India’s involvement in the fight against climate change has been one of change. The country once saw the issue as something that concerned industrially-developed nations more than itself. That mantra has now shifted.
Today, the country is concerned with the impact it can make as industries face up to dangers posed to their own future and the government moves to act, despite its desire to ensure continued economic growth. This stance was recognised and ratified in 2014 when India, amongst 197 countries, moved to join the COP21 Paris Agreement, a historical move with global implications. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone so far as to pledge to “go above and beyond” in the fight against climate change.
Climate change’s threat to India
India is a country deeply vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, its susceptibility attributable to a number of risk factors. This, alongside the body of studies highlighting how climate change disproportionately affects those in low and middle-income countries, places India in a difficult position.
Food insecurity and agriculture
Firstly, with high agricultural dependence (particularly on rice and other forms of cereal) the country is threatened by the fact that climate shocks and weather patterns exacerbated by climate change present a threat to food supply. In fact, Raju Guntukula and Phanindra Goyari’s research on climate change’s effect on crop yield revealed that ‘climatic factors such as rainfall and temperature have adverse effects on crop productivity in general’. At the ICC (International Climate Committee), there is concern that there is a lack of involvement from farmers in India too, the group of individuals to most likely be affected by adverse weather conditions.
Storms and rising sea levels
Secondly, India’s behemoth stretch of coastline makes it susceptible to the impact of weather events that disrupt communities, many of which are important economically to India. For example, the devastation caused by Cyclone Nivar was likely in part down to the intensification of the storm in sea surface temperatures that were about 0.5-1 degree Celsius warmer than normal.
Then, there is the economic impact of these climate change weather events. The bill India is forced to foot after sustaining damage is sizeable. In 2020, the country was hit by two of the ten most costly climate disasters across the globe. Between Amphan, the super cyclone that hit India in May, and the floods that affected many parts of the country between June and October, India was afflicted by damage that cost over Rs 10 lakh crore (US$141 billion) – 322 times higher than the annual budget of India’s environment ministry.
There is also the well-documented problem of sea-level rise, which will likely make areas inhabitable. Kuttanad in the state of Kerala is estimated to be a metre or two below mean sea level and, whilst there aren’t enough projections or studies to understand which parts of the country will be inundated, it is clear this is a severe endangerment to the way of life for many.
Reliance on fossil fuels
The third large factor is India’s dependence on fossil fuels, which poses a barrier to meeting any goals as power generation must have a source. For India, coal-based power fell for the first time in 29 years in 2019. Yet it is the following years that will outline whether this has a long-term trajectory or is simply a one-off event. The transition towards clean energy is made more of a challenge given that thirteen percent of India’s population does not yet have access to electricity, while more than half still relies on traditional biomass for cooking (this, in itself, is a health concern as biomass burning is a driver of deaths due to pollution in rural areas).
Despite this, when addressing the global media at the COP25 talks held in Madrid in 2019, India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar offered a message of stoic optimism, one which suggested the country would be ready to fully respond to the challenges posed and meet the before-agreed nationally determined contributions (NDCs). “This is the time for responsible action” and “time for reflection and assessment as we end the pre-2020 period,” he said. “It is time to look in the mirror.”
And, in doing so, the situation for India is one of nuance, one where each agreement from the landmark COP21 talks has clearly had varying levels of success, contributing to an overall picture on the country’s NDCs. Ahead of the next summit set to be held in Glasgow in November 2021, this is how things stand currently.
Reducing emissions intensity
India ratified the Paris Agreement exactly one year after the submission of its Intended NDCs, and as part of its agreement the country pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of GDP by 33-35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
To date, the response from India has been broadly positive. As a country, India is on course to exceed expectations on reducing emissions. Much of India’s efforts in reducing emissions has come as a result of increased energy efficiency.
Programmes such as the Ujala scheme for LED light bulbs have saved an estimated 180 million tonnes of CO2 between 2014-15 and 2019-20. The Perform, Achieve and Trade scheme for industries saved 31 million tonnes of CO2 between 2012-15, and 61 million tonnes of CO2 between 2016-19. And improvements expand as far as more efficient street lighting which is estimated to have saved almost fifteen million tonnes of CO2 between 2015-16 and 2019-20, and the government’s Krishi Sinchayee Yojana scheme for agriculture which saved 11.979 million tonnes of CO2 between 2017-19.
Changes made by the public have also come in the form of more fuel-efficient vehicles. As the Washington Post wrote in 2020, “about 1.75 million electric rickshaws ply India’s roads — more than the total number of electric cars sold in the United States. The scrappy, slightly anarchic industry is a homegrown success story in India’s fight against climate change and debilitating air pollution.”
Speaking about the efforts in December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “we have reduced our emission intensity by 21 percent over 2005 levels. Our solar capacity has grown from 2.63GW in 2014 to 36 GW in 2020. Our renewable energy capacity is the fourth largest in the world. It will reach 175GW before 2022.”
Yet for India to continue to reduce emissions intensity and meet its 2030 NDC, it will need US$500 billion of investment over the next decade, as Health Issues India previously reported. Assuringly, realising this ambition is looking increasingly plausible, with India now the centre of attention for a number of global energy giants looking to diversify their renewable energy portfolio, according to analysis from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
Creating an additional carbon sink
India’s second pledge was to generate an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to three billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030. Now in its sixth year, there have been arguments that the improvement outlined in the NDC should use 2015 as a baseline year, instead of previous suggestions of 2005. This is due to technological and methodological advances in mapping forest cover leading to better satellite data, higher scale maps, and improved mode of interpretation.
A greater understanding of data and mapping has also shown that India needs to almost double its forest cover to meet its NDC by 2030, according to data published in 2021. As previously noted by Health Issues India, deforestation represents a major crisis: “India has lost copious amounts of green space to deforestation in recent decades. Between 2001 and 2018 alone, India lost more than 1.625 million hectares of tree cover. In the same timeframe, northeast India alone accounted for more than seventy percent of the country’s overall tree loss.”
Tackling deforestation and increasing forest cover will not be easy yet, promisingly, a litany of legal measures adopted by the government including the National Agroforestry Policy in 2014, the Green India Mission in 2014, and the Green Highway Policy in 2015 are testament to the fact that pledges are being matched by policies.
Alongside these policies that impact forest cover and traditional agriculture, blue carbon sinks – in the form of coastal and marine ecosystems such as mangrove forests, coral reefs, tidal marshes, and sea grasses that store carbon – play a fundamental role in India achieving its pledge. For example, the Sundarbans delta has a landscape featuring salt-tolerant mangroves that frame the coast, act as a barrier to storms and flooding, and also offer significant gains to India’s carbon sink efforts. Such mangrove forests are able to absorb 97.57 tons of carbon per hectare, and as the largest mangrove forest in the world at one million hectares, the gains for India are huge if these are protected.
Despite this, Professor N. H. Ravindranath of the Centre for Sustainable Technologies in Bangalore has stated that, for India to meet its goal of generating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030, it will likely need to set up a ministry branch whose sole purpose is to take responsibility for tree planting,and reforestation given the enormity of the task at hand. With current projections and policy implementation, India is perhaps not shifting fast enough, and more needs to be done.
As a report from the Energy and Resources Institute outlined, there is “less time left to achieve the target and India needs a well-framed strategy taking into account various factors such as India’s large forest cover, agroforestry, forests along the road side, wastelands, river side, and other types of lands for the same.”
Increasing the share of non-fossil-based energy
Finally, India’s NDC of increasing its share of non-fossil-fuel-based energy looks to be on a steady, healthy pathway. Aiming for forty percent of its installed electricity capacity to be renewable or nuclear by 2030, progress is now being recognised across various reports and outlets.
Climate Action Tracker currently projects that “non-fossil power generation capacity will reach 60–65 percent in 2030, corresponding to a 40–43 percent share of electricity generation. India’s emissions intensity (excluding the agriculture sector) in 2030 will be 37-39 percent below 2005 levels.”
This increasing boom of renewable energy sources is owing to the country tapping in to vast solar and wind potential to replace reliance on polluting coal. Many of the plans for developing these energy sources have been outlined in India’s National Smart Grid Mission, which has been established since 2016. And alongside this, India’s electric power capacity is increasing to the point where projections estimate it will have increased 64 percent by March 2030 since ratification of the agreement.
However, one of the most interesting contributors to the country’s non-fossil-based energy effort is the development in hydrogen power. Focus from those working on transitioning India towards a cleaner future will no doubt be tilted towards green and blue hydrogen given their lack of carbon footprint. With an abundant supply, this method of energy production is proving favourable, providing the government with reason to scale infrastructure, and place hope in the fact hydrogen may offer energy security for the foreseeable future.
According to Energyworld.com, the “government of India’s National Hydrogen Energy Mission (NHM) initiative will capitalise on one of the most abundant elements on earth for cleaner alternative fuel option.”
Going into COP26
Most, though certainly not all, understand the gravity of the climate emergency and why action is needed. So often, however, talk is just talk. As outlined above, India has made substantial progress and going into the COP26 talks, it has much to talk about. But progress made must be sustained – without a continued, determined effort to tackle climate change and implement and scale up the raft of measures it has put in, Indians will suffer.