What can we expect from India’s climate change plan?

India’s anticipated commitment to climate action will be nothing short of transformational given challenges on the ground

Choked in smog, could the Taj Mahal become a low carbon beacon? (Pic: Jaymis Loveday/Flickr)

Choked in smog, could the Taj Mahal become a low carbon beacon? (Pic: Jaymis Loveday/Flickr)

By Nitin Pandit and Vivek Adhia

India’s climate action commitment is eagerly anticipated in the world.

With the world’s third highest carbon emissions [fourth if the EU is counted as one block] to its name, a strong commitment could make a noticeable difference to prevent the rise of global sea levels, extreme weather events, heat waves and other climate impacts.

However, this global responsibility needs to be balanced with the challenges of securing economic growth, providing employment opportunities and reducing poverty.

The urgency to shift toward a low-carbon development path is more than evident from the country’s current targets, as well as from the goals it is likely to commit to via its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs, in the lead up to the Climate Summit in Paris, 2015.

Days before India’s formal commitment goes out, we expect the following targets under each building block: An increase to 40% reduction in emissions intensity, a doubling of the current renewable energy goal to 350GW and increasing the forest cover by about 18-20 million hectares by 2030.

Although still not formalised, each of these projections are based on policy announcements, comments to the media, and one-on-one discussions with government representatives at conferences and consultations. Should they come through, they will be nothing short of transformational, given its challenges on the ground.

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India is on target for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Its emission intensity declined by 17.6% between 1990 and 2005, and the country has already publicly committed (to the UN) to reduce it by another 20–25 %, from 2005 levels by 2020.

Indications are that India will commit to a further reduction of emissions to 40% by 2030, over 2005 base levels.

These reductions will come mainly from energy efficiency improvements in buildings, industry and transport.

Analysis from WRI India shows that this would result in a saving of about 30-60 MTCO2e with a required investment of about US$ 10-15 billion or INR 66-99,000 Cr in retrofits and efficiency improvement measures.

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With the right policy and regulatory mix covering the National Mission on Enhanced Energy Efficiency (NMEEE), Second Phase of Perform Achieve and Trade (PAT) and Market Transformation for Energy Efficiency (Ratings of Buildings, Appliances etc.), India can safely vouch for the intended 40% GHG Intensity Reduction, adding up to savings of at least 30-60MTCO2e from industry related emissions from the “low hanging fruit” – energy efficiency.

Globally, the big emission reduction targets are already out.

The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide reduction of GHG emissions of 26-28% by 2025, riding on the domestic plan to improve power plant efficiencies.

Similarly, Canada, Australia and Japan commit to reducing their emissions by 30%, 26-28% and 25.4% respectively by 2030, over the 2005 levels.

Leading the pack via strong policy measures are Germany, France and UK who are committed to about 40% reduction in emissions over 1990 levels.

They hope to achieve this on the back of a revamped Emissions Trading Scheme. Closer home in Asia, China intends to lower its emissions intensity by 60-65% over 2005 levels. A 40% intensity cut would put India right in the big league of bold commitments.

Renewable energy

Today, approximately 42 % of India’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector and its current renewable energy capacity stands at 35 GW.

The government has already announced a target of an additional 175 GW by 2022.  Considering that the world’s entire installed solar capacity was 140 GW in 2013, this commitment is truly incredible.

India was one of the first countries in the world to set up a ministry of non-conventional energy resources in the early 1980s, and its renewable grid capacity comes from wind, solar PV as well as hydropower and biomass.

The country has shown the ability to establish policy and institutions with benevolence.  A number of Indian states are actively putting in place the right policy and regulatory environment for renewable energy production and use to thrive.

However, the proof of the pudding will be when states make the basic reforms to fix the electricity sector, especially at the distribution level, and to dramatically improve end-use efficiency.

Indications are that Prime Minister Modi’s ambitious Indian government might double its current renewable energy targets to 350 GW, as part of its INDCs, challenging the private sector to take on a plethora of opportunities to create a strong foundation on which to revitalise energy use.

This doubling could result in a savings of as much as 310-340 MTCO2e, provided capital investments in renewable energy capacity to the tune of about US$ 150 billion or about INR 10 lakh Cr are made available.

Such financing is not all in India’s hands, since it is subject to the vagaries of the global fossil fuel markets controlled by oil producing nations, and shale gas expansion.

Forest cover

Over the years, India’s forest cover has reduced to an official land area of 22%, which contribute 3.6% to the nation’s GDP through ecosystem services, according to recent World Bank estimates.

Therefore, it is critical for India to increase its forest cover to the stated 33% goal not only for the potential economic benefits, but also for a way to sequester carbon back into the earth.

While global schemes like REDD+ have been launched to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through forest conservation, there is an urgent need to aggressively pursue a strategy for the restoration of forests and landscapes.

In the parlance of climate negotiators, such self-serving long-term strategy will help the global commons through adaptation.

India recognises the potential of carbon sequestration in forestry and has already announced objectives under its Green India Missions to increase forest cover by five million hectares, as well as improve the quality of forest cover of another five million hectares.

This will improve the ecosystem of an area of 10 million hectares by 2022.  Say that target was to double as part of India’s INDC goals, 20 million hectares would have improved forest cover by 2030.

At upfront capital investment needs of just US$ 16-19 billion or around INR 1-1.2 lakh Cr, this would probably bring in high returns at an estimated savings of ~70-100MTCO2e.

Historical opportunity

Since carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere stays for centuries, historical emissions are just as important to climate change as current emissions.

India’s emissions have approximately doubled in the recent past, but much of this increase is linked to economic development – an imperative that no one can ignore.

“Historical responsibility” is thus the main argument for nations who have been responsible for CO2e build up to do more. The principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” grew from this idea.

Today, the INDCs present an historical opportunity to do the right thing. One of the projected elements of India’s INDCs is the likelihood that it will combine both climate mitigation and adaptation targets.

Past debates on climate action have rightly focused on equity, but have equally led to a certain stagnation of discussion on how to advance climate action at a global scale.

This pragmatic, “combined” approach could help countries to work on a common platform to not only reduce but also sequester GHG emissions – thereby offering a way out of the quagmire.

More importantly, the approach could further help countries refocus on finding the money to implement scalable solutions, which neither impede the economic growth of developing countries, nor risk our climate.

Nitin Pandit is the CEO and Vivek Adhia is a climate expert at WRI India

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