(Bloomberg) — If all goes according to plan, India will be the last of the world’s largest economies to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions. And that is exactly as it should be.
India’s target date to reach net-zero is 2070. That’s two decades after the much wealthier US and Europe. And it includes an additional 10-year buffer separating it from its neighbor China’s 2060 target. If we try to drastically cut emissions much sooner, millions of Indians could struggle to access basic necessities, including the supply of more air conditioning to a country extremely vulnerable to heat waves. In fact, India’s challenges to maintain its fragile power grid under ever-increasing demand fueled by rising temperatures are a matter of life and death.
“The challenge is fundamentally different for a country on the upward slope of emissions than for a country on the downward slope of emissions,” said Navroz Dubash, a professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
For India, with its historically small responsibility for global warming, there is a more important goal than taming climate change: to lift millions of people out of poverty in the coming decades. As US drivers opt for electric pickup trucks, ultimately reducing oil demand, India struggles to cut its rising bill for imported fuel. While UK policymakers provide grants to renovate old houses for energy efficiency, India’s focus is on keeping energy bills as low as possible. And while New Zealand is polishing its climate by cutting methane emissions from its livestock farms, India still needs to feed its growing population of 1.4 billion as more extreme weather conditions threaten agriculture.
“The question becomes,” Dubash says, “how do you get the most development per unit of carbon out of it?”
China’s development path is not a particularly useful precedent. Yes, the two countries both have populations of over a billion. But the world’s No. 2 economy is the largest manufacturer of solar panels, lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles. China is also by far the largest installer of offshore wind turbines, hydrogen electrolyzers, new nuclear power and power cables that can transport renewable energy from sunny and windy areas in the west to populated centers in the east. India has yet to build the capacity to produce any of these green technologies on a large scale; so far it has only mastered solar panels and onshore wind turbines.
To meet their climate goals, all governments must find ways to make catalysts for economic growth less carbon-intensive. But India is the only lower-middle-income country among the top five emitters worldwide. “In planning an alternative route, India has no role models in another country,” said Ulka Kelkar, climate program director at the World Resources Institute India.
The sometimes contradictory attempt to escape poverty without rejecting the global push for decarbonisation can make India’s ambitions difficult to analyze. Last year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland was booked by moments when India played champion and spoiler. The event kicked off with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s startling zero-tariff announcement, ultimately putting all 10 of the world’s largest economies — and 46% of the world’s population — behind the requirements of the Paris Agreement. Congratulations poured in from world leaders. But COP26 ended on a bitter note, with a number of small island nations in existential danger from sea-level rise and blaming India for successfully scrapping a global commitment to phase out coal at the last minute. India’s Environment Ministry has not responded to a request for comment.
Part of the problem is that not only does India have to grow faster than other super radiators, but it is also one of the most affected by increasingly extreme weather. That means urgent investment is needed to adapt to a warmer planet, with pollution reduction sometimes becoming a secondary consideration. India’s first official assessment of climate change, published in 2020, showed that the frequency and intensity of droughts and cyclones had increased significantly over the past six decades. The number of days of heavy rainfall and the rate at which the sea level is rising has more than doubled during that period. A single extreme weather event, Cyclone Amphan in 2020, affected 13 million people in India, causing $13 billion in damage.
The future looks even more terrifying. In the worst-case scenario, India will experience four times as many heat waves by the end of the century as it is now. Falling agricultural productivity and rising food prices are more likely to strike, pushing 50 million people below the poverty line by 2040, according to the Overseas Development Institute.
If India is to rely on cheap fossil fuels in the near term, a huge question remains: What does a trajectory to net-zero look like in a nation whose breakout from lower-middle-income status over the next generation will have to coincide with global decarbonization? How India achieves its climate goals will look distinctly different from the efforts of the US, Europe and China. This is especially the case if India walks the path to net zero without much foreign financial support.
“No one has made constructive offers to help India meet its climate targets,” says Kanika Chawla, program manager at UN Energy, which coordinates energy-related issues in the United Nations. Developed countries have failed to deliver on their pledge to provide $100 billion annually in climate finance to help developing countries by 2020. Meanwhile, at COP26, India demanded $1 trillion in aid — just for itself — over the next decade before it could meet its 2070 target.
Without a wave of financial aid from abroad, India will likely rely on homegrown tools that have reduced energy consumption and the cost of living for millions of its people. In this way, the world’s poorest super-radiant could become the role model it never had for the rest of the developing world — testing and perfecting a playbook for the most cost-effective strategies for achieving climate benefits without reducing primary need, alleviating poverty. defeat.
In a market where cars remain a luxury, India’s drive to electrify transportation has centered on scooters, motorized bicycles and rickshaws. According to Nitin Gadkari, the minister of road transport and highways, more than 80% of the two-wheelers sold in the country could be battery-operated by 2030. Today, nearly half of all tricycles sold are electric, says Rishabh Jain of the New Delhi-based non-profit Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Swapping batteries for smaller vehicles is becoming increasingly popular in Bengaluru, Mumbai and other busy cities with limited space.
Instead of a carbon market that charges companies for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit, like the one governed by the European Union, India launched a program in 2008 that forced energy-intensive industries to become more efficient. Companies that use less energy than the stated goals can trade the savings as credits. Reducing energy consumption also means reducing CO2 emissions. The program has saved 87 million tons of CO₂ by 2020, about the same as Bangladesh’s annual footprint, and many everyday goods are adorned with energy efficiency labels that show how well they save energy.
Light Bulbs That Lower Bills
Named after the Hindi words for ‘rural lights’, the Gram Ujala Initiative provides subsidized LED lighting to villagers. The light bulbs, of which no less than 5 million were distributed last year, are many times more efficient than traditional light bulbs. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency says Gram Ujala and other measures targeting home appliances saved $4 billion in electricity by 2020 and reduced emissions by 46 million tons.
Indoor air pollution kills 1.7 million Indians every year and causes $37 billion in economic losses, according to a Global Burden of Disease study. Burning firewood for heating and cooking is a major cause of harmful air in the home. By switching more than 88 million poor households to liquefied petroleum gas since 2016, the health risks associated with pollution have been significantly reduced. It has also saved women from spending hours collecting wood. While the change slightly increased India’s emissions, “the development gains are so great that it’s just a good idea,” said Dubash of the Center for Policy Research. Ultimately, similar programs could be used to switch to electricity or a carbon-free gas for cooking.
Coal contributes to over 70% of all Indian electricity generation. But solar energy, which has become the cheapest source of new energy, is growing rapidly. The country aims to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, three times the amount currently deployed in the UK. While India may fall slightly short of that target due to the economic blow of the pandemic, Modi is aiming even higher. He wants the green power capacity to reach 500 GW by the end of the decade. Billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani want to invest $76 billion and $50 billion respectively in the sector.
India’s energy transition is hampered by high capital costs, with companies often finding it harder to tap into international financial markets than their Western competitors. There are three solutions to high borrowing costs, says Ajay Mathur of the Energy and Resources Institute: The government can obtain sovereign loans from international financial institutions such as the World Bank, better manage currency risk and strengthen links with other green markets that make it easier to raise money. for an expansion of renewable energy sources.
But India can also think bigger. Cities are growing and industrialization is happening so fast that the country is getting a rare opportunity, says Dubash. Unlike rich countries that have to slowly replace existing infrastructure, a developing country like India can rethink how it builds cities and industries from scratch. It is possible that a future with many emissions lies ahead.
“You have to make a lot more decisions and a lot more alternate futures,” Dubash says. “But that also increases the complexity and cost of realizing that future.”
This post The poorest super-emitter needs another path to net zero
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