April 30, 2019
The Indian government has accepted the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has asked a number of academic institutions and think tanks to present their roadmaps on what India can do to help keep global average temperature rise since pre-industrial times to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The decision was announced at a recent meeting in New Delhi, attended by senior authors of this IPCC report, policymakers and representatives of think tanks. The meeting was held under Chatham House rules, so the speakers cannot be identified by name.
India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change will go through the various reports and then come up with a composite plan, much in the way the government put together the country’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) before the 2015 UN climate summit which culminated in the Paris Agreement.
Ministry officials do not expect to receive the reports before this year’s UN summit – scheduled in December – but say that should not matter.
Under the Paris Agreement, all countries agreed to limit average global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius, with 1.5 degrees as an aspirational goal. The IPCC was then asked to evaluate the extra damage that would be caused if the 1.5-degree ceiling was breached; and the possible pathways by which governments could compress the two-degree ceiling to 1.5, along with the cost of each pathway.
The big question now – will accelerating the activities pledged by India in its NDC be enough to compress the two-degree ceiling to 1.5, or will extra activities be needed? As one participant put it, “Will this be two-degree on steroids, or will we still need something more?” And it was clear at the daylong meeting that if the government agrees to take extra action, it will have to swallow some bitter pills.
Since thermal power stations are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas responsible for over 80% of global warming – the biggest issue will be energy generation. Between now and 2030, India will have to reduce its emissions by at least 100 million tonnes per year, maybe as much as 300 million tonnes. That will mean a significant number of coal-fired power stations will have to be closed down before their economic lives are over. What will that mean for power generation? What will it mean to the banks that have lent money to build and run these power stations? These are questions that first the academics, and then the government will have to grapple with.
Speakers at the meeting made it clear that either technological innovations increase dramatically, or hard decision will have to be taken, and not just in power generation. One big example: India’s cement demand is projected to increase three times between now and 2030, and there is no technology today to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the calcination process that produces cement.
If there are no new technologies that will help reduce emissions significantly, there is no option but carbon capture and storage (CCS) underground, experts said at the meeting. CCS is still a commercially unviable and a much-contested technology.
All this will, of course, have a bearing on the UN climate summit this year, and India will once again raise the issue of free or subsidised technology transfer from industrialised to developing countries so that the world can move towards a greener economy.
A few days before this meeting, Environment Secretary C.K. Mishra had told the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry India would emphasise that industrialised countries fulfil their pledges under the Kyoto Protocol, which exists till 2020, the year in which the Paris Agreement is scheduled to come into force. Under the protocol, industrialised countries are obliged to reduce their emissions, and every climate summit sees tussles over it, though it is an issue their delegates shun as best as they can. “We can’t ignore an entire period in history,” Mishra had said.
At the meeting over the IPCC report, a senior policymaker made it clear that the government had accepted the 1.5-degree goal because “we need to really get worried about climate change. It’s real, it’s happening, and it’s not a story that can be ignored any longer.” Climate change is adversely affecting the monsoon which in turn affects farm production. Climate change is also making droughts, floods and storms more severe and more frequent. It is raising the sea level, an effect to which India – with its 7,500-km coastline – is particularly vulnerable. Heat waves are affecting more people, faster melting of glaciers is making water supply more uncertain.
“So we have a triple challenge of transitioning to a low carbon economy, moving people out of poverty and handling climate change impacts that are already happening and will get worse,” the policymaker said.
Some steps have already been taken. India has a plan to generate 175 GW of power through renewable energy by 2020, the world’s most ambitious plan. Initial moves towards e-mobility and green buildings have been made. In its NDC, India had pledged to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 33-35% by 2030. Since 2015, it has been reduced by 14% already. But it will get increasingly tougher now, even as the government readies to raise its ambition further.
A large part of India’s NDC pledge depends on creating carbon sinks by planting trees, especially on degraded land that belongs to the forest departments in various states. But policymakers admit they are finding it tough to implement this, since so much of this land has been encroached upon by people with political connections. Plus, agencies implementing infrastructure projects such as roads, dams or canals are constantly demanding – and getting – more and more of this land.
To help handle some of these problems, India will also reiterate the demand for finance from industrialised countries – as reparation for having placed most of the excess carbon in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Age. Once again, that issue may not be resolved through negotiations.
“But irrespective of what happens at the global level, India’s ambition to combat climate change in a robust way must not falter,” the policymaker concluded.
A senior scientist attending the meeting criticised the IPCC report for not considering the extra warming that will take place once countries like India and China clean up their air pollution. Everybody agrees that they have to clean up, since that is becoming the top menace to human health in these countries. But once that happens, more sunlight will reach the earth’s surface and global warming will accelerate.
Many experts pointed out at the meeting that India faces many serious problems apart from climate change, but all agreed that climate change is a threat multiplier in all spheres of life and economic activity.
Media reports from other South Asian countries indicate their governments have not really grappled with the latest IPCC report yet. India has. Experts will have to show how the country can deal with climate change more forcefully than it has done till now.