An Indian alternative to net zero?

The Indian government is under pressure to announce a long-term net zero commitment ahead of COP26 in Glasgow this year. Not for the first time, the government is hesitating in the face of international climate diplomacy, weighing the implications for the country’s development trajectory.

Here’s an alternative pledge which would signal real global climate leadership, but should be more amenable to the Indian government’s long-standing positions on climate equity.

As the world’s 4th highest emitter, India is regularly pressed in international fora to commit to stronger climate action. The government responds that richer countries have far greater historic responsibility for emissions and have continually failed to keep their own promises to cut emissions and provide finance to help poorer countries to do so. It insists that India must be allowed atmospheric space for its economy to grow and for its people’s living standards to improve.

That pattern played out at COP17 in Durban in 2011, as India wavered over greenlighting the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement. With the talks running way past their deadline, Indian environment minister Natarajan’s defence of the government’s position included the claim that India will never reach the per capita emissions of the rich countries.

That’s almost certainly going to be true. Indian per capita emissions in 2019 were around 1.6tCO2 per year, compared to 6.5tCO2 in the EU and 16tCO2 in the USA. Assuming the rapid deployment of renewable energy in India continues, that coal power has now peaked and the Indian population grows as projected, then there’s little chance India’s per capita emissions will ever reach the heights of the first countries to industrialise.

But keeping per capita emissions below those high levels (or the global average level, which is similar to the EU’s) is an odd benchmark. It’s a strong tactic for deflecting blame, but there’s little moral leadership in being the least bad of a very bad bunch. Real climate leadership, rooted in the principle of equity, would instead be a pledge to keep per capita emissions at a sustainable level, based on the goal of the Paris Agreement.

India could strengthen its existing pledge by announcing that Indian per capita emissions will never surpass the level consistent with limiting global heating to 1.5C. That level is about 2.1 tCO2 per year in 2030, assuming a global population in 2030 of 8.5bn, and lower thereafter.

Data from WRI CAIT, Climate Action Tracker, IEA and UN population projections

India’s current NDC — an emissions intensity target — means the country is set to surpass that level by the end of the decade. Based on Climate Action Tracker (CAT)’s latest emissions intensity projections for India, and a population projected to reach 1.5bn people by 2030, India’s per capita emissions could reach around 2.6tCO2 by then.

But strengthened near-term action, along the lines suggested by CAT or the International Energy Agency (IEA), would very likely make India the world’s first major emitter to submit an NDC consistent with the 1.5C per capita target. The IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) for India — based on explosive growth in solar energy, rapid displacement of coal, electrification of transport, efficiency savings and additional investments of some 1.4 trillion USD by 2040 — would significantly limit the growth in India’s total emissions, and keep per capita emissions at a level similar to today.

This isn’t to say a long-term commitment to net zero emissions isn’t critical also. And if the Indian domestic policy and political processes align this year to allow the government to support one, it will undoubtedly add momentum to international climate efforts. But by the same token, long-term net zero goals that are not accompanied by far stronger near-term action are ultimately worthless.

If India leads the world’s major emitters in setting a near-term NDC that aligns per capita emissions with the 1.5C Paris goal, it will have one of the strongest moral voices in Glasgow, both to demand the major financial support needed to enable that transition, as well as near-term ambition from rich countries that meets the same benchmark.

Head of Low Carbon and Circular Economy Programme at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). Ex-Oxfam. Tweeting @tim_e_gore

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