As important as net-zero deadlines are the pathways countries adopt to get there, reports prepared ahead of the COP26 climate summit and experts tracking the event say. India must decarbonise its economy at a faster clip than it is doing currently, and this will include a massive overhaul of the existing energy systems as well as industrial and agricultural sectors.

India is one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, but has low per capita emissions and has historically not been a major emitter. It has not yet announced a deadline for net-zero emissions but is under pressure to do so at the 26th Conference of Parties on Climate Change, the multicountry dialogue that gets underways on November 1.

It would be meaningless if a country sets a date for net-zero and is able to achieve it, but overshoots its carbon budget in reaching that target, said Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Utkarsh Patel in a paper published in September by the Delhi-based Centre for Social and Economic Progress. Instead, world leaders should agree on “carbon budgets for each country” and “focus on ensuring that each country adopts an emissions trajectory that keeps its cumulative emissions within its respective carbon budget”.

A net-zero announcement can, however, set the policy agenda for emissions reduction. “Net-zero is a policy signal,” said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a New Delhi-based think tank. “Authorities have to set a target year for net-zero emissions and work backwards from that.”

In this story, we look at the major policy changes that India would need to make – sooner or later –irrespective of its net-zero deadline.

Current scenario

So far, India has made good on its climate promises, made as “nationally determined contributions” under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the global treaty under which the COP26 is taking place. For instance, India had said it would increase its installed renewable energy capacity to 40% of its cumulative installed electric capacity by 2030. India stands at 38% right now (and this includes hydropower), and aims to take this to around 60% of installed capacity, at 450 GW, by 2030.

Some of the other measures India has taken include:

“We need to consider whether these efforts can be scaled up and what this implies in terms of an emissions trajectory,” the Centre for Social and Economic Progress report said.

Several studies try to estimate when it would be possible for India to reach net-zero and what would be required for it.

“Based on India’s current policy settings, nearly 60% of its carbon dioxide emissions in the late 2030s will be coming from infrastructure and machines that do not exist today. This represents a huge opening for policies to steer India onto a more secure and sustainable course…,” said the International Energy Agency’s India Energy Outlook 2021, which proposes a net-zero year of 2065.

India is lagging behind on reducing its dependence on coal. Photo credit: AFP

Dependence on coal

Having made fast progress on renewables, India is lagging behind on reducing its dependence on coal, which accounts for 60% of India’s current energy needs and is projected to comprise 44%-50% of India’s energy mix in 2040. The overall share of fossil fuels in India’s energy mix would be 78% in 2040, the Niti Aayog estimates.

India should phase out older, less-efficient coal power plants and reconsider not building the coal-based power plants it has announced plans for but not yet started constructing, the Centre for Social and Economic Progress report recommended. It should only use thermal electricity as a backup for intermittent renewables, and use carbon capture and storage to mitigate emissions from these plants, the report added. It must also ramp up investments in battery storage to support intermittent renewable energy.

Since revenue from transporting coal is what subsidises passenger tariffs for the Indian railways, passenger fares would have to go up over time as coal transportation stops, the report said, adding that this would need an important policy shift.

If India were to be more ambitious and aim for net-zero by 2050, it would have to grow renewables so fast that they make up 90% of India’s installed capacity by that year, according to a study by the Delhi-based think tank The Energy and Resources Institute and Shell India, the Indian arm of energy company Shell International, in March.

India could potentially install 750 GW of solar power on just 3% of its wasteland, as per the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, based on a study by the National Institute of Solar Energy. Further, an additional 300 GW could come from onshore wind power, which could be expanded by making larger wind turbines. Offshore wind energy on the sea or other water bodies could further expand capacity, the paper said.

Green hydrogen

Ongoing attempts to reduce emissions will get a boost if green hydrogen, a clean fuel and industrial input, becomes commercially available. While production is scaling up and costs are coming down, more progress is required, The Energy and Resources Institute report said: “Lower electrolyser costs combined with policies to support the development of new supply and demand could help reduce the cost of green hydrogen by more than 50% by 2030.”

For India, specifically, the report recommends policies to incentivise and facilitate domestic production of electrolysers, which break water into hydrogen and oxygen. These would not only help meet the domestic demand but also build India’s competitive advantage in green hydrogen to help it capture global market share. From negligible levels today, India would have to raise the share of hydrogen to 13% of final energy consumption, mainly as industry fuel and for heavy transport, the report said.

Electrify the economy

India must electrify all sectors of the economy, from transportation to industry. For a 2050 net-zero emissions target, India would have to raise electricity’s share in energy used from 18% today to 45% in 2050.

In any scenario, net-zero in 2050 or 2070, India would have to invest now in interstate electricity transmission infrastructure, and undertake reforms to resolve longstanding problems by, for instance, allowing power trading through electricity markets across regions (which will lead to better price discovery but is currently restricted), and improving the financial condition of power distribution companies or even privatise them, the Centre for Social and Economic Progress paper recommended.

One major element would be the electrification of transport, the Centre for Social and Economic Progress report and The Energy and Resources Institute study said. All city buses and government-owned vehicles should be electric while buses, vans and trucks would either be electric or fuel-cell vehicles, the latter powered by green hydrogen produced by electrolysis, the reports recommend.

To increase the proportion of electric vehicles, the country must further incentivise the production and purchase of electric vehicles. One way of doing this would be by setting a year after which no new cars with internal combustion engines would be allowed, like the European Union’s 2035 deadline, the Centre for Social and Economic Progress paper suggested.

To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 would require an even faster move – rapidly growing availability of electric vehicles throughout the 2020s, with only electric vehicles sold by 2030, as The Energy and Resources Institute report recommends.

This would need electric vehicle infrastructure such as fast-charging and/or battery swapping stations, the Centre for Social and Economic Progress paper added.

Representational image. Photo credit: Reuters

Capturing emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions cannot be completely eliminated – thermal power plants that back up intermittent renewable energy will produce emissions, there will be residual emissions from hard-to-abate industries such as cement and from sectors such as aviation that are difficult to electrify with existing technologies. India would need carbon capture and storage systems for removing these emissions, using both technology and natural carbon sinks such as forests.

India is set to use natural gas as a transition fuel as it moves from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Though less harmful than other fossil fuels, burning gas releases greenhouse gas. Gas can, however, be made “virtually clean” by blending it with biogas or hydrogen, and by using carbon capture and storage, the report said.

Currently, India does not know its emissions storage potential. Emissions can be compressed, injected and stored in geological formations in the same way as oil and gas were stored naturally. The Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute estimate there is around 47 gigatonnes of storage potential but India requires a national study of deep saline formations and of depleted oil and gas fields to identify its potential of carbon storage, The Energy and Resources Institute report said.

Climate finance

India’s current nationally determined contributions have three goals:

  • Reduce emissions intensity of India’s GDP by 33%-35% from 2005 levels by 2030,
  • Increase the share of non-fossil fuels to 40% of its installed electricity capacity and
  • Create “carbon sinks” – systems that absorb carbon from the atmosphere, such as forests – to absorb 2.5 billion-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

It has made “fairly good” progress on each, and announcing a date for the net-zero goal is relevant only if backed by strong global action, said RR Rashmi, former principal negotiator for India at the UN climate change negotiations and ex-special secretary at India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Rashmi is now a distinguished fellow with The Energy and Resources Institute.

India’s energy demand will triple over the next three decades and its greenhouse gas emissions peak (the point from when emissions start declining) is possible only after 2035-2040, Rashmi said, provided technology transformations take place with use of green hydrogen and battery storage capacity. For this, India needs finance, knowledge sharing, and cost-effective development and deployment of technology.

The additional funding for clean energy technologies required to put India on a sustainable path over the next 20 years is $1.4 trillion, or 70% higher than in a scenario based on its current policy settings, the International Energy Agency estimates for its 2065 net-zero goal for India.

Developed countries are expecting developing countries like India to reduce emissions massively but they are yet to deliver the finance needed to level the playing field between developed and developing nations, said Chirag Gajjar, head of the subnational climate action at the World Resources Institute India, a research organisation based in Mumbai. “Developed countries were supposed to contribute $100 billion per year. Compared to the investment required to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, this pledge is actually minuscule,” he added.

On average, only 65% of the $100 billion per year that developed countries had promised as climate action aid to developing countries in 2009 was actually delivered between 2013 and 2019, we reported on October 28. The 2009 target of $100 billion a year itself is now inadequate because developing countries are estimated to need $600 billion a year from 2020 to 2050 to decarbonise just their energy sectors.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.