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The startling silences in India’s new green goals

Himalayan glaciers provide water for more than a billion people in Asia, but experts say they are melting at an alarming rate   (Photo: Getty Images)Premium
Himalayan glaciers provide water for more than a billion people in Asia, but experts say they are melting at an alarming rate   (Photo: Getty Images)

The Cabinet recently approved two of the five updated climate pledges that were made by Prime Minister Modi at COP26. While India has been making strides towards a low-carbon economy, some feel the country needs to be more ambitious. Climate finance from the rich world will be key.

Earlier this month, the Union cabinet upgraded two of India’s climate targets for 2030. India is late in doing so, but may formally share the goals with the UN ahead of the next climate change summit in Egypt in November. While policy experts largely praise the development, some argue these targets could have been more ambitious.

When India submits its updated goals, it will join 144 countries that have updated their first set of “nationally determined contributions" (NDCs) to combat climate change pledged after the 2015 Paris Agreement. Countries are expected to update them every five years. Fifteen others have updated their second NDC list.

India has finalized fresh green targets
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India has finalized fresh green targets

India’s upgraded goals aim for more cuts in emissions intensity and higher share of non-fossil fuels in electricity than promised earlier. It had likely surpassed its previous targets on the two metrics already. While announcing the new goals, India pointed out that its climate actions had been largely financed domestically. G7 countries that have historically contributed the most to emissions are yet to honour their promise of supporting developing countries with $100 billion a year in climate finance.

No wonder, the upgrades ignored three of the five goals Prime Minister Narendra Modi had set at the Glasgow summit last year.

“I feel India could have been more ambitious," said Vibhuti Garg, energy economist at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “However, this is also a way of saying that while we want to do much more, we may not achieve it. So, India is playing quite safe."

Emissions control

One of Modi’s pledges that the NDCs are silent on was to limit emissions in 2030 to 1 billion tonnes less than projected levels. Instead, the fresh promise for 2030 is in terms of emissions per unit gross domestic product, which India now wants to lower by 45% from 2005 levels. The earlier goal was 33-35%.

The pledge made by the prime minister, quantifying emissions in absolute terms, was also significant as India is the third largest carbon emitter and the second-largest coal producer and consumer. Nonetheless, this month Parliament took a step towards establishing a carbon market through amendments to the Energy Conservation Act, which allow companies to get carbon trade certificates to release emissions up to a certain point and to emit further if they invest in green projects. “Carbon trading will be a significant push for many firms to diversify and install renewable energy sources," Garg said.

Energy ambition

The other NDC is to meet 50% of energy needs from non-fossil sources by 2030. India has crossed its existing 40% target, though that did not include hydro power, which makes the new target more ambitious. However, achieving this would require India to almost triple non-fossil capacity in eight years, which is much faster than the historical pace, said Ashwini Hingne, programme manager at World Resources Institute (WRI), India. This has significant challenges in terms of costs as well as feasibility of procuring key raw materials, she said.

Another pledge that Modi made in absolute terms, that of achieving 500 GW renewable capacity by 2030, found no mention, which could mean continued reliance on thermal power to meet India’s growing energy demand. India is already set to miss its 2022 goal of 175 GW green energy capacity, largely owing to a slowdown on solar and wind in the last two years. The country’s renewable energy capacity was 114 GW at June-end.

Staying silent

The big silence of the NDCs is on India’s stance on forest cover. India’s 2015 NDCs mentioned increasing carbon sink by 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2030. There has been no update since the Cabinet’s approval in 2019.

“This target is quite ambitious and steep and that is possibly why India didn’t increase it further," said Camilla Fenning of climate policy think tank E3G. At Glasgow, more than 140 countries promised to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, but India stayed silent. India maintains that its forest cover has risen significantly, as recorded by the official Forest Survey of India. However, WRI’s Global Forest Watch dashboard shows India’s forest cover shrinking.

At the November climate summit, the focus will shift from negotiation to implementation, with climate finance as the backbone. How ambitious India gets will hinge on the commitment of developed countries to take the lead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nandita Venkatesan

Nandita Venkatesan is a data journalist at Mint, and has a keen interest in understanding the usefulness of data in driving sound public discourse and informing policymaking. She has over four years of experience across journalism and health research. She previously worked with the Economic Times, Mumbai, and the Vaccine Confidence Project in the UK. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Nandita also pursued a masters’ in public policy from University of Oxford as Chevening-Weidenfeld Hoffmann scholar.
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