Under diplomatic pressure, India considers net zero – but major hurdles remain

Net zero pledges from other major polluters have put spotlight on Delhi’s climate ambitions, but full decarbonisation is a big ask

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (Photo: Mike Bloomberg Global Business Forum/Flickr)


Following a two-day visit by Cop26 president-designate Alok Sharma, India is facing mounting diplomatic pressure to consider a net zero emissions goal.

Six months ago, the idea of carbon neutrality was hardly on the agenda in India. But a number of major international climate announcements have driven net zero to the forefront.

Analysts say the issue is starting to be discussed in climate circles since China’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge, Joe Biden’s election victory in the US and the UK’s diplomatic push to ramp up climate ambition ahead of Cop26.

In private, analysts said they wouldn’t be surprised if the government set a carbon neutrality goal within the course of the year, with any decision expected to come directly from the top. But in many ways, the country is not ready to set a hard deadline to end its contribution to climate change.

“There is a lot of chattering about net zero but that discussion is not anchored in policy development and policy analysis,” Thomas Spencer, who works on the decarbonisation of the Indian power sector at The Energy and Resources Institute in Mumbai, told Climate Home News.

While some detailed modelling work, largely focused on sectorial analysis, is being carried out by research groups and academics, it is not part of a detailed cross-ministerial process.

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In a report published earlier this month, the International Energy Agency suggested India could get on a path to net zero emissions by the mid-2060s.

“How meaningful is that? That is as far away from the present as 1975 was in the past – a time of pre-internet and pre-oil shocks,” said Navroz Dubash, professor at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

“The diplomatic political gain [of setting a net zero goal] is greater than the domestic cost but it would be a shame if that’s all [the target] does,” Dubash told Climate Home News.

“We have absolutely no idea if setting a net zero goal will dampen development prospects,” he said, citing the lack of domestic studies on the issue. In a blog post, he warned that an unplanned target could “derail a carefully built momentum toward low-carbon focused development actions”.

Sharma’s visit to India this week is part of the UK’s diplomatic push for countries to improve their 2030 climate goals ahead of the Cop26 climate talks in November and aim for net zero greenhouse gas emissions towards the middle of the century.

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During a meeting with prime minister Narendra Modi, Sharma outlined the UK’s 2050 net zero goal and said its tougher 2030 target “sent a clear message to the world” of the ambition needed, according to a readout of the meeting.

“I firmly believe that powerful action from India will be a catalyst for change, encouraging others to be more ambitious in their approaches to protecting both people and planet,” Sharma said in a statement before leaving the country.

US presidential climate envoy John Kerry told an Indian conference earlier this month that striving towards carbon neutrality by mid-century was “a critical commitment at this point in time”.

Sharma’s visit coincided with the arrest of 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who was charged with sedition and accused of editing a toolkit shared by Greta Thunberg on how to support the Indian farmers’ protests. She was arrested in her home in Bangalore and flown to Delhi, where she remains in police custody.

In 2019, India committed to deliver 450GW of renewable energy by 2030 – a target Modi says India is on track to exceed.

According to Climate Action Tracker, India could become a global climate leader if it enhances its 2030 target, abandons plans to build new coal power plants and phases out all coal production by 2040.

But Delhi has so far resisted setting a tougher 2030 climate goal. Speaking at the climate ambition summit in December, Modi reminded world leaders of India’s small historic contribution to global carbon emissions.

“In 2047, India will celebrate a hundred years as a modern, independent nation,” he said, promising the country would “not only meet its own target but will also exceed your expectations”.

“There is no doubt that in the domestic policy debate there is a broad understanding that India can go much further than it has committed to do,” Spencer said.

But India must overcome major hurdles in its transition to net zero, analysts say. While the country could easily decarbonise half of its power supply network through renewables and electrify passenger transport, addressing carbon-intensive sectors such as steel and cement, where Indian per capita consumption is forecast to grow significantly, will be much more difficult, Spencer said.

“Until humanity can collectively invest in these hard-to-abate decarbonisation challenges, there is no way that India can commit by itself to a net zero target given its expected demand growth in these sectors,” he told Climate Home.

Instead, a net zero goal should be framed as an aspiration and used to drive a conversation on the domestic actions and international innovation and support needed to turn the goal into reality, he said.

For Dubash, India pursuing a carbon neutrality goal would require building the institutional capacity to hold the government accountable to its pledge and oversee its implementation. “This is not a small ask,” he said.

Read more on: Climate politics | COP26 | India | NDCs | Net zero | UN climate talks