As world leaders gear up for highlighting their national policies, achievements, and aspirations towards mitigating climate change issues at the UN Climate Change Conference (or COP-26) happening in Glasgow, the geopolitical focus has shifted towards leadership credentials through the lens of energy policies and ambitions.
The Indian delegation for the conference, as well as the G-20 summit which will precede the climate conference, will be headed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In the run up to the events, Modi has highlighted India’s success in being among the top countries in the world in terms of installing renewable energy and has emphasised on India’s continued commitment towards mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
In recent years, the Indian government has promoted electric vehicles and aimed for establishing infrastructure for gradually switching from dependence on fossil fuels.
The Indian government also recently launched the National Hydrogen Mission which aims to make India a frontrunner for assimilating cleaner fuel technologies in the coming decades.
India has worked towards increasing penetration of energy-efficient lighting systems, creating LNG filling stations, and solar capacity in recent years.
Indian Foreign Secretary, Harshvardhan Shringla, also recently highlighted that India increased its renewable energy capacity by 250 percent in the last six to seven years and is on course to achieve the target of 450 Gigawatt of renewable energy by 2030.
While it is not to say that India has succeeded perfectly in all desired goals, it has attracted undue criticisms from several critics. More often than not, these criticisms have failed to consider the wider realm of geopolitics which hugely affects the national policies being considered and adopted.
The Coal Factor and the Net-Zero Target
Coal stands as the most emission producing fossil fuel among others like oil and gas.
Several nations have been phasing out coal usage in the recent years and several others have adopted policies to phase out coal from their portfolio of energy generation in the coming years.
COP-26 aims at securing agreements from nations to end coal power by 2030 for developed nations and by 2040 for developing nations, and an agreement for non-commissioning of any new coal-based power plants from now on.
However, for many, it’s not as simple as switching to other alternatives as investment and infrastructural changes required to switch over can take decades in emerging economies like India. Increasing electricity accessibility in remote regions as well as ensuring uninterrupted power supply in most regions is a work in progress, depending heavily on thermal power plants.
Going into the COP-26, many nations have already announced their targets for achieving carbon neutrality or ‘net zero’ emissions, which means that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted is same as the amount of gas removed from the atmosphere by any means like carbon capture, separation, or absorption.
The world’s top energy body, International Energy Agency (IEA), said that all new oil-and-gas projects (and more importantly coal) need to be immediately halted if the world wants to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, which is the deadline that COP-26 aims for by securing an agreement among all nations.
While Australia has pledged to achieve the net-zero target by 2050, others like China and more recently Saudi Arabia have announced their target as 2060. Russia aims at achieving net zero emissions by 2060, and the US’ Biden administration too is looking towards coming up with a similar policy to achieve this target mid-century.
However, announcing a net-zero emission deadline does not amount to much in absence of clear-cut policies which will be applied in surety. This stance has been emphasised by India’s Minister for Environment, Forest, and Climate Change as well.
As the national governments around the world will be keen to focus on the 2030 targets in the short term, coming up with concrete policies and steps to achieve the net zero target by mid-century is a complexity that most leaders and governments would happily want to leave for their successors in office.
For countries like Australia, Saudi Arabia and Russia, the net-zero target does not take in account the emissions by exports. Being the world’s top energy exporters (Australia - coal, Saudi Arabia- oil and Russia- gas), their targets will have to take different routes than others like India which stands as the world’s leading energy importer.
The duality is visible in Saudi Arabia’s plan to increase Aramco oil production from 12 million barrels per day to 13 million barrels per day by 2027. This will help Saudi Arabia to infuse funds into transition to renewable sources from oil exports.
This possibility does not exist for nations like India.
Currently, India’s energy sector is predominantly dependent on coal. India depends more than 54 percent on coal-based power plants for its total power generation.
This alone results in 75 percent of India’s green-house gas emissions.
Reducing coal-dependence is touted as India’s ticket to achieve climate change mitigation goals. But setting a target like Australia and Saudi Arabia, who do not account for emissions export in their targets, will put undue pressure on India to announce a date which can be much later than 2060, thus making India look like an outlier.
On the other hand, an overambitious target like 2050 can also raise more questions and scepticisms.
Invariably, India needs coal for its development in coming years. However, unlike Australia whose economy majorly depends on coal for both internal usage and exports, Indian credentials in establishing renewable capacity has been commendable.
In an unpredictable world, setting a target date decades ahead in future will amount to nothing if the realities of the present would not be taken in serious consideration.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown how any disturbances to global economic landscape can lead to a forced roll back of decades of achievements in cooperation, in a matter of weeks. Any such disturbances in the near future are bound to affect the climate change mitigation targets as well when impetus on economic recovery can lead to environmental concerns taking a back seat.
The Technical Factor
With exponential improvements in technology with each passing year, the options for deploying renewable and alternative sources of energy as well as for carbon sequestering are expanding.
With decreasing cost of electricity storage due to technical improvements, preserving energy generated from renewable sources like solar and wind power can become more affordable.
A similar phenomenon has been witnessed in realm of solar energy where the price per unit has substantially decreased in the last few years. For developing nations like India, deploying renewable infrastructure at an early stage also means deploying costlier options.
In this scenario, a few years can make a large difference in terms of switching from conventional sources of energy.
While it can be argued that not everything should be seen in terms of finances, it is a bitter reality that promises made by the developed nations to fund the clean energy transitions in the developing world have not seen fruition in any sense in the last few years.
The developing nations further got a taste of ‘Trumpism’ where the world’s leading nation withdrew from the Paris Agreement and looked towards adopting isolationist policies to pump its own economy while engulfing in a trade war with another leading emitter-China.
This is just one example which highlights how national interests can cloud global needs at times of distress.
India stands among the world’s leading economies today. However, unlike many other leading economies which have entrenched themselves firmly in infrastructural aspects, committing to a deadline is much more complex for India.
India’s report to the UN highlights that even after 1990, when the nation entered a period of rapid economic growth, India’s contribution to global cumulative emissions was only 4.9 percent, while it is home to 17.8 percent of the global population. In 2015, India voluntarily enhanced its ambition to reduce the emission intensity of its Gross Domestic Product by 33-35 percent (having declared in 2010 to reduce it by 20-25 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels).
India has successfully achieved the target it had set for 2020. With India partnering actively with other nations like France and Greece (for International Solar Alliance) and venturing into hydrogen technology, India’s credentials are stronger than most.
Instead of setting dates, India has signalled that actions should be more important than mere promises.
By Divyanshu Jindal.