India’s New Green Revolution

India's latest commitment to fight climate change defends the country's right to keep pumping out more emissions. But in the run up to Paris, it's still a big leap forward.


The stakes for India’s contribution in fighting climate change are high. As the fourth largest producer of greenhouse gases, assuming the European Union’s emissions are counted collectively, what India is willing — and able — to do to curb its emissions will have a major impact on whether the international community can avoid runaway global warming. Under most business-as-usual scenarios — if it doesn’t change its behavior — the country is on the hook for some of the most significant emissions growth in the coming decades. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, India, along with China, will be responsible for nearly half of the growth in global energy demand. And as the world has readied itself for December’s summit in Paris, which will outline how the global community will deal with the increasingly pressing issue of how to deal with climate change, India’s plan has been a looming question mark.

On Thursday afternoon, the world received its answer. After months of speculation, India finally released its formal greenhouse gas emissions plan for the COP 21 conference. And the answer is promising.

Fossil fuels will still make up a large percentage of the global energy mix until at least 2040 — even with robust growth of renewables. This is particularly true of India. The Indian INDC partially acknowledges this, to the extent that, while promising action on climate change, it also asks the developed world for “equitable carbon and development space” — in essence, arguing that since India has been responsible for a historically low proportion of emissions activity, it cannot be asked to make drastic emissions cuts at a time when it needs as much effort as possible directed at fighting endemic poverty. If developed nations wish India to be a responsible player on climate change, this plan argues, the country needs assistance, especially financial, in aggressively adopting new low- and zero-carbon technologies

Landing on the day of the United Nations deadline, the intended, nationally determined contribution (INDC) provides a building block for what will be decided in Paris at the end of the year. And India’s contributions are a critical piece of the coming negotiations. The offering is, considering India’s starting point as a very poor country (in both per capita income and energy access), an ambitious first step. While this plan does not include absolute emissions cuts and, indeed, it leaves open the possibility India will continue to use carbon intensive coal for years to come, it is also putting forward a willingness to substantially raise its capacity for renewables deployment, provided that its partners in developed nations follow through on promises for financial flows and cooperation on technology.

So what has India pledged to do?

There are two headline announcements. The first is a promised reduction in India’s emissions intensity — the ratio of greenhouse gases produced to GDP. As India has hundreds of millions of people still mired in poverty and living without electricity, the goal is to keep growing, but make that growth, and the energy production that will fuel it, greener. To this end, India pledged to cut the intensity of its emissions to 33 to 35 percent by 2030 against what it was in 2005 (slightly below estimates that it would be a 35 to 40 percent cut). In the Copenhagen climate accord in 2009, India had pledged a 20 to 25 percent cut by 2020 — a target it is capable of meeting under its current policy and investment frameworks (according to data collected by BP, India had been averaging a 1.1 percent decline in emissions intensity over a 10 year period from 2004 to 2014, even as GDP grew by an average of 7 percent since 2010).

The second is a new, higher target for the country’s non-fossil fuel based energy installation. In January, the Indian government updated its solar target from 20GW to 100GW to 175GW by 2022, with an overall renewable energy goal of 175GW. According to the INDC, India will further ramp up ambition between 2022 and 2030, aiming to install around 350GW of capacity — or 40 percent of its 2030 energy mix — through non-fossil fuel sources. This number includes not only the renewable targets, but also expansion in nuclear power and small-scale hydrological power.

The mitigation side (i.e., efforts to reduce the future release of greenhouse gas emissions) is also includes existing measures to increase the cost of fuel through continuing reforms to subsidies and taxes. The 2015 budget had slashed subsidies for petroleum, a move made easier by the global decline in crude oil prices, though that deregulation may be delayed due to political factors as elections approach. India also plans to continue increasing its forest cover, which will help pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

To be clear, under this plan, India will continue to emit a lot of carbon dioxide, and those emissions would continue to increase. The significant thing is that the rate of that growth would be slower.

There are real and serious bright spots here, though. The renewable energy ambitions outlined are extremely significant and should be encouraged. Mobilization of the Green Climate Fund, the U.N.-backed mechanism for channeling financing from developed nations to developing ones to fight climate change, can assist with this. While the plan didn’t include a peak emissions year or national carbon pricing policy, as China’s announced plans do, that is not a reason to feel disappointed that something more ambitious wasn’t put forward. India has stated it has a desire to be a constructive player in Paris.

There are a lot of difficult questions still to be addressed in those negotiations, including a desire by India that developed countries make their plans on finance and technology transfer concrete at Paris. The INDC is quite specific on the need for any agreement in Paris to include provisions for the rapid dispersal of capital to finance these changes, as well as the transfer of clean energy technology, either free of intellectual property rights costs or with the Green Climate Fund picking up the tab. India also envisages financing needs for “capacity building” — the training and upgrading of the intellectual capital of those who would implement these various policies. Prior to China’s significant contribution to financing other developing nations, there was an expectation that India’s request for financial support would be robust.

Certainly India, and the wider South Asia region, is hurting from the effects of climate change. According to a 2014 analysis prepared by the Asian Development Bank, South Asia could lose around 2 percent of its GDP annually by 2050 from climate change effects. And that doesn’t even include the costs of extreme weather events like the typhoons and floods that are likely knock-on effects of climate change. If nothing is done to fix the problem, those costs could rise to 8 percent of GDP by 2100. Consequently, India has been a frequent voice in asking for “adequate, predictable, and long-term finance” to be directed from developed nations to developing ones. The INDC reflects this, estimating that the total cost of executing India’s climate change plans would be an eye-watering $2.5 trillion between 2015 and 2030.

This desire to ensure that developed countries followed through on granting the financing they promised led some experts to speculate that India, much like Mexico, would offer a two-track INDC: one more modest set of policies and plan that assumed no external financial support, a second more ambitious plan, demonstrating that India could do a lot more if it were assured that the global community would pony up. The plan certainly references financial assistance and technology transfer as a requirement for helping India’s renewable energy goals, but the INDC puts forward targets that are not couched in an “if this, then that” manner, mandating additional international support.

What the plan makes crystal clear, however, is that there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The plan only touches on what is likely the most important source of carbon emissions in India: the unabated use of coal for electricity. Coal is India’s primary source of energy, and the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, and India is still ramping up its use nationwide — production grew 6.4 percent in 2014 with little sign of appreciable slowing in 2015. The INDC states explicitly that “coal will continue to dominate power generation in the future” and mentioned developing “clean coal” technologies. A team of researchers at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, analyzing policy models, found that even ones that assumed low-carbon planning scenarios projected a doubling of coal production by 2030. While India has modestly raised the costs of using coal through a tax, it is unlikely that this, on its own, breaks up India’s attachment to the dirty fuel.

That this will not be part of India’s 2030 goals will be disappointing to many climate change activists. The Indians have simply argued that such goals are out of the bounds of what is realistic given their still-low development trajectory.

It’s important to remember that India’s plan is a reaction to not only international pressure from countries such as the United States, but also the concerns of its people. Which is really to say, it’s useful to remember that India’s contributions to the U.N. process don’t exist in a vacuum — those contributions fit in quite well with India’s diplomatic priorities. Action on climate change and the rapid expansion of energy has, over the course of the Obama administration, been an important component of cooperation with India, as evidenced by its prominence in the bilateral meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi at the United Nations General Assembly. Nothing would derail that relationship as quickly as India not contributing substantially to a strong and durable agreement in Paris.

The domestic political context should not be overlooked. As in China, the public in India is concerned about both climate change and particulate matter air pollution, much of which comes from domestic wood or other biofuel-burning cook stoves. According to recent research from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, toxic air will likely kill 30,000 residents of New Delhi in 2025. That death toll could rise to 50,000 people by 2050 without significant policy changes. With respect to climate change, 73 percent of Indians polled by Pew said they were very concerned about climate change; that number rises to nearly 90 percent in Indian states in the north, whose economies are based on agriculture fed by monsoon rains.

Popular pressure at the bottom will contribute to the calculations made by India’s leadership to try to push forward on action on climate change, though at a pace of their choosing, and provided it is assured that developed nations will have kept previous promises, especially about money.

When the international community sits down at the table in Paris at the end of the year, it will be confident that India is trying its best to grapple with a profound dilemma. It has a responsibility to its people to give them electricity and economic growth. It is also responsible for insulating them from the worst effects of climate change, some of which are happening now, and some which are more that certain to occur in the future, and are being driven by that very economic growth. This plan does offer any guarantees about surmounting that dilemma, but it charts a way forward for India to be a constructive player in the global fight against climate change.


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