Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2021 > With a Climate Crisis Looming Large, What are India’s Pledges and Actions ? (...)

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 15, New Delhi, March 27, 2021

With a Climate Crisis Looming Large, What are India’s Pledges and Actions ? a brief analysis of India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) | Soumya Dutta

Friday 26 March 2021

by Soumya Dutta *

“World’s leading climate scientists issued an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world, that climate change is running faster than we are — and we are running out of time. We see the consequences all around us — more extreme weather, rising sea levels, diminishing Arctic sea ice. The scientists paint the most vivid picture we have ever had between a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees versus 2 degrees.  A half of degree of warming makes a world of difference. more heat waves for tens of millions of people. Far greater species loss. Increased water scarcity in some of the world’s most unstable regions. A ten-fold increase in Arctic ice-free summers. And a total wipe-out of the world’s coral reefs... We must rise to the challenge of climate action and do what science demands before it is too late.”António Guterres, UN Secretary General, responding to the IPCC’s Special report: Global warming of 1.5 C

Introduction :

“Climate Change” is now widely recognised as one of the defining challenges of the 21st century, along with massive inequality, declining democracy and a ravenous economic pathway. Almost all of these are interconnected. Facing such a challenge, and with a huge population of economically, socially and environmentally vulnerable population, it was expected that the government of our country will at least act with some seriousness, both in reducing India’s contribution to emission of Greenhouse Gases, and more importantly, in building resilience of its multitude of vulnerable communities.

The Indian governments “plans for climate change” have two different tracks. In the international arena, at the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), India submitted its Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC, in October 2015, just before the Paris Climate Summit. While internally, the govt came up with — first a National Action Plan on Climate Change or NAPCC, in 2008, followed by eight National Climate Missions. The National Climate Missions have been closely tied to what the government pledged at the international level through its NDC.  The State governments were directed to come up with their own State Action Plans on Climate Change or SAPCCs, the first version of these were completed by around 2014-15. At the present time, most States are doing their first revision of the SAPCCs.

In this analysis, I will confine myself to the NDC and its compliance only. The other areas — the Climate Missions (some of which are tied to the NDC, some others are adaptation and knowledge related), the SAPCCs etc deserve a completely separate treatment.
The Context : The GoI submitted its Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC (at that time, it was called Intended NDC or INDC) to the UNFCCC, on October 02, 2015, weeks before the Paris Climate summit began in November. This was ratified in 2016. It’s good to remember that though this was called “Nationally Determined Contribution”, there were no large scale consultations, or even information sharing, involving any part of the “Nation”. These plans were largely made by government bureaucrats, with some chosen consultants ever taken into confidence.

Before going into those individual ‘pledges’, let us first see the context and India’s position in the world, in terms of relevant factors —

  • India is the 3rd largest Carbon emitter now, by country figures (after China and USA), and fourth largest if European Union is taken as one. India’s absolute CO2 emissions were about 2.5 Gtons (250 crore tons) in 2018, which was about 7.2% of global emissions. This translates to about 1.9 Tons CO2 per person per year, a low figure compared to the world average, and still within the Earth’s permissible limits.
  • Considering all Green-House Gas (GHG) emissions (including from agriculture, forestry, land use change etc), India’s CO2e emissions came close to about 3.0 Gtons in 2019, or about 2.15 Tons CO2e/person (considering India’s population is about 138 Crores or 1.38 billion). This is less than half the global average per person emissions, which crossed 4.8 Tons/person in the year 2019.
  • One needs to take note, that this comparatively low per capita emissions — both of CO2 and CO2e figures, are primarily due to the large poor populations of the country, who do not have enough financial resources to consume the products and services that have high carbon intensity. India’s middle and upper classes consume at much higher rates and contribute to emissions at comparable global average rates.
  • The year 2020 saw a global reduction of CO2 emission of over 7%, due to the world-wide lockdowns and consequent reductions in economic activities. India also saw a comparable reduction. Though the CO2e emissions did not drop as significantly, as agricultural and land-use change related emissions remained relatively stable.
  • India’s historical (cumulative) CO2 and CO2e emissions per capita are even much lower, as the majority of the increase has taken place in the last 25-30 years of comparatively rapid industrialisation and middle and upper class consumption of Carbon-intensive goods and services.
  • Over the last 5-6 years, India’s percentage Increase in CO2 emissions was the highest amongst major economies (Though China increased more in absolute term, because of its much larger base).
  • India is also the 3rd largest energy consumer by country position, with about 5.8% of global primary energy Consumption. Indias per capita commercial primary energy Consumption in 2018 was around 680 KgOe, while per capita electricity Consumption was around 1150 Kwhrs /person/year (again, with huge internal disparities in both).
  • Out of India’s total primary commercial Energy Consumption of about 880 Mtoe (million tons oil equivalent), about 33% or 1/3rd is imported, mostly as petroleum, natural gas and low ash Coal. This has huge Financial and policy (both economic and foreign relations) implications.
  • India has one of the largest Renewable Energy programs in the world, with ‘targets’ being periodically upgraded to quite ambitious levels. Also, India ranks fourth or fifth in both total Solar and Wind power capacity installed (the 3rd to 5th positions keep varying).
  • India now is also the third largest Electricity produced and consumer in the world, by country figures. In 2019, the gross electricity generation in India was about 1600 TWHrs, out of which utilities generated about 1385 TWHrs. For comparison, the world figures were about 23,398 TWHrs in 2019, India’s share being about 6.84% of world total. The per capita Gross electricity consumption was about 1208 KWhrs/person/yr in India, with net consumption being around 1100 KWHrs. Again, this is much lower than the global average figure of about 3000 KWHrs /person/yr .
  • By most External Assessments, India is Doing Well — though Not Enough — in its climate actions. According to the 2020 report of the annual assessment brought out by the non-profit ‘GermanWatch’, called Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), India is one of the top 10 performers, along with European Union and United Kingdom.

What India’s NDC is All About ?

It’s quite strange that India’s NDC, the Climate Change tackling plan submitted to UNFCCC, explicitly states that Coal is its main energy source now, and will remain so in the foreseeable future ! As of now, about 68% of India’s electricity generation and about 55% of it’s Total commercial primary energy comes from coal, with India having about 215,000 MW of installed coal power capacity, out of a total of 375,000 MW electricity (Dec.2020)) from all sources. This is Despite the Fact that Coal is by far the most emission intensive fossil fuel. Lower grades of coal and lignite, which India use in plenty in its power plants, do cause even more pollutions per unit of energy produced than anthracite and bituminous coal. And coal is not only carbon intensive, it’s also the largest source of lethal air pollution, that is already adversely affecting a very large percentage of Indian population. Out of the major emitters, India is the only one which has Not pledged any upper limit of emissions, neither has it given any timeline by which it’s emissions will Peak and then fall. Rather regrettable, both environmentally and politically.

In its NDC, India has basically pledged 3 quantified targets (+some Sanskrit shlokas and some nice & vague language about Climate Actions), and a specific target for renewable power capacity also. —

  • By the year 2030, the carbon emission’ intensity of India’s economy (kg of CO2 emitted, say for every Rs.1000 GDP) will decrease by 33-35%, compared to a 2005 baseline. Note that all actions are proposed in the time frame 2016—2030, 2015 being the year of these pledges being submitted.
  • By 2030, Non-fossil fuel sources (including nuclear fission and big dam Based hydro power, not renewables alone) will account for at least 40% of India’s Installed Power capacity. This is said to be with low cost technology transfer and international Finance.
  • Also pledged - India will sequester an additional 2.5—3.0 Gtons (250-300 crore metric tons) of CO2, through afforestation and reforestation / forest densification, between 2016 and 2030. The achivement will be by increasing carbon stocks (the amount of Carbon held in biomass) in both Forests and non-forest ’tree-cover’.
  • At that point in time (October 2015 NDC submission), India’s Renewable electricity target was pegged at 175,000 MW Installed capacity by 2022, with 100,000 MW Solar (with 40% of that coming from rooftop / distributed sources), 60,000 MW Wind, and rest from small hydro, biomass and "waste-to-energy" plants. In September 2019, Indian PM announced a sharply upgraded target of 450,000 MW of Renewable installed capacity  - without clearly mentioning a date, but widely interpreted to be compliant with 2030 PA deadline.

How far has India come on its NDC / Paris Climate Pledges?

In the last five years after submitting its NDC to UNFCCC (2016-2019, 2020 being a very unusual and hopefully, non-repeatable year of global crisis), India is on course on some of its pledges, while some are clearly off-course —

  • Decrease in emission’ intensity — Indian Economy is Already about 25% less emission intensive now, in comparison to the 2005 baseline. That shows that achieving 35% reduction over 2005 baseline will be achieved much before 2030, the PA Pledge deadline. In fact, present projections show a roughly 50% reduction of emission’ intensity by 2030, compared to 2005 baseline. This also brings out the low levels of ’pledge targets’ or low ’ambition’. One has to understand that the increase in energy efficiency (and consequent reduction in emissions intensity) is a normal technological process, and can be sharply accelerated with directed technological and policy initiatives.
  • Non-fossil fuel electricity capacity installed — India at present (Jan.2021) has about 90,000 MW of installed ‘new’ (excluding hydropower) renewable power capacity, with about 45,000 MW of hydropower capacity and little less than 7000 MW of nuclear power capacity installed. These total about 142,000 MW, out of a total installed capacity (all sources) of about 375,000 MW, giving a figure of about 38% of its installed electricity capacity from Non-fossil sources. Thus, on this pledge, India is almost there. Though one needs to recollect, that when India announced its NDC / Paris pledges, big hydropower (over 25 MW installed capacity) was NOT categorized as Renewable (and it should not be, for varied reasons). Thus, India’s “achievement” in this category is by a “sleight of hand” of re-categorizing 45,000 MW of existing capacity, literally overnight. Considering just the new renewables, like Solar, wind, biomass-electricity, small hydro & WTE (many of these have serious issues), the present installed capacity is about 24% of the total. In 2019, the Indian government re-categorized large hydro power as ’renewable’ energy source (there is strong reservations on this by many groups, on valid grounds). This has - in ’one pen stroke’, increased the RE electricity capacity by about 45,000 MW. To be fair to the GoI, many countries do count large hydropower as renewable energy, with all its attendant issues.
  • If we look inside the renewable capacity targets, the 2022 target was 100,000 MW Solar power installed, with 40,000 MW from distributed /rooftop and 60,000 MW from utility scale power plants. One has to understand the ‘Achiles Heel” of the Solar power industry, ie, it requires large amounts of land, as the incident solar radiation (insolation) is low intensity, and also intermittent. Thus, large utility scale power plants need large amounts of land, and this is giving rise to many land conflicts with farmers, pastoralists, villagers etc, who are again losing out, this time in the name of “clean energy”. This needs to be reversed. From that perspective, a large share of distributed / rooftop capacity is that much more desirable, also to distribute the economic gains.
  • Regrettably, the actual progress on both these fronts are much less than desired. According to data from India’s ministry of New & Renewable Energy, the Jan.2021 capacity installed figures are — Solar PV at 38,800 MW, with Utility scale at 34,560 MW and rooftop accounting for a meagre 4250 MW. It’s now becoming clear that India is Not going to achieve its2015 Paris Pledge of 100,000 MW of installed Solar power capacity by 2022. More importantly, the distributed solar is faltering badly, and instead of 40,000 MW by 2022, we are headed towards a much below 10,000 MW reality.
  • On the Wind power front also, the developments have slowed down considerably. After being the front runner among renewables in India (also in many European countries) in the first one and half decades of this century, new power capacity additions have considerably slowed down. The present (Jan.2021) installed capacity of wind power in India stands at 38,700 MW, a far cry from the 60,000 MW target by end of 20222.
  • From IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) figures, India has added about 15,000 MW of RE capacity in 2017, about 13,000 MW in 2018, about 10,000 MW in 2019 and a meagre 7,000+ MW in 2020. Instead of speeding up, this is actually a slowing down. And we are already far short of the NDC pledges.
  • The "additional CO2 sequestration" pledge has Not gone very far, as this involves large amounts of both forest and some non-forest lands. By GoI estimates, India now has about 21.7% of its land area of 328.9 million hectares under "Forests", with moderately dense forests and degraded forests both accounting for a little over 9% each. Dense forests cover the rest of roughly 2.7% of land declared under forest department (India’s biggest ’landlord’ by far).

Out of the 71.3 million hectares of ’forest department’ land, the estimates shows that at least 32-35 million hectares (about 320,000 to 350,000 SqKms, about half of all forest department land, or about 10% of India’s total land area !) would be needed for achieving the CO2 sequestration pledge. Almost out of realistic targets or range. Recently, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has come up with another trick, by defining a new category of “total Forest and Tree Cover” in the country, and that is about 24.56% of the country’s land area, or about 80.73 million hectares. One has to remind oneself that this is about half of all the cultivated area in India, and large parts of this land already is utilized by people, economically (grazing is one of the biggest uses, NTFP collection is another), socially and culturally. As per the State of the Forest report 2019, where these figures were mentioned, the total increased from 21.54% to 24.56%, though it’s not very clear if that older figure of 21.54% was Forest Cover or “Forest and Tree Cover”. It seems that the government believes more in accounting tricks (a la declaring big hydro as ‘renewable’) than in real ground level climate actions, which are harder.

As per the minister, in two years, India has increased about 518,800 hectares of Forest & Tree Cover ! Out of these, the claimed increase in forest cover is 397,600 hectares and in tree cover, of about 121,200 hectares ! How much CO2 sequestration capacity this has added, even if true, is difficult to assess, without knowing the details of types of trees, planting details, post-planting care plans and a host of other factors. Various research has shown that, in a tropical climate like India’s south and central parts, a mature but healthy growing forest can sequester/ absorb about 2.5-5.0 tons of CO2 per hectare per year. With that, the claimed increase of 518,000 hectares of “forests and tree cover” will lead to about 1.3 to 2.6 million tons of CO2/year (according to rate estimates by ScienceDaily). This is less than 0.1% of the targeted “additional CO2 sequestration” as stated in the NDC ! Even this claim is all the more difficult to believe with the stark realities of massive forest area diversion for “development projects”. As per a statement in the Loksabha by the MoS of MoEF&CC, in the last five years (2015-2019), government has given permission to cut down about 11 million (10,975,844) trees. And this is just the official permission to cut. Cutting down mature trees that not only sequesters carbon, but gives water, harbour rich biodiversity, produce oxygen and other valuables and control local climate, while planting saplings that might or might not survive, is clearly Not a climate friendly action.

  • Large tracts of the ’degraded and moderately dense’ forest lands are also either home to large no of ’Adivasis’ (’indigenous People’s) and/or their source of Livelihoods. Planting "high carbon sequestering" trees in large tracts of such lands - often denying traditional uses, are bound to lead to large scale conflicts, some of which have already started. The GoIs recent attempts to stall the Forest Rights Act implementation, to throw out over 1 .8 million forest dwelling families (on the ground that their Forest Rights applications were rejected),.....are possibly indications of this developing conflict. Human rights in all it’s form must be fully protected, when "Climate Actions" are planned and implemented.

Is India’s NDC Compliant with a 1.5 C Target ?  As per available figures (from Climate Action Tracker and other sources), India’s Paris pledges are close to a 1.5C pathway on its ‘fair share’, but Not quite there. As per these estimates, India need to quickly reduce the rate of growth of its GHG emissions, and by the year 2030, reach no more than 4.5 Gton CO2e (from the present about 3.0 Gton CO2e, which increased from about 2.87 GTon in 2018). This then need to go down to 3.2 Gton CO2e by 2050, before heading to Net-Zero in next two decades. As per current projections (NDC derived), India’s total 2030 emissions are headed towards a much higher 6.0 to 6.3 Gtons (1Gton is a 100 Crore metric tons), excluding emissions from Land Use changes. Not a very encouraging sign. It has to be noted though, that India’s current emission trajectory is still compatible with a 2C pathway, but just so. And in the recent mini climate summit at the UN, India refused to upgrade its NDC, as it has done for its renewable Energy target earlier.

What Can India Do to Improve its NDC-Compliance and Even Go Beyond ? There are some obvious and some not so obvious ways that India can attain its NDC pledges, and also be compliant with a critically needed 1.5C pathway on its fair share basis. A detailed deliberation on these is beyond the scope of this article, but let me take a quick look at some of the low hanging fruits —

  • India has about 221,000 MW of installed coal power plants, which contribute to a major part of its CO2 emission, its massive air pollution and also the high amounts of industrial water consumption and thermal pollution, devastating fisheries. About 50,000 MW of this capacity is over 25 years old (in 2020), which are much more polluting and are energy inefficient. Thus, the operating costs of these are higher, particularly with the coal prices going up. On top of that, all these old plants have to incur huge capital expenditure to comply with the (extended) 2022-deadline for emission and water consumption norms (that were first to be achieved by December 2017, but extended by MoEF&CC under industry pressure, endangering public health further). It makes good economic and business sense to permanently close down these old plants rather than invest huge additional capital, when new Solar is much cheaper to install and produce power. Will also save huge amounts of CO2 emissions.
  • This is Not going to impact India’s available power capacity much, as our present total installed capacity of about 375,000 MW far exceeds the present Peak (summer) demand of about 187,000 Mw, even considering the lower Plant Load Factors of Solar and Wind power plants. On the contrary, the newer and more efficient coal plants can run at a higher PLF, better recovering their investments. Coal power plants in India have been forced to run at a low 55% now, due to lack of demand/ over capacity on the grids. On any given month, a large number of these old power plants are always off-grid, either shut down, or under maintenance. While Not significantly affecting power availability, this action can eliminate a huge chunk of damaging air pollution, reduce industrial water consumption in these times of climate crisis, and stop the economic drain of running unremunerative power plants.
  • A massive shift from private car-borne transport (for the middle and upper classes mainly), to large scale, energy efficient electric mass transport, like trains, trams, electric buses. This will drastically reduce the other major source of both CO2 and air pollution, petroleum products. And electric mass transportation modes are very easy to plug onto renewable energy sources. The technologies and some of the infrastructure exists or are on their way,it needs a larger policy push. Instead, the Govt of India is pushing for large scale private EVs (Electric Vehicles), which — though much less emission intensive than IC (Internal Combustion) cars over their lifecycle, have large metals, plastics, rubber,....requirements per person. Private car-borne transportation is also a big drain on urban and other road space, being much less efficient than public transport.
  • The need for private transportation in an informal economy dominated large country cannot be underestimated. The underpaid regular workers as well as over 90% of low-earning informal economy workers In the last 15-20 years has lead to a huge shift towards lower cost scooters and motorcycles, often old ones purchased as pre-owned pieces. These have added the necessary mobility at the lower end, while increasing both CO2 emission and air pollution massively. A clear policy shift accompanied with economic incentives, towards lower cost electric two-wheelers will help clean up our climate and pollution acts, while increasing affordability of personal transportation, as electric vehicles cost much less to run than petroleum fuelled ones. All the technologies are already here and over a dozen companies are now manufacturing electric two wheelers. Infrastructure for low-power E-two wheelers, in terms of charging stations, are much less costly and easier to build than high power charging infrastructure.
  • Another fast growing source of emissions needs to be tackled soon, and that is domestic aviation. With medium-high speed rail network, most of the sub-500 KMs flights can be effectively eliminated (without any significant increase in total travel time, door to door), and sub-800 KMs flights can be drastically reduced. The indigenously developed Train18, which has started operating in some sectors as “Vande Bharat Express”, can run with top speeds of 180 KMPH, on existing trunk network of today’s railway tracks. This eliminate the need to build very expensive and energy intensive cement-steel-concrete high speed rail roads. A Delhi to Bhopal flight by a Boeing 737, carrying 150 persons will consume about 2.5 Tons of petroleum derived Aviation Turbine Fuel. For an electric train getting its electricity from renewable sources/ grid, this would be drastically reduced (some auxiliary uses will still remain, apart from the embedded energy/ emission). And the advantage improves over every passing month and year. Even a big diesel locomotive will burn roughly half the amount of fuel for the same journey, carrying 4-5 times as many passengers, city centre to city centre. These do also boost economies of the many cities it serves.
  • Strongly incentivising distributed Solar and other renewable, particularly for revitalising rural economies. The recently launched KUSUM (Kishan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahaabhiyan) scheme is a good beginning, particularly with an allocation of over Rs.34,000 crores, but not being pursued with vigour. We need to formulate and aggressively implement many such schemes with incentives, for many other distributed no-carbon, low-total-pollution power production and utilization possibilities.
  • Though not a low-hanging fruit, this one is crucial. A massive shift away from energy and emission intensive industrial agriculture to a low energy, low input and low pollution agro-ecological domain in the country. Industrial agriculture and its associated activities are not only a major GHG emitter, they are also a major contributor to the frightening Mass Extinction (the sixth one in Earth’s known history) that we are now witnessing, and which we human have started. They are also a major water pollution contributor. Agro-ecological practices have been shown to require about one-third the emissions compared to present industrial agriculture (various estimates exist), for the same amount of food production. There can be a host of other actions, but let me stop at these for now.

To conclude, what India has pledged and what we have achieved is nowhere near sufficient to contribute our fair share of Climate protection for a safer 1.5 C temperature rise limit (by the end of this century) agreed upon. This is not to ignore the fact that industrialised and wealthier countries need to do far more and have not done even as much as India has done, being a lower-middle income country with largest number of poor people in the world. The fact remains, that most of the actions suggested go far beyond a reduction in India’s emissions, they will also very significantly contribute to the economic and environmental security of its 1.38 billion people, while reducing the threats of severe pollution and public health impacts, and build resilience against climate change impacts. Not a small gain for some real win-win climate actions.

**Note : (As Figures vary somewhat from study to study, nearby rounded Figures are used here).

*(Author: Soumya Dutta is a longstanding people’s science activist in India who has extensively written, studied & lectured on climate and energy issues in many national & international fora, as well as taught & trained thousands of teachers, activists and senior students in these areas)

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.