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India’s Long Road to Net-Zero

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India’s Long Road to Net-Zero

With ambitious targets, the green transition is a huge challenge for India.

India’s Long Road to Net-Zero
Credit: Depositphotos

India’s commitment to climate change remains ambitious. It has claimed to be taking significant steps toward meeting a pledge made at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in 2021 that it would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, 20 years behind the goals set by the United States and the European Union and 10 years after China. However, much remains dependent on domestic policy and constraints, financing and transfer of technology from the developed world, and domestic skill training and search for alternatives.

In August 2022, India updated two of the five commitments it made at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, COP21. First, India pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. This marked an advancement over the 33-35 percent reduction goals set in 2015. Second, India also revised the target to get about 50 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. The 2015 target was 40 percent.

While these may appear to be impressive updates and demonstrate the country’s commitment to climate change goals, these are intrinsically linked to what New Delhi has described as “the help of the transfer of technology and low-cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund” (GCF) of the United Nations. 

Financing climate change initiatives continues to remain a major challenge for developing countries. A U.N. report released in November 2023 concluded that rich countries had reduced their aid for climate adaptation efforts between 2020 and 2021, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available. The GCF, the world’s largest fund dedicated to tackling climate change in developing countries, in its October 2023 pledging conference in Bonn, amassed a total of $9.3 billion from 25 countries. The United States, with its divided Congress and the specter of a government shutdown failed to make a commitment.

In December 2023, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris attended the COP28 climate summit in Dubai and promised $3 billion. However, whether the Biden administration can persuade Congress to honor the pledge remains a question. Worse still, the GCF’s current level of replenishment is neither ambitious nor adequate.

Part of the problem are the sharp and continuously growing needs of developing countries. Coal, which fulfills 75 percent of India’s energy requirements, is projected to continue for the next two decades as the backbone of the Indian energy system. While most developed nations are winding down coal capacity to meet climate targets, India and China continue to account for about 80 percent of all active coal projects.

In May 2023, during a committee meeting of the G-20 Summit, India’s secretary for coal announced that the country will close around 30 coal mines over the next three to four years. But at the same time, India’s road map includes increasing domestic coal production until 2040 so that its current 25 percent reliance on imports of coal can be reduced. This, flying in the face of its commitment to transition away from fossil fuels, has been characterized as unavoidable to meet the country’s increasing energy requirements.

Even the planned reduction of reliance on coal after 2040 may not happen at all, unless there are significant investments in the energy sector. Consequently, India’s coal use may reach 1.1 billion tons much before 2040, leaving the country still dependent on fossil fuels to feed its growth. This underlines that to keep to India’s net-zero commitment, the planned increase in coal production has to be accompanied by a gradual switch to clean energy. It has to be a simultaneous process.

However, evidence suggests that India may be failing to build enough to meet its ambitious goal of 500 gigawatts of clean energy capacity by 2030. Although media headlines are abuzz with the world’s biggest solar energy plant being built in India, the actual rates at which solar and wind power have been installed over the past few years is a mere one-third of what would be necessary for this simultaneous transition. For instance, as of December 31, 2023, India had the fourth-largest installed wind power capacity in the world. However, its total installed capacity is less than 45 gigawatts (GW), compared to China with 342 GW and the United States with 150 GW.

In February 2023, the Indian government pledged to invest $4.3 billion in green technology to clean up the country’s economy and create jobs. It hopes to witness a more than 83 percent increase in investments in renewable energy projects to around $ 16.5 billion in 2024. While India is also positioning itself to become a leading powerhouse in green hydrogen production by the next decade, a new report sanctioned by the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the government of India seems to provide a push toward nuclear energy, an area where the government’s commitment is far from forceful. The report concluded, “No net-zero is possible without substantial nuclear power generation in 2070.” Here again, it is linked to India seeking $26 billion in private nuclear power investments. 

Just like the dilemma faced by other developing countries, the green transition is a huge challenge for India, the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. While the data and figures flaunted by New Delhi look impressive, fault lines are increasingly evident. Without adequate finance, India’s green transition will be delayed and paralyzed, nullifying both the achieved targets and the commitments. The developed world needs to stand by its commitments. Domestically, in India, the plan to replace the fossil fuel share with non-fossil energy has to proceed on a transparent, inclusive, sustainable, and well-thought-out transition road map, even while struggling to seek funds and technology in search of alternatives.