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COP26: What is India doing to combat climate change?

Aditya Sharma New Delhi
October 28, 2021

Despite several steps in a positive direction, India's efforts are widely seen as a long way from the drastic measures needed to respond to the climate emergency.   

A man walking on a smog-filled street in Kolkata city
Unlike other major emitters, India has not yet committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/I. Aditya

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow next week, he will represent the third biggest polluter in the world, with coal accounting for 70% of its power generation.

Modi's attendance, nevertheless, will be seen as critical, since the leader of the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, Chinese President Xi Jinping, is not expected to attend.

Modi's focus will likely be to portray India as a part of the solution to climate change, rather than the problem.

The South Asian country has not yet submitted its latest plans to combat climate change, but it is expected to revise its goals announced in 2015.

On track to achieving Paris goals?

India is the only major country to be on track to achieve its targets set out in the landmark Paris climate agreement, according to the UN Environment Program's Emission Gap Report.

For instance, India plans to reduce the emissions intensity of GDP — the volume of carbon emissions emitted for every unit of GDP — by around 35% by 2030 from 2005 levels.

"India has achieved its voluntary target of reducing emissions intensity of its GDP by 21% over 2005 levels by 2020," the country's environment minister said last November.

The country is also nearing its 2015 goal of achieving about 40% share of non-fossil fuel-based electricity generating capacity, which the government expects will be achieved by 2023 — seven years ahead of schedule.

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Environmentalists aren't entirely convinced

Sumaira Abdulali, founder of Indian environmental NGO the Awaaz Foundation, said that while achieving some goals is great, there are many ways of quantifying one's achievements.

"We are very good at crunching numbers internationally," she told DW.

"Even with agencies like the UN, everything looks wonderful on paper, we are going to achieve all these goals, we are going to do all these things which are all positive," she said.

"But on the ground, what does it mean? No one comes and checks. That's where the problem is. There's a disconnect between the ground reality and the numbers."

She cited the example of electric vehicles, powered by coal-fired electricity

"Studies show that EVs reduce emissions significantly in most parts of the world but not where there is coal involved in firing those EVs. So, we're not only using coal, which is in itself a huge environmental issue, but we're actually cutting down forests to have those coal powered EVs." 

One of the areas where India seems to be lagging behind is in its commitment to enhance its carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by large-scale tree plantation. 

This has been exasperated by the government's plan to privatize the coal mining sector. 

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Are India's goals too unambitious?

While India may well exceed its targets, or the Nationally Determined Contributions according to the Paris accord, there have been questions over whether the goals were ambitious enough. 

Climate Action Tracker, an independent research group that tracks governments' climate actions, has rated India's efforts as "highly insufficient." 

Nandikesh Sivalingam, director of the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said India's goals are a reflection of geopolitical realities, rather than based on science.

"India's climate ambition with respect to what's happening globally, and the commitments made by other countries, is not science-based. It is purely based on geopolitics," Sivalingam told DW.

"India would only commit proportionate to what other countries are also putting on the table," he said.

"Accumulatively, none of the countries are doing enough to save the planet. So, in that sense, what India is doing is in line with all other countries, because everybody has to pull their weight."

But as far as revising goals are concerned, he believes India is in a good position to commit to a coal peak before 2030.

Coal peak means the country caps the highest amount of coal consumption in a particular year and then it brings it down in the subsequent years to reach net zero.

"One missing element in India's commitment is absolute reduction in carbon emissions," Sivalingam said. "I think a coal peak year is a reasonably good target for India to achieve before 2030."

Share of fuel type in overall energy consumption

No net zero commitment

Unlike other major emitters, India has not yet committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

While the United States has given 2050 as the year it would achieve net zero emissions, China has penciled it in for a decade later.

Reaching the net zero target means the country will evenly balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced with the amount removed from the atmosphere.

But Chandra Bhushan, a New Delhi-based environment and climate change expert, believes simply committing to net zero doesn't make any sense until it is rooted in domestic law.

"Even if countries like the US and China say that they will achieve net zero by 2050 or 2060, it is essentially the word of one leader versus that of the next one," he told DW.

"In many ways the debate about net zero and committing to it without having the legal or institutional basis for net zero is silly," Bhushan said. 

"India can also announce a net zero target by 2050. But who cares? Who among the current leadership will be alive in 2050 to be held accountable?" he added.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, India is seventh on the list of countries most affected by climate change.

While there have been several measures in a positive direction, India's climate efforts are widely seen as a long way from the drastic measures needed to respond to the climate emergency.