What can we expect from India’s climate pledge?

New Delhi is expected to submit its plans to the UN in September, balancing carbon cuts with development

India prime minister Narendra Modi addresses the 2014 General Assembly (Pic: UN photos)

India prime minister Narendra Modi addresses the 2014 General Assembly (Pic: UN photos)

By Megan Darby

National climate pledges are trickling in to the UN – 49 at the last count – to underpin a global deal in Paris this December.

China, the US and EU have submitted their contributions, leaving India as the biggest emitter still to declare.

There is no question in New Delhi that global warming is a real and serious threat. A recent heatwave claimed more than 2,500 lives across the country – which the science minister was quick to attribute to climate change.

Yet expanding access to energy – not least for life-saving air con and fridges – is set to drive up the country’s emissions.

Delhi is now expected to reveal its plan, or “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC), in September. So what can we expect?

Green growth

The main way India has been measuring climate progress is in terms of the carbon intensity of each unit of GDP growth.

It has an economy-wide target to improve efficiency 20-25% from 2005 levels by 2020.

Chandra Bushan of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and the Environment (CSE) is “quite certain” that approach will be extended. He suggests it should go to 40% by 2030, saving 1 billion tonnes a year of emissions compared to business as usual.

Others are more conservative.

Manish Shrivastava of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), which is helping the government formulate its INDC, reckons India can commit to 30% based on its own resources.

“It is going to be increasingly difficult to expedite energy efficiency. The low-hanging fruit have been realised,” he says.

After five month’s training in solar power engineering, four women in Tinginaput, India show off their lamps (Flickr/DFID)

After five month’s training in solar power engineering, four women in Tinginaput, India show off their lamps (Flickr/DFID)

Prime minister Narendra Modi has already set bullish objectives for renewables: 175GW installed by 2022, of which 100GW to be solar.

But coal also has a major role in Modi’s strategy to bring electricity to 3-400 million people without. Use of that most polluting of fossil fuels is set to double by 2035.

A carbon intensity target sets the pace for coal power stations and heavy industry to clean up.

“Over the next few years, India is going to be largely coal dependent,” says Sunjoy Joshi, head of the Observer Research Foundation. “I would like to see higher targets on efficiency and better pricing of energy.”

India has scrapped diesel subsidies but continues to support LPG and kerosene consumption.

International bodies like the IMF and World Bank are encouraging countries to avoid fossil fuel subsidies, as they encourage wasteful consumption and tend to be regressive.

“In a developing economy, certain subsidies may politically be inevitable,” Joshi adds. “I am not saying there is a case for zero subsidies, but the subsidies need to be better administered.”

No peak in sight

China’s commitment to peak its greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 prompted some diplomats to pressure India to also name a year for its carbon output to fall.

UK climate envoy Sir David King told RTCC the country should be aiming for 2035.

Indian experts were unanimous in their response: No chance.

“Mention of peak year in India’s INDC is out of the question, given the massive development deficit it presently has,” says Harjeet Singh of Action Aid.

“It will be both unreal and unfair to pressurise India to follow China’s footsteps on this issue.”

The average Indian citizen has a carbon footprint of 2 tonnes a year, compared to China’s 7t.

TERI’s Shrivastava said emissions could peak around 2045, but there was little research on the subject. In any case, it is beyond the 2030 horizon of this round of UN pledges.

Managing the unavoidable

The world is already approaching 1C of warming. As factories and power stations worldwide continue to pump out CO2, some further temperature rise is inevitable.

Even the targeted 2C limit is expected to bring more volatile weather, threatening homes, lives and livelihoods.

“Thanks to several extreme climatic events like cyclone, floods and erratic rainfall in the last 3 years, India has realized how vulnerable it is to climate change,” says Action Aid’s Singh.

(Pic: Greenpeace India)

(Pic: Greenpeace India)

Adapting to these impacts has risen up the agenda. This year, the national government allocated more than US$25 million to the problem.

Early warning systems for climate-related disasters, drought-resistant crops and flood defences are among the measures that can help.

CSE’s Bushan says there is a growing consensus over the need for an international “loss and damage” mechanism to compensate the victims of climate disasters.

“The kind of losses that the poorest of the poor are experiencing in our part of the world – the government can’t handle it,” he says.

How that idea – which has proved contentious on the world stage – would fit into the INDC is unclear.

Twin tracks

There is broad agreement India’s INDC should be split into two parts: an unconditional pledge, backed by domestic resources; and a prospectus for stronger action depending on international support.

“It keeps the door open for India to increase its ambition,” explains Bushan.

One of the key questions now is what will go where.

The renewables goals are already set and can be taken as unconditional. So too can some basic adaptation measures.

When it comes to next generation technologies like electricity storage, critical to back up variable wind and solar power, India would need outside support.

These are too expensive for India to fund, says TERI’s Shrivastava, but the country could act as a test-bed for international companies.

“There is a lot of value in demonstrating that certain technologies work… if there is a good market, the prices will automatically come down.”

Developing climate-friendly agriculture techniques is another area for partnership, he suggests.

Eye on the world

As a democratic state, India is wary of the need to justify climate policies – and their costs – to the electorate.

Decision makers are closely scrutinising the ambitions put forward by other capitals, says Bushan.

“I get one phone call at least every day from a parliamentarian saying: what are other countries doing?”

Any perception that developed countries, in particular, are not pulling their weight could dampen enthusiasm for domestic action.

As environment minister Prakash Javadekar has put it: “The developing world is now asking the developed world if they will vacate carbon space.”

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