India has pledged to slash its emissions intensity relative to economic growth and make a massive push on clean energy by 2030 as part of its formal submission to the United Nations ahead of landmark global warming negotiations in Paris.
India’s vow to unconditionally cut emissions intensity 33 to 35 percent below 2005 levels and boost the share of non-fossil-fuel energy sources more than threefold as long as it receives assistance from Western countries was widely praised by the environmental community, even as some said the world’s third-largest emitter could do more.
Referencing yoga, ancient Sanskrit texts and Mahatma Gandhi — on whose 146th birthday the plan is being formally unveiled today in New Delhi — the submission argues that India’s right to pull itself out of poverty is not necessarily incompatible with protecting the environment. At the same time, it lays out some hard-as-coal truths.
"In order to secure reliable, adequate and affordable supply of electricity, coal will continue to dominate power generation in future," India’s intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) reads.
"One of the important areas of global collaborative research should be clean coal and fossil fuel, energy management and storage systems for renewable energy. Given the current stage of dependence of many economies on coal, such an effort is an urgent necessity."
The blueprint outlines an action plan for decarbonizing energy-intensive sectors like transportation and building. It vows to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. It also details what India must do to protect water, agriculture and communities’ health and physical safety from floods, droughts and other increasingly devastating impacts of climate change.
Not part of the target but highlighted as a major undertaking was India’s current goal of expanding its current 35 gigawatts of clean energy capacity to 175 GW by 2022, while responding to a fourfold energy consumption growth.
The price tag for its clean energy efforts: around $2.5 trillion between now and 2030. The INDC does not say how much of that should come from the international community, but argues that "meaningful and adequate" finance will be key to achieving the targets.
"If the world indeed is concerned about its new investments to be climate friendly, it must consider the opportunity provided by a country like India," the report argues. Wealthy countries, it admonishes, "can certainly bring down their emission intensity by moderating their consumption, and substantially utilize their investments by employing them for development activities in countries housing a vast majority of people barely living at subsistence level."
‘This is a different India’
India’s down-to-the-wire submission at the end of the final day available to countries to file their plans to the United Nations makes it one of the last major economies to effectively take responsibility for tackling climate change. Among Group of 20 countries, only Saudi Arabia has now failed to turn in a plan for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The INDCs from 120 countries, including the 28-member-state European Union, will collectively make up a new global climate change accord that leaders hope to broker in Paris in December. India, long viewed by the United States and Europe as an obstructionist in the negotiations, is expected to play a key — and, activists insist, increasingly positive — role.
"This is a really significant step for India," said Anjali Jaiswal, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s India Initiative, said of the INDC. She acknowledged that the government’s emissions intensity target could have been more ambitious — a target of 40 to 45 percent had been floated in the media. But, she noted, under the stated plan, India’s economy will grow seven times larger by 2030, while emissions will triple, rather than a typical 1-to-1 ratio.
"The targets are very important in that they make a big step to reducing emissions intensity while also allowing India’s economy to grow," Jaiswal said. "We think this is a really strong step for India."
Harjeet Singh, ActionAid International’s global climate policy manager, who is based in India, agreed. He called the INDC "extremely comprehensive" and said, "reading it, what came to mind is, this is a different India."
Singh described India’s approach as making note of the historical responsibility of wealthy countries that have been polluting the atmosphere for decades while also going beyond the old rich-poor divide.
"It’s solution-oriented," he said of the INDC. "It talks not just about national circumstances, but how energy needs are going to grow and the number of initiatives we have to make sure of a low-carbon pathway."
India’s INDC is markedly different from China’s in both style and substance. Unlike China, India offers no peak year for halting emissions growth. Energy experts said that comes as no surprise, given the nearly 400 million people still living without electricity in India. It also was released on Indian soil, timed to the birthday anniversary of the leader of the country’s independence movement. Chinese President Xi Jinping, by contrast, made China’s two major climate change unveilings while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with President Obama, first in Beijing last year and later in the White House Rose Garden.
"India in some ways is the man in the middle. It’s an emerging economy, but it’s not a developed economy," said Jaiswal.
Samir Saran, a senior fellow and vice president at the Observer Research Foundation, a leading think tank in India, praised India for coming up with what he called a "positive and novel" approach to fairness — or, as it is known in the U.N. climate negotiations, "common but differentiated responsibilities."
Rapid economic growth raises questions
"India has demonstrated leadership in sharing common responsibility … through a differentiated proposition on action that seeks global partnership on the means of implementation," he wrote in an email.
Others were less impressed. Greenpeace India called the non-fossil target a "step in the right direction." But, the group added in a statement, "India’s continued commitment to expand coal power capacity is baffling."
Meanwhile, the goal of ramping up non-fossil energy to 40 percent also raised questions. Without hydropower, several energy analysts pegged India’s current levels at 12 to 14 percent. With large hydropower, however, the country is already at 30 percent non-fossil energy, making the jump less significant. The INDC does not specify what sources it is including — or if the projected growth also includes nuclear energy.
Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate staff member, said the plan "predictably" emphasizes growth through coal expansion, and called on India to truly show its commitment to climate action by agreeing to restrict hydrofluorocarbon gases (HFCs), a potent contributor to climate change, under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
"India must also do more to encourage private-sector investment in solar and other clean energy, including by reforming their notoriously corrupt and inefficient government bureaucracy, or investors will stay away and throw serious doubt [on] their laudable renewable energy goals," Bledsoe said.
Varun Sivaram, Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said India is in a difficult position. Without moving away from coal and enacting major structural reforms in the utility sector, he noted, it’s unclear if even meeting the 175 GW of renewable energy goal would do much to reduce India’s emissions.
"If they meet it, it will be a miracle. But even if they meet it, they will have to produce a lot more power from coal plants just to keep up with a 7 percent growth rate," he said. "It’s not clear that just investing in renewables will result in a 1-to-1 reduction of emissions."
Reporter Gayathri Vaidyanathan contributed.