The article originally appeared in The Times of India.
A storm is brewing on the climate diplomacy front that India needs to navigate carefully to avoid becoming a fall guy. The issue at hand is the pledge by countries to achieve “net zero” emission by the mid-century. Over 120 countries have already announced their intention to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. China intends carbon neutrality before 2060, and the US is considering a 2050 pledge. Being the third-largest emitter, there is pressure on India to announce its commitment as well.
Net zero or carbon neutrality means that the amount of CO2 produced by a country is balanced by the amount removed from the atmosphere. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C, global net CO2 emissions should decline by about 45% by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.
There is considerable scepticism around net zero in India. Many argue that net zero is not equitable and fair as it does not differentiate between developing and developed countries in sharing the burden of mitigation. Another argument is that it will limit India’s development potential. Some also criticise mid-century net zero as allowing uncontrolled emissions today while relying on uncertain technologies to offset emissions in the future. Finally, many net zero pledges are premised upon trading and offsetting emissions, allowing the rich to continue emitting and buying their way out.
There is some merit to the above scepticism. Historically, developed countries have shifted the goalposts on climate action and reneged on financial and technological promises to developing countries. However, we cannot shy away from net zero, as declaring a carbon neutrality target is inevitable for every country to meet the 1.5°C goals; the only question is when and how.
The first step for India to decide the contours of net zero is to stop reacting to terms set by developed countries. In three decades of climate negotiations, we have primarily been a reactive party, not a proactive one shaping the discussion. With net zero as well, we face a choice – either reject the idea citing equity and fairness or embrace and remould it to achieve climate goals and secure our developmental space. I strongly believe we have an opportunity to develop a fair, ambitious and effective consensus on net zero. Let me propose a five-point agenda that India can consider to set the terms for future global action.
First, net zero should be built on self-differentiation, a cornerstone of the Paris Agreement. It is a no-brainer that if the global net zero deadline is mid-century, then the developed countries’ deadline will be 2040. High-emitting emerging economies like China will have to follow soon and reach net zero before 2050. Countries like India with per capita emissions below the global average will get a little more time – until 2060.
Second, the net zero target has to be flexible. Newer disruptive technologies would allow us to decarbonise faster at a much lower cost than what can be envisioned today. Take, for example, India’s solar energy target. From a modest 20GW in 2010 (enhanced to 100GW in 2015), we are now targeting 450GW of renewables by 2030, largely from solar. That is a 15-fold ambition enhancement within a decade. Countries should therefore revisit their net zero targets every ten years to firm up their commitments.
Third, while net zero is the ultimate goal, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), due every five years, are the means to achieve the goal. IPCC is very clear; an ambitious 2030 target must accompany net zero. So, countries pledging net zero must also announce enhanced NDCs for 2030.
Fourth, net zero has to be legally binding. Less than ten countries have enacted domestic law on net zero; the rest have made pledges or policy statements. While policy pronouncement is important, compliance can only be assured through a law. This is especially necessary for the US, where climate ambition shifts quickly with change in the political landscape. If the Biden administration is serious about net zero, it should get a law through the US Congress.
Finally, and most importantly, setting a net zero target will not by itself guarantee positive and equitable social and economic outcomes. The rapid transition required in the next 2-3 decades will disrupt the economic and social fabric of fossil-fuel dependent regions. Hence, the net zero targets must be paralleled by an international framework on Just Transition.
Achieving net zero over the next 3-4 decades is very much possible for India. We are developing at a time in history when low/ no-carbon technologies will grow exponentially. A well-designed net zero plan will be an opportunity for us to pole vault to a green future. While there will be an extra cost, studies indicate that these will be modest and compensated by lower adaptation costs and reduced loss from extreme weather events. Besides, it will have enormous co-benefits in reducing air and water pollution and improving forest and soil quality, contributing to overall environmental improvement and human well-being. By announcing our net zero commitment, we will also send a clear signal that we are open to global finance and technology support for a green and just transition.
The bottom line is we are one of the most vulnerable countries to climatic disruptions. It is, therefore, in our interest that a serious effort is made globally to meet the 1.5°C goals. In this endeavour, we can either be a bystander or a leader.