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COP26: Pressure Mounts for Net Zero Emissions, But Will India Commit?

India’s stand on emissions has been that the country is on a path to development and is taking millions out of poverty.
un climate

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on global warming has sounded a final wake up call to countries. Coming ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this year in Glasgow where India is facing heat to take the “net zero” pledge.

The report stated that the increase in earth’s temperature by 1.5 degrees is certain and inevitable. India continues to be the third largest emitter of carbon in the world and has been holding out on making any commitment stating that the country is on a path to development and is taking millions out of poverty.

However, as pressure mounts, where does India stand on the debate and for how long it can hold on to this argument while it makes a faster, bigger push towards fossil fuels and continues to maintain lack of clarity on its goals? About 110 countries have updated their NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions), but not China, India, or South Africa.

Net zero emissions refer to carbon neutrality, which means that a region’s aggregate emissions should reach zero in a specific time. If a country emits a certain amount of carbon every year it will have to offset it through carbon capturing, afforestation or buying carbon credits.

At our current rate of global  emissions – 40 gigatonnes of CO2 is generated annually – countries are projected to generate 500 gigatonnes in 10 more years, which will lead to a catastrophic 1.5 degree increase in global temperatures. The fallout from this is severe weather events that are being witnessed across the globe – flash floods, forest fires and melting glaciers.

To ensure this carbon budget doesn’t spill over, ‘net zero’ requires the world to urgently reduce emissions by afforestation and capturing this carbon. Net zero, therefore, does not mean “zero” emissions, but how a country can compensate for the generation of emissions and how much can it cut down its emissions.

 India has consistently held that its position is unique, owing to it entering industrialisation at a later stage.  However,  “Over the next two to three decades, India’s emissions are likely to grow at the fastest pace in the world, as it presses for higher growth to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. No amount of afforestation or reforestation would be able to compensate for the increased emissions. Most of the carbon removal technologies right now are either unreliable or very expensive,” an Indian Express report  pointed out earlier this year.

However, the key question is how long the country can use this argument to bail itself out of emissions in the face of a looming climate emergency. NewsClick spoke to some activists and  experts to get an insight into the challenges ahead for India.

Vinuta Gopal, CEO of Asar Social Impact Advisors, a climate consultancy firm, told NewsClick: "It is absolutely clear from the latest IPCC report that science is unequivocal in issuing a 'code red' and setting alarm bells ringing. The impact of a two degree world are going to be brutal, especially in countries like India. This is an emergency of immense proportions; it is in this context that we need to discuss climate action and emission reductions. So, it is essential for India to start planning its pathway to 'net zero'. The question is not if, but when. India needs to think of how its going to plan this transition in a way that is just and ambitious at the same time."

India has stated that the latest report on climate change vindicated the stand that India has taken since 2015 – that the developed world should pay for the damage caused by its industrialisation and not commit poorer countries to similar targets on reducing carbon emissions. Moreover, the Environment Ministry has said that reaching the goal of net zero carbon emissions is not enough since “it is the cumulative emissions up to net zero that determine the temperature that is reached”.

 Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav also said the report was “a clarion call for the developed countries to undertake immediate, deep emission cuts and decarbonisation of their economies”.

Avantika Goswami, Deputy Programme Manager, Climate Change and Renewable Energy, Centre for Science and Environment, (CSE) disgarees with this stance. She told Newsclick: “We cannot shield ourselves from domestic action by continuously pushing the argument of our minimal historical contribution to carbon emissions. India's climate goals need to be built in addressing energy poverty and malnourishment, the development of green livelihoods that are not dependent on coal, and the preservation of land rights of forest and tribal communities. We need to rapidly reduce our dependence on coal and other fossil fuels, and divert new investments towards decentralised renewable energy. Our cities need to urgently incorporate climate-resilient design, cheap and frequent public transit options, and walkable, green public spaces for all.”

If India were to accept the net zero targets, it would mean that India’s coal push is likely to take a hit. As much as 25% of India’s revenue comes from fossil fuels while coal-fired power output is set to double by 2040.

Concessional tax benefits continue to be the largest subsidy to the coal sector,  newer acts and amendments continue to make a big push towards coal, making it the centerpiece of India’s energy system, despite the higher financial and social costs in play.

A major issue is also the financing of cleaner technology and renewables. “Government subsidies to the renewable sector have fallen by nearly 45 percent since their peak in (financial year) 2017, says a  study, which states that support for the sector needs a revival,” Mongabay reported.

Also, a study titled 'Mapping India’s Energy Subsidies 2021: Time for renewed support to clean energy', by the International Institute for Sustainable Development  and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water found that subsidies to renewable energy fell from Rs 15,470 crore in FY 2017 to Rs 8,577 crore in FY 2020.

“The earlier targets that India set have still not been achieved – our INDC’s are not targeted and are very vague. On one hand, India states that it is already doing enough, on the other we see a major push for both coal and thermal plants. We are approving not just standalone thermal power plants but also increasing our dependence on it. The roadmap is vague, the climate policy misses out on key calculations on the greenhouse gas emissions in relation with the industry," said environment lawyer Rahul Choudhary.

India’s plans of generation of carbon sink and compensatory reforestation also remain in a limbo. Six years ago, the country had pledged to generate an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3.0 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030 ,as part of the NDC target under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Initial trends suggest that the targets may be met only halfway.  India carries out compensatory afforestation under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), an institutional mechanism to receive and manage funds for compensatory afforestation.

Experts have questioned CAMPA’s ability to compensate for the lost, old-growth carbon-rich forests. They say that the complex biodiversity of a forest can never be compensated for by a monoculture plantation.

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