In climate change fight, here’s how India can exceed Paris accord targets

2020 marks the beginning of implementation of UN’s Paris Agreement for a sustainable planet. Here’s a look at how India is performing on various parameters

Climate change
The virtually-held Climate Ambition Summit is the only major international event to take place in 2020, the COP 26 conference having been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: iStock

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that India is on the path to cutting its carbon footprint by 35 per cent even as the country maintains a high growth rate. While reducing intensity of carbon emissions is a priority under the Paris Agreement of 2015, to which India is a signatory, it is necessary to see how we achieve economic growth on the path to make this world better, greener and sustainable.

Here’s a look at some of the areas where India is working and what can be done to not just meet the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) committed under Paris accord, but go a step ahead and try to make India a carbon neutral economy, if not a net zero economy.

  1. Renewable or clean energy

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest report ‘Renewables 2020’ says India would lead the world in increasing the reach of renewable energy (solar, hydel, wind, biomass and nuclear) in 2021. India’s annual additions to clean energy are expected to double next year. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic looming large, auctioned renewable capacity from January to October 2020 was 15% higher than for the same period last year.

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India’s renewable energy capacity addition in 2019 was healthy at 12GW, then dipped to 9GW this year, but is likely to get a boost in 2021 with an estimated addition of 16GW.

While 2021 may sound promising, the growth rate of renewable energy (RE) has not been up to the mark in the last three years, considering India has committed to installing 175 gigawatt (GW) of renewable by 2022 (solar 100GW, wind 60GW, biomass 10GW and 5GW small hydel power plants). In fact, while India managed a spot among the top 10 countries for the second year in a row in Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2021, its under-performance in the renewable energy sector is pulling it down.

Can we achieve the 2022 target?

Recession will impact India’s ability to achieve the 175GW renewable energy generation capacity target by 2022. The sector requires immediate and definitive action on existing policy gaps to boost investor sentiment.

2. Coal and natural gas

Fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas) constitute the biggest contributors of green house gases (GHGs) emissions in the world. And, GHGs have a direct impact on climate change. Coal has remained the biggest culprit since the industrial revolution as its use is responsible for 39% of all CO2 released in the atmosphere every year.

Looking at the positive side, the US and Europe have cut down coal use by 34% after 2009, but developing economies of Asia (primarily China and India) are still driving the coal mining industry. About 77% of all the coal used in the world is consumed in Asia with China contributing 52% and India close at 25%, The Economist reported.

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Most of the coal in India is used for generating electricity. Hence, it is imperative that the government overcomes its challenges of promoting solar and wind energy aggressively so that we can reduce our dependence on coal – the world’s worst polluter.

PM Modi plans to increase the share of natural gas by four times and oil refining capacity by two times. Both are fossil fuels and increasing their usage will not help India achieve its goal of becoming a carbon neutral country by 2050 – the ultimate objective of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The thrust has to be on renewable.

3. Automobile emissions and air pollution

While the automobile industry is eager to get out of recession, it has to grapple with the challenge of meeting air pollution standards, necessitated by the country’s upgrade to BS-VI emission norms from April 1, 2020. India is now in a select group of countries with Euro VI-compliant fuels.

Adoption of Bharat Stage (BS)-VI emission norms means lower permissible level for sulphur content in petrol/diesel, i.e. 10 particles per million (ppm). The previous standard, BS-IV required 50 ppm of sulphur. Strict compliance with BS-VI norms would mean less polluting vehicles on roads, but the country needs to think ahead because by the time (2025) we implement these norms across the country, Euro VII norms would be in place and we would again lag behind the world (especially Europe) in bringing our GHG emissions down.

Particulate matter (PM) 2.5 is a cause of concern for human health. Its concentration in air crosses the permissible limits due to various factors like cold conditions, vehicular pollution, cracker bursting during Diwali and stubble burning by farmers. However, on a positive note, PM2.5 concentration in Delhi has dropped by 25% in the last three years compared to the 2016–18 granular real-time data. However, the city needs to cut its PM2.5 emission by another 60% at least to make air breathable for Delhiites.

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It is a misconception that air pollution is an urban phenomenon and taking mitigating efforts in cities will solve the problem in totality. In fact, policy makers too emphasize on solving the problem of air pollution at the city-level, but physical boundaries do not matter when it comes to air pollution. In Delhi, the local AAP government moved thermal (coal-based) power plants out of the city, thinking they had solved the air pollution puzzle. However, studies showed the wind blowing from thermal power plants outside brought the pollution back to the city, just like stubble burning in Punjab-Haryana cause pollution in Delhi and NCR.

Therefore, the country needs a pan-India regulatory framework to improve air quality management.

Under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), 122 cities that do not meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for PM10 and PM2.5 have been identified as “non-attainment” cities (see graph).

4. Urbanisation and climate change

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 11 is one of the 17 goals set by the United Nations (UN) that provide targets for sustainable urban development. It aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Three of its important targets are – adequate and affordable housing for all, sustainable transport systems and reducing the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities by paying attention to air quality and waste management.

India’s disease burden of polluted air is on the rise. The population weighted annual average PM2.5 concentration in India was 76 microgram/m3 while the safe limit suggested by the World Health Organization is 10 microgram/m3. India produces about 65 million tones of solid waste annually. The amount of waste generated per annum is increasing two-three times faster than the population growth rate. Only 80% of the waste generated is collected and only 20% of that is treated. Most of the waste ends up at landfills and much of it is burnt, which results in methane and carbon dioxide emissions of about 12.69 million tonnes.

5. Creating carbon sinks

A carbon sink is any reservoir, natural or otherwise, that accumulates and stores some carbon-containing chemical compound for an indefinite period and thereby lowers the concentration of CO2 from the atmosphere. Forests and oceans are the biggest natural carbon sinks. Almost one-fifth of global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions can be attributed to deforestation. A study published in Science suggests that globally, forests have the capacity to absorb 4.05 billion tonnes of carbon, but its ability to do so is negated by 2.94 billion tonnes of emission caused due to deforestation.

In India, one of the major factors reducing the capacity of forests to fix carbon in soil (carbon sequestration) is the cutting of trees for fuelwood, which causes large scale degradation of forests. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report pegs the carbon sequestration from India’s forests in the range of 5-6% of carbon emitted by the country. This can be increased drastically by paying more attention to the Union government’s Green India Mission.

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