Glasgow, Scotland – It’s arguably the biggest surprise so far of COP26.
After refusing to set targets for net-zero carbon emissions, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the stage at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland last week and said his country would turn net zero by 2070.
Modi’s pledge puts India – the world’s third-biggest annual carbon emitter – on track to achieve net zero a decade later than China, the world’s biggest carbon spewer, and two decades later than the United States, the world’s second-biggest carbon producer.
On the face of it, India’s timetable may seem less ambitious than those of the world’s two largest economies. But Modi’s climate commitments in Glasgow do set an example about pressing priorities, say analysts.[The commitments] “send a signal to the rest of the world – that despite significant developmental challenges and the COVID-19 induced economic challenges, India is stepping up with enhanced pledges,” said Bharath Jairaj, who leads the energy programme at WRI India.
But analysts also say that India’s climate targets should be viewed within the context of climate crisis conversations that are corralling around how to accelerate net-zero timetables to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to what degree richer nations should pay for developing ones to green up their economies.
Get more ambitious
Despite increasing momentum around net zero targets, the International Energy Agency(IEA) warned last week that if all the new net-zero target pledges are met in full and on time, it would only hold the rise in global temperature to 1.8C – well short of what’s needed to limit global warming to 1.5C.
Many analysts believe that the only way to reach this goal is for developed nations to accelerate their timeline for net-zero emission reductions and allow developing countries the space and resources to meet their targets.
“The perception of India’s announcement depends on the benchmark used,” said Navroz Dubash, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.
“The 2070 net-zero target was diplomatically necessary – the last major economy to fall in the basket – but more a box to be checked under diplomatic pressure, and ideally should have been linked to developed countries reaching net zero before 2050.”
India is deeply dependent on fossil fuels to power its economy, with the dirtiest fossil fuel – coal – generating close to 70 percent of the country’s electricity by the end of 2020, according to the IEA.
During his speech in Glasgow last week, Modi laid out a list of pledges including boosting the share of India’s electricity generated from non-fossil fuel sources from 40 percent to 50 percent by the end of the decade.
He also promised to shave one billion tonnes from the country’s projected emissions from now until 2030, reduce the economy’s carbon intensity to less than 45 percent compared to 2005 levels, and increase its installed renewable energy capacity from its current level near 100GW to 500GW over the next nine years.
Jairaj told Al Jazeera that the final goal “will need careful planning and execution” and require more states in India to be involved in renewable energy production. This will encourage states to address issues related to storage, transmission, and distribution of energy.
And then there’s the question of finance.
Funding and missed opportunities
While India may be a top-three global carbon emitter, it is also the world’s second-most populous country. And on a per capita basis, India’s energy use and emissions are less than half the world average, according to the IEA.
Modi called upon richer nations to provide $1 trillion in climate finance to help less-developed countries decarbonize their economies and grow theirs.
“India’s call for $1 trillion [in] finance is essentially a message that accountability is a two-way street; we should count money as carefully as we count emissions,” said Dubash.
However, promises of funds have not been fulfilled by rich countries so far.
In 2009, developed countries committed to mobilizing $100bn per year in climate finance by 2020. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), they had fallen about $20bn short of their promise in 2019. They also failed to meet their 2020 goal. Several analysts, however, question the OECD’s accounting method and say these figures are vastly inflated.
“India is rightly asking for climate justice and asking developed nations to fulfil their promise of providing tech transfer and finance,” said Vibhuti Garg, energy economist and India lead at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
The green energy transition can have unintended social consequences. Newer technologies could have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities’ land rights. Women may be excluded from the new industries that replace the old. There is also the risk of creating new inequalities as the poorest households remain stuck with legacy grid costs.
Modi was silent in Glasgow on one issue: the elimination of coal. At COP26, more than 40 countries pledged not to use coal. India was not one of them.
“The fact that it [India] didn’t is worrying, and a huge missed opportunity. What’s the plan to stop growing our coal and oil emissions specifically and start phasing down? India cannot afford, for both financial and ecological reasons, to continue expanding its coal sector,” Ashish Fernandes, CEO of Climate Risk Horizons, told Al Jazeera.
Indians already breathe some of the world’s most toxic air, which means that moving away from fossil fuels is in the interest of the country’s public health, too.
Disha Shetty is attending COP26 on a 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organised by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. This story was part of it.