Can India achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050?

Experts weigh in on India’s progress to reduce fossil fuel usage

Environment

July 17, 2021

/ By / Gurugram

Can India achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050?

Only 4 pc of India's target to use solar rooftop panels has been achieved so far (Photo: World Bank)

A 2021 study revealed that 30.7 pc of deaths in India every year are caused by air pollution from burning fossil fuels. To combat this growing disaster, recently, Indian government officials and key experts have been discussing a net-zero target for Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in India.

If India commits to a net-zero goal, it will join countries like the UK and France, and possibly the USA under the Biden Administration, that have enacted laws to achieve this scenario by the middle of the century. In 2020, leading members of the Indian industry, such as Siemens Energy India, Dalmia Cement (Bharat) Ltd and Tata Consulting Engineers Ltd, signed an ‘Industry Charter for Near Zero Emissions by 2050’ in a virtual event at ‘Climate Week NYC’. These businesses committed to goals including moving towards a decarbonisation pathway and increasing energy efficiency and usage of renewable energy.

Experts say that in all fairness, India has made considerable efforts in decoupling economic growth with its GHG emissions. The February 2021 report submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) showed that India’s emission intensity of GDP reduced by 24 pc between 2005 and 2016, fulfilling the voluntary aim announced in 2005 to reduce emission by 20-25 pc even earlier than the target year of 2020.

However, not everyone is convinced. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh said in a recent interview, “Net zero is really, in fact, in my view, is a misleading slogan.” Although Ramesh clarified that phasing down use of fossil fuels is feasible, he felt it would be impossible for India to phase out fossil fuels in the immediate future. Baseload electricity generating capacity would have to from either coal or nuclear energy, particularly since the development priorities of the vast majority of India’s 1.4 billion population are yet to be fulfilled.

“In one way, net-zero is a ‘feel-good’ slogan and as Mr. Ramesh said, those leaders of countries affirming to it today, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s commitment of 2060 and G7 ministers, will not be around in 2050. It can feel like an empty slogan as far as proclamations go because those who are committing have nothing really to commit to,” Manu Maudgal, director and power programme head of Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation (SSEF), tells Media India Group.

Maudgal explains that rather than a phase-out, a more accelerated phasedown over the next 10 years is more practical. SSEF, founded in 2008, is one of the companies in India that works collaboratively with key public and private stakeholders towards clean power transition. For example, the foundation works with the Ministry of Environment on climate policy and air quality and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and Ministry of Power on clean power reforms, such as solar power.

“Shakti is instrumental in leading the CSO community as an ecosystem to try and activate change at a macro level,” says Maudgal.

The Indian government set an aim to achieve 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022, of which 40 GW is slated to be generated through rooftop solar panels. However, so far, only 10 pc of this target has been achieved, despite the rapidly approaching deadline.

One of the key projects supported by the foundation is SARAL: State Rooftop Solar Attractiveness Index.  This index will allow one to benchmark the acceptance of solar rooftop in the country, helping consumers, investors and policy makers to understand what is working and what needs attention, which will greatly increase efficiency.

“Typically most of our solar capacity is in remote locations where land prices are very cheap, so the idea is to bring solar to more places where the consumer is also in essence becoming a generator of power,” he adds.

Another project that SSEF has undertaken is the creation of a Renewable Energy Dashboard in collaboration with the Central Electricity Authority, to create a forum for the major Indian distribution companies such as Tata Power, which are the backbone of the entire power sector. In this forum, companies can come together to understand each other’s learnings and convey their problems and solutions in the areas of battery storage and distribution networks.

“This will help improve transparency, equity, and build a platform which will bring a bigger spotlight to what needs to be done rather than what is being done,” explains Maudgal.

Maudgal emphasises the importance of partnership and collaboration in India’s journey in resolving climate change. A March 2021 modelling report between TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) and Shell (one of the biggest oil companies in India) assessed that if India wants to transition to a net-zero energy system by 2050, it needs “suitable policy and innovation driven context to deploy clean energy technologies on a massive scale” and “faster deployment of large-scale solar, wind and hydro power to enable greater electrification across the country.”

But this is easier said than done. The power sector in India is in dire need of financing, as it is part of the huge deficit announced in the 2021 budget by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a phenomenal loss close to INR 1.25 trillion.

“We have to close the gap; we cannot only depend on the public sector. At SSEF, we are trying to enact private sector funding for this space. Seldom do public and private companies work together, so we are trying to bring them together by a programmatic initiative and create a financing instrument so that for example, the Sovereign Fund in Europe or the UAE can invest in the distribution companies in India,” says Maudgal.

Maudgal also expounds on the idea that not only state governments or companies like Shakti, but also individual citizens should be cognisant of their responsibilities and must do their part in reducing emissions. Voluntary initiatives and schemes such as offsetting a traveller’s carbon emissions while booking flight tickets are stepping stones towards a more energy-efficient system that is less dependent on fossil fuels.

“Ordinary people like you and me should be sensitised to the urgency of the issue; climate is an inherited entity. Thus, regardless of its practicality, the slogan of “net-zero” is actually very powerful in its simplicity as it has the power to rally audiences who might not relate to climate change otherwise. It will enable us to get the conversations rolling and lay the foundation for raising ambitions going forward,” says Maudgal.

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