India’s INDCs — a glass half-full

Surya P Sethi | Updated on January 23, 2018


It is a well-articulated stance for global negotiations that needs clarity for handling challenges at home

India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), released symbolically on October 2, reasonably deserve the almost unanimous applause they received because: (i) they comprehensively detail India’s efforts and aspirational goals for addressing her vulnerabilities to climate change; and (ii) they make sound arguments for the development space and assistance India needs to deliver. However, translating the INDCs to address domestic challenges and deliver greater capacity and equity to vulnerable Indians requires more clarity.

Mother earth is hurtling along a 4.5 degree C plus warming trajectory. Consumption growth is driving emissions growth. The top 20 per cent of the world, who consume about 80 per cent of the global supply of goods and services, continue to grow their absolute consumption to support progressively more unsustainable lifestyles. This squeezes the lifeline needs of the bottom 50 per cent of the world. The natural capital of 4.4 planets like earth is required to sustain the average level of US consumption for every human being

The consequently higher dependence on fossil fuels has overtaken the gains from the global fall in emissions intensity of GDP and the global growth in energy efficiency and share of fossil free energy. Total fossil fuel consumption will likely continue growing till 2030. The carbon space available to limit warming to 2 degrees C by 2100 will likely be exhausted by 2030.

IPCC’s five assessment reports detail, with progressively greater reliability, the abrupt, irreversible and catastrophic climate events that could potentially be triggered, with magnitudes rising in tandem with warming beyond the 2 degree C threshold. Yet, for over two decades, the world has failed to negotiate a binding top-down burden-sharing agreement, duly informed by science, to address climate change recognised as mankind’s greatest contemporary challenge.

The failure in negotiating a global climate response fathered the INDC exercise whereby nations, accounting for almost 90 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, have detailed their unconditional and conditional voluntary contributions towards a global effort, within the context of their national priorities. This diplomatic solution may well become the proverbial ‘tragedy of the commons’ whereby individual nations acting independently and rationally, according to each one’s self-interest, behave contrary to the best interests of the world as a whole. It is certain that the combined INDCs will fall well short of what is essential to keep warming below 2 degrees C.

Is it enough?

Do India’s INDC’s go far enough? The answer to this question must begin by noting that there is no benchmark to compare the INDC’s submitted. Also, there is no metric to equate climate actions spread across mitigation, adaptation, climate finance, technology transfer and capacity building even though the Bali Action Plan established parity among all these verticals. Finally, no metric establishes differentiation among nations in defining their obligations and thereby assessing the ambition level of their INDCs, even though differentiation is the basis of the duly ratified framework convention.

On measurable contributions such as energy intensity, carbon sinks and fossil free electricity, India’s INDCs match or exceed the ambition of the world’s largest polluters, China and the US. This, despite India’s demonstrably lower economic capacity and natural resource endowments. The fact that India’s per capita commercial energy consumption and emissions are well below 30 per cent of their respective global averages makes India’s INDCS relatively even more aggressive. For comparison, India currently accounts for about 6 per cent of global emissions and her historical responsibility for global warming is less than 3 per cent. The corresponding numbers for China and the US are 3 to10 times higher.

India’s INDCs rightly emphasise development to tackle widespread poverty and implicitly seek emissions space of at least 5 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030, even as India’s per capita energy consumption and emissions remain well below global averages. Adaptation and capacity building priorities stand out among detailed initiatives to address vulnerable sectors such as agriculture, water, coastal and Himalayan regions, infrastructure, health, and disaster management.

Most importantly, highlighting differentiated responsibilities, India rightly emphasises the support needed in climate finance, technology, and capacity building to fully deliver her INDCs and address adverse climate impacts. Clearly, India’s INDCs are ambitious, comprehensive and well balanced.

Domestic challenges

India will suffer the most from climate change because India has the largest number of human beings under all vulnerable classes. One-third of Indian households remain unelectrified and over two-third households have zero access or grossly inadequate access to modern commercial energy. Well over half the households lack piped water and sanitation. Subsidised food delivers food security to two-thirds of Indian households. Delivering health services, quality education, skills, livelihoods, air quality, waste management and sustainable rural and urban infrastructure poses multiple hurdles and capacity constraints.

India needs more energy to address the foregoing lifeline challenges and must ensure more equitable access to available energy. India’s share of global energy consumption rose from 1.9 per cent to 5 per cent in the last 30 years. With 17 per cent of global population, India must urgently grow its share of global commercial energy consumption to about 15 per cent to deliver prosperity levels within striking distance of even average global levels to her people.

To put this in perspective: even if India achieves 40 per cent fossil-free power generation capacity by 2030, including 230,000 MW of wind and solar, these two sources will only meet 12 per cent of the likely demand for electricity in 2030 based on 8 per cent annual GDP growth for the next 15 years. Some 80 per cent of electricity would still have to be generated from coal and natural gas, and thermal coal requirement could rise to three times the current level.

There is no clarity on how India will grow its relative share of the global energy pie to fire the required 8 per cent GDP growth. It is even less clear how available modern energy will be distributed more equitably among Indians. Both are essential for raising adaptive capacity of the bottom 70 per cent of India and eradicating poverty by 2030

It is not over yet

By joining the beauty pageant of INDCs we might have lost the opportunity to extract adequate and binding climate actions from the world’s top 20 per cent. But India can salvage herself by ensuring that Paris: (i) enforces differentiation in recognising obligations; (ii) ensures parity of mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology and capacity obligations; and (iii) institutes a robust review mechanism covering all obligations.

Some 2.5 billion human beings in the bottom half of the world, including around 850 million Indians, may not survive the current global warming trajectory without greater equity in sharing the common resources of mother earth. India must make Paris count for this endangered lot.

The writer was Principal Adviser, Power & Energy, Government of India

Published on October 28, 2015

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