Clean Tech

It’s an uphill climb to a net-zero India

V Rishi Kumar | Updated on April 18, 2021

For the country to transition to carbon neutrality is easier said than done, say climate experts, as it needs to balance growth with eco-goals

As India races to meet climate change goals by 2050, it faces an uphill task. It must address energy transition, bring down industrial pollution, propel growth of renewable energy (RE) and move towards electric mobility.

According to experts, this is easier said than done. During recent interactions, they spelt out some of the key challenges that lie ahead for the country to achieve net-zero transition. It was, however, widely agreed that the global climate emergency can only be successfully tackled with international collaborative and cross-institutional efforts.

There has been considerable debate diplomatically to achieve carbon-neutral status by 2050. While countries like the US and those in Europe are better placed, for India there are far-reaching implications regarding its economy and serious challenges in terms of garnering resources towards this transition.

With US President Joe Biden scheduled to interact with world leaders this week to discuss tackling the climate crisis and achieving net-zero by 2050, some believe it is not an equitable goal. While some countries are ahead of the curve, others, like India, are much behind it.

Vaibhav Chaturvedi, Fellow at Council on Energy, Environment and Water, feels “richer economies should be asked to bring their net-zero timelines forward. Most of these countries have peaked decades ago, so there is a big gap between their peak and their net-zero deadlines. For India, which is still years away from its peak, this gap will be very small if India takes up a mid-century net-zero target.”

Realistic trade-offs

Meanwhile, India is looking at setting up 450 GW of RE, with a good chunk of it backed by storage, to retire some of the fossil fuel plants. Likewise, the push towards electric mobility, slowly cutting down internal combustion engines and using hydrogen in limiting gas emissions from hard-to-abate industries, could make a difference.

But before we chase a net-zero target, several issues such as power pricing reforms, transition from coal to RE, alternatives for coal-dependent states and geopolitical factors need to be resolved. These trade-offs between technology, economy and politics will determine if 2050 is a realistic net-zero target.

As we work out strategies, it is to be seen how large enterprises like NTPC, CIL and oil companies, which are primarily based on fossil fuels, handle this transition. They would have to skilfully tackle the disruptions it would cause to jobs and businesses down the chain.

A TERI and Shell report, ‘India: Transforming to a net-zero emissions energy system’, says it is “technically possible” to achieve the goal, but cautions that it would be a highly challenging pathway. Ritu Mathur, Director, Integrated Assessments and Modelling, TERI, warns that a complete phase-out of coal plants by 2050 is likely to be difficult because of the economics of harnessing incremental RE potential and subsequent integration to the grid system.

Leading the change

However, despite the challenges, Peter Bakker, President and CEO of World Business Council for Sustainable Development, feels that “India should lead in the global climate leadership race. It is highly vulnerable to climate change and has much to lose if an ambitious net-zero target is not set.”

While India is already acting, the transformation to net-zero emissions will require fundamental changes in how the country produces and uses energy. It has to expand and enhance electricity transmission and distribution networks; ramp up renewables investment; increase the use of hydrogen and bioenergy to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors; develop a vibrant lower-carbon manufacturing industry; and harness the energy transition to drive wider sustainable development goals.

“Net-zero is an inevitability; every country has announced a net-zero target and strategy as part of the Paris Agreement. The only question is when and how,” says Chandra Bhushan, CEO of the non-profit environment research body iForest.

His optimism, however, comes through when he adds, “India has managed exponential growth in several sectors in the past. We are better placed than we were, richer than we were, 30 years ago. I believe resource constraints did not hinder past growth and are unlikely to hinder future prospects. Realism demands that the developed and developing countries work together. We don’t have to be sanctimonious about principles; we have to be real and work with everyone to achieve our developmental and climate goals.”

Bhushan’s words could well set India’s agenda for the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later this year.

Published on April 18, 2021

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