third compared with 2005 levels.

But India’s climate commitment is not yet consistent with the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement, and domestic emissions need to peak and start reducing. The good news is that the coal pipeline is effectively shrinking, outpriced by cheaper operating costs in the renewables sector.

In 2018, India installed almost as much new solar generating capacity as the United States did. And its President Modi said the country would more than double its target for installed renewable-energy capacity to 450 gigawatts by 2030.

India aspires to phase out fuel consumption vehicles after 2030, ahead of the United Kingdom and France, and generating hope that the predicted boom in individual car ownership will not come at the expense of carbon emissions reduction - from the moment electricity is generated by renewables and not coal.

The bottomline. How India develops while also making efforts to decarbonise its economy will pave the way for many developing and emerging countries which will also make the larger part of emissions after 2030. So far, no country has managed to lift itself out of poverty without a concomitant surge in emissions, and India is very much the world’s biggest scale laboratory on the issue. With one of the world’s most ambitious plan for solar energy, its focus on energy efficiency as well as its willingness to increase carbon sinks, the country may well prove the contrary in the coming years if it overcomes the many hurdles on the way.

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