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World Earth Day: Towards a net zero India – Climate change mitigation strategies for Earth Day

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Indian government is committed to increasing use of clean cooking fuels and reducing air pollution related disease burden on people living below the poverty line.

By Suresh Kumar Kotla

As we celebrate the 51st anniversary of the Earth Day, India is faced with a conundrum of net-zero commitment. The policy makers, thought leaders, businesses, civil society and researchers – all have contrasting views on what India must imply as necessity or inevitability . Developed economies such as the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Sweden, New Zealand, and most recently the addition of the United States, have committed to becoming net-zero economies by 2050, and thus, the geo-political pressure India is facing is ineludible.

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Furthermore, China being the largest emitter of carbon dioxide and one of the largest consumers of coal, have set a target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. Since most of these countries are developed, they have already built their urban infrastructure, outsourced their carbon intensive manufacturing to emerging economies, have lifted a majority of their population out of poverty, hence, advancing towards net zero target will be relatively straightforward.

India is still developing, industrializing, and urbanizing. Industrialization is indispensable to India’s economic growth, for creating jobs, and livelihood opportunities needed to lift millions out of poverty. As per the Ministry of Social Justice data, about 27.5% people are living below the poverty line (Less than $8 per capita per month). The informal numbers are much higher.

Demystifying Net-Zero

Let us first demystify net-zero – a simple metaphor of a water tank explains it. Earth’s atmosphere is a tank getting filled with greenhouse gas emissions making it warmer by the day. Soon it’ll reach a point of no-return. The solution is to either reduce the intensity of emissions entering the atmosphere or remove an equivalent amount from it. It’s about balancing the emissions produced with emissions removed through different carbon removal strategies.

Though during the Paris agreement in 2015, 196 nations committed to reduce their carbon intensity, the trends suggest that even though countries are making progress on their NDC commitments, at best it will only get us halfway to the targets. We need bigger ambition to save our planet, and Net-zero is that big ambition commitment.

Ambition versus Achievement

Talking of progress – As per the International Energy Agency, India augmented its solar capacity by five times in 2019 in comparison to 2015. India’s renewable sector is expected to be one of the front runners in 2021-22 and the years to come. With the declining costs of solar photovoltaics, and the revised target of 450 GW by 2030, renewable energy will soon overtake coal based energy production in India.

India is walking the talk as far as NDC commitments are concerned. Apart from enhancing the grid power through renewable energy (solar, wind, and hydro power), Indian government is committed to increasing use of clean cooking fuels and reducing air pollution related disease burden on people living below the poverty line. As per the government data, 97.4% households (56 % in 2014) in India have transitioned to clean cooking fuels (LPGs) through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. With the advent of battery technology, innovation in hydrogen fuel cell technology, and the EV policies, the Indian mobility sector is set for a transformation. The goal is to reduce dependence on primary oil in the transportation sector, reduce carbon & harmful air emissions.

However, Net-zero commitment is not as basic as it seems. India’s future urban, industrial, power, and mobility infrastructure sectors are yet to be built; majority of its carbon emissions will result from this macroeconomic growth projection over the next two decades. Achieving the net-zero target will require significant abatement of greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the economy and switching from fossil fuels to renewables across different sectors. This will require colossal financial investments and dramatic acceleration of cleaner technology, which can be achieved through further industrialization and economic growth.

Way forward

India has clearly demonstrated its intent and action since the paris agreement. India’s existing commitments are comparatively ambitious, with nonprofit Climate Action Tracker giving it the best rating among large economies. If India can achieve a 450 GW renewables target by 2030 it can very well be a net-zero economy. However, it is important that India starts laying the foundation for becoming a net-zero economy albeit the commitment comes later. India has a huge untapped demographic dividend in its youth. By mainstreaming climate change in its education system and creating a cadre of highly skilled green workforce through skilling ecosystems, India will accelerate toward a net-zero trajectory.

The four main pillars of a net-zero economy include (i) policy framework, (ii) accelerating clean energy production and energy efficiency across all energy intensive sectors, (iii) pushing the demand toward low-carbon products and services, and (iv) a skilled net-zero workforce. In symbiosis with each other these four pillars will become the foundation of a Net-Zero Bharat.

(The author is Director, Energy & Environment, Institute for Sustainable Communities. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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