Announcing a timeline for net-zero emissions has been the buzzword in the global climate change debate and India has been under intense pressure to announce it as well. Indian has not followed suit but Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently reiterated the country’s commitment to installing 450 Gigawatt of renewable capacity by 2030.
While experts and policymakers rushed to debate whether India should also decide its net-zero targets or not, the question about the next course of actions on the decarbonisation pathway remains untouched. Should it be the central government that should drive the actions and impose on the states or should the country’s federal structure take precedence?
Regardless of what the country announces officially on the net-zero front, the action will have to be at least at the sub-national level. For instance, the ambitious 450 GW renewable plan’s implementation has to be at the state level. However, experts agree that there is a contradiction in India’s policymaking in the present situation when it comes to dealing with climate change.
While talking about the mechanism of setting ambitious goals to decarbonise the economy, Chandra Bhushan, president and CEO of iForest, a think-tank working on environment and sustainability, said it is the central government that is setting these ambitious goals be it 450 GW of renewable energy target, net-zero or any other climate change commitments.
He states that climate change adaptation is the responsibility of states and mitigation is the responsibility of the Centre. States are told to prepare the adaptation plan but targets related to renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon intensity are being decided by the centre. Instead, every state should make their own adaptation and mitigation plan, he added.
“These decarbonisation targets are predominantly made at the Centre,” Navroz K Dubash, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, said. “One of the things we need to have is some kind of institutional mechanism where states are better involved in the decision-making process around climate change mitigation, particularly in adaptation.”
When asked whether the central government setting the net-zero goals violates the federal structure, he said it is not clear as carbon is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution.
“The problem is that the whole climate change problem does not fit neatly into any sector,” he emphasised. “Like we know that electricity is a concurrent subject while the environment is a state subject. However, there is no such specific mention of carbon. It is still not clear whether it is a part of energy or a part of the environment.”
The United Nations estimates that the entire world has to achieve net-zero emission by 2050 to stay under 2 degrees Celsius warning at the pre-industrial level and India is under tremendous pressure to announce its own net-zero year.
The year 2021 is being considered an important year for the global climate debate. At the end of the year, the policymakers from various countries will meet and are expected to come to the table with new or enhanced pledges under the Paris Agreement. There is already a serious push towards countries to come up with a net-zero emission pledge.
A country can be considered net zero when its greenhouse gas emissions are sequestered either through natural or artificial carbon sinks. Afforestation and regeneration of forests can help the natural sequestration of carbon. The artificial means can include innovations in carbon capture and storage.
“Net-zero means that the greenhouse gas emission will be zero by a given date and that date is 2050 as many countries have pledged. What the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, in particular, has asked to do,” notes Dubash from Centre for Policy Research.
Given India’s present scenario regarding human development and other social indicators, the debate is whether India should pledge any target year for its net-zero or not.
“India should think about how it will enable us to accelerate domestic actions,” he explained. “Because, if the country makes any pledge for the future for 2050 or 2060 then it needs a mechanism to decide what kind of action is needed today. India’s present commitments are not driven by climate mitigation but by domestic concerns of job creation, providing enough electricity and lighting-up homes.”
Dubash said that India can push the narrative by asking countries about their short-term actions proactively.
Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, who has recently published a paper on India’s possible net-zero scenario, says that India’s transition to net-zero will be surely different from anything the world has seen so far. In his study, he has clubbed net-zero with peaking year.
Chaturvedi explained that the question of peaking is implicit in the question of net-zero. “There are two principles we need to think about, one is the credibility of policy and the second is of certainty,” Chaturvedi said. “Net-zero gives a sense of certainty of the future. But there is a lack of credibility unless the peak year is announced. Without it, stakeholders have no sense of urgency. Therefore, it is imperative to announce peaking year or in combination with a net-zero year to give a sense of credibility.”
Announcing peaking year becomes pertinent because India is still growing, whereas most of the other countries which have announced their net-zero year, already have peaked and are declining, he said in an online conversation with Arunabha Ghosh, who leads the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.
In his study, Chaturvedi has given several scenarios of peaking year and net-zero. Taking 2050 as a net-zero year, India will have no choice but to peak latest by 2030. Keeping this in mind, the rapid case of transition will be unimaginable. By 2050, India will have to be in a situation where the share of non-hydro renewable energy would have to be beyond 80%, noted Chaturvedi.
In terms of the political economy, the challenge is the trade-offs. The electricity charges for households will have to increase as the electricity pricing reforms are yet to happen. Regarding dependence on coal and moving to alternative sources of energy, policymakers will have to think about shifting to a new and different economic paradigm.
Arunabha Ghosh added to it by saying that if this is the case, the pace of transition, if leapfrog, will be significant. Everyone in India and outside should internalise it.
The kind of transition needed to achieve net-zero can be understood by knowing the fact that between its peaking year and net-zero year, the European Union has 71 years, the United Kingdom has 77 years, Japan has 46 years. Even China, if it peaks in 2030, will have 30 years of transition given the net-zero year it has announced (2060). Compared to this, India will have just 20 years of transition.
Another way of looking into India’s net-zero goal is that if India peaks in 2030, its per capita emission by then would be a little over 2 tonnes whereas when the EU or China or Japan peaked, they had 9 tonnes per capita emission. The US peaked at 19 tonnes per capita.
“It is not about yes or no or should we aim for it or not, the pace of transition has never been achieved anywhere in this world,” Ghosh added. “If India has to lead the world in this regard, it will have a lot more investment to do, a lot more technology to put to use and a complete overhaul on how we imagine our economy.”
The question is whether better participation of states and making the process more decentralised will make India’s task easier or not? In absence of any thorough study, two small examples from Bihar and Kerala can shed more light on the debate.
Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar participated in a round table organised by the United Nations Secretary General in September 2020. Highlighting his efforts in making Bihar decarbonised, he said, “Our policy initiatives, including climate-resilient agriculture, conservation of surface and groundwater, solar energy, clean fuel and biodiversity conservation is leading our growth approach to sustainable development.”
His claims, however, may not hold true when compared to reality. For instance, in 2017, the Bihar government announced the installation of 3,433 Megawatt of renewable energy by 2022. But in the past four years, under the leadership of Nitish Kumar, the state has installed merely 194 MW of renewable capacity. This is just a fraction of the set target and the state is yet to achieve the remaining 99.5% in the next one year.
Commenting on the wide gap between the announcements of big targets at the centre and execution, Dubash says, “We need to realise that while these estimates are done at the moment for international commitments, there is no translation mechanism from national target to state target.”
“There is an assumption that there will be enough economic changes throughout the country that eventually will help achieve these targets,” he said.
Another example is Kerala which shows how the participatory model at smaller levels can make a big difference. Jayakumar C, a Trustee of Thanal, a Kerala based group working on environmental issues, claims that out of 14 districts of the state, 6 districts to 8 districts can plan their net-zero target five to six years down the line.
Giving an example of a tree banking scheme launched in Meenangadi Panchayat of Wayanad district of Kerala on October 20, 2020, he underlined that given an opportunity, people are willing to participate. Meenangadi is claimed to be India’s first “carbon neutral panchayat”.
“We did emission calculation and asked the panchayat to offset 15,000 tonnes of carbon because it was surplus,” he added. “Many options were considered like waste management.”
“One interesting initiative was to invest in plantations with public participation,” he added. “People were offered Rs 50 from the local panchayat for planting each tree. Around 4,00,000 trees were planted under this initiative, out of which around 160,000 were on private property. Panchayat officials came to the houses and did the geo-tagging of the plants. The interesting point is that out of around 1,000 families, only 170 looked for financial benefit through panchayat. The rest of the 830 families, understanding the need and the bigger cause, declined to register for the money.”
This underlines the role of citizens when they are made to understand the issue and encouraged to work in a participatory model.
Traditionally, India works on the basis of state and district plans. National plans are built upon these local plans. However, in Kerala, it is further broken down to the level of panchayat or corporation plans, he informs and adds that it helps in making people aware of bigger ambitions.
Vaibhav Chaturvedi appreciates the Kerala model for mainstreaming climate concern. Otherwise, debates related to sustainability or climate are at best at the margin whether it is state or central level debate, he said.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.