India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution has been widely hailed as a significant next step for not only meeting the country’s domestic development goals but its international commitments to combating climate crises as well. Submitted to the UN for the period 2021 to 2030, it promises to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 per cent by 2030, from its 2005 level. This is half of what China has declared (60-65 per cent) and a few notches higher than the target set by the US (26-28 per cent).

Why has India, which is low in terms of its cumulative global emissions and per capita emission in comparison to both China and the US, set such high targets? Is it an exercise in global climate diplomacy or an astute move to garner global funds for technology transfer and capacity building support to achieve the targets? For it to deliver on the promised commitments, the country would need no less than $2.5 trillion over the next decade or so.

Insignificant targets

At 2.44 tonnes per capita, India may be at the bottom of the current list of leading emitters, but the promised emission targets will leave it with per capita emission of 8.98 tonnes in 2030, far below the projected per capita emissions of 12 tonnes by China and the US, but some three times more than the present. No wonder these targets by the top polluters — including India — aren’t significant enough to deal with the climate crisis, as they are more than what is required in order to limit global temperature rise by 2°C.

In reality, there has been a need to cut emissions to the tune of 70 per cent below the 2010 levels by 2050, if the world is to be on the path to restrict the increase in temperature. However, the emissions sum-game played by the leading emitters has polarised the global climate negotiations. By entering into an agreement whereby China would match its emissions with that of the US in 2030, carbon space has been conveniently appropriated. This leaves a lot to speculate about the role of corporations in the deal.

No wonder, to satisfy their energy demands in the face of lopsided economic growth, the developing countries have promised emission targets that seem carbon-friendly on paper but not on the ground. India’s intention to achieve 40 per cent cumulative electric power installed capacity from renewable sources alongside creating an additional carbon dioxide sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes through additional tree cover by 2030, can be read in that light. It will only fuel per capita emission some three times by 2030.

With India considering both hydro and nuclear power to be environmentally benign, good intentions may get lost in smoke. Since coal continues to find favour as the dominant source of energy followed by hydro and nuclear power, the proposed green energy alternatives will hardly get the desired push.

Thermal power contribution to India’s installed capacity is unlikely to change from the present 60 per cent; energy contribution from hydro power is projected to double and nuclear power some six times from the present installed capacities. This can only trigger three times more per capita emissions.

Pressure on issues

Globally, coal-based power provides 40 per cent electricity, and China emits one-third of the global carbon dioxide on account of its coal consumption. India is the second largest coal consumer after China, which is responsible for 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year. The question is whether clean coal technologies will deliver on the promise to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions. Even if it does, the destruction of forests and habitats will release carbon dioxide.

With INDC focused predominantly on emissions reduction, social and environmental issues get pushed to the periphery. That thermal, hydro and nuclear projects cause environmental destruction, deforestation and large-scale displacement doesn’t get counted in the emissions scenario. The premise of ‘coal-cess’ and ‘compensatory afforestation’ offer a trade-off: first sacrifice environmental concerns for development projects, and then invest funds thus generated in creating carbon sinks.

India’s proposed target seems largely achievable provided the energy mix takes into account environmental issues, and does not compromise on social aspects. Unless it addresses the development concerns of the teeming millions — 363 million of whom are poor and as many as 1.77 million homeless, and 334 million without access to safe water and some 800 millions bereft of adequate sanitation services — such targets will do more harm than good.

The assumption that the transition to a renewable economy through technology and innovation will lead to low-carbon growth in the context of climate change may not hold true. The pressure of urbanisation and industrialisation will pull the country’s low-carbon emitting poor onto high-energy pathways, and thereby push energy demand three times from the present 774 TWh, by 2030. Only 40 per cent of the projected 2,500 TWh of energy demand in 2030 will get sourced from renewables such as solar and wind energy.

Hidden costs

The switch to renewable sources comes with a hidden cost. If the recently released Renewables 2015 Global Status Report is anything to go by, adopting renewable energy requires material requirement to multiply. Each mega-watt of renewable energy on average requires 6 to 8 tonnes of copper while traditional energy sources require only one-sixth this quantity. Should all the economies decarbonise their energy systems, future demand on copper alone will rip the earth apart in mineral exploration and excavation.

INDCs would need to be comprehensively viewed. Mere garnering of global funds and technologies may not lead the country on the low-carbon pathway. The quest for foreign investment and technologies for keeping the developmental engine oiled and running should neither compromise environment regulations nor ignore widespread social concerns. That commodification and monetisation of nature is at the heart of technology transfer is another compelling concern.

It is in this regard that India’s INDC seems vulnerable to private investments, at the cost of ignoring the low-carbon lifestyle of its sizable population.

It has missed the opportunity to take ethical leadership by submitting a non-market, climate finance mechanism. This has created an episteme that blindly projects technical and market solutions as ‘real’ solutions.

Sharma is a researcher on sustainable development at The Ecological Foundation, New Delhi; Krishna is the coordinator of ToxicsWatch Alliance