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World Environment Day: Exploring India’s decarbonisation efforts

Announcing a timeline for net-zero emissions has been the buzzword in the global climate change debate and India has been under intense pressure to announce it as well. Indian has not followed suit but Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently reiterated the country’s commitment to installing 450 Gigawatt (GW) of renewable capacity by 2030. 
 
While experts and policymakers rushed to debate whether India should also decide its net-zero targets or not, the question about the next course of actions on the decarbonisation pathway remains untouched. Should it be the federal government that should drive the actions and impose on the states or should the country’s federal structure take precedence? 
 
Regardless of what the country announces officially on the net-zero front, the action will have to be at least at the sub-national level. For instance, the ambitious 450 GW renewable plan’s implementation has to be at the state level. However, experts agree that there is a contradiction in India’s policy making in the present situation when it comes to dealing with climate change.
 
While talking about the mechanism of setting ambitious goals to decarbonise the economy, Chandra Bhushan, president and CEO of iForest, a think-tank working on environment and sustainability, said it is the federal government that is setting these ambitious goals be it 450 GW of renewable energy target, net-zero or any other climate change commitments. 
 
He states that climate change adaptation is the responsibility of states and mitigation is the responsibility of the centre. States are told to prepare the adaptation plan but targets related to renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon intensity are being decided by the centre. Instead, every state should make their own adaptation and mitigation plan, he added.
 
These decarbonisation targets are predominantly made at the centre. One of the things we need to have is some kind of institutional mechanism where states are better involved in the decision-making process around climate change mitigation, particularly in adaptation.
 
When asked whether the central government setting the net-zero goals violates the federal structure, he said it is not clear as carbon is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. The problem is that the whole climate change problem doesn’t fit neatly into any sector. Like we know that electricity is a concurrent subject while the environment is a state subject. 
 
However, there is no such specific mention of carbon. It is still not clear whether it is a part of energy or a part of the environment. 
 
International debate: Should India pledge its net-zero year or not? 
 
The United Nations estimates that the entire world has to achieve net-zero emission by 2050 to stay under two-degree Celsius warning at the pre-industrial level and India is under tremendous pressure to announce its own net-zero year.
 
The year 2021 is being considered an important year for the global climate debate. At the end of the year, the policymakers from various countries will meet and are expected to come to the table with new or enhanced pledges under the Paris Agreement. There is already a serious push towards countries to come up with a net-zero emission pledge.
 
A country can be considered net zero when its greenhouse gas emissions are sequestered either through natural or artificial carbon sinks. Afforestation and regeneration of forests can help the natural sequestration of carbon. The artificial means can include innovations in carbon capture and storage. 
 
Net-zero means that the greenhouse gas emission will be zero by a given date and that date is 2050 as many countries have pledged. What the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, in particular, has asked to do.
 
Given India’s present scenario regarding human development and other social indicators, the debate is whether India should pledge any target year for its net-zero or not.
 
Domestic actions required
 
India should think about how it will enable us to accelerate domestic actions. Because, if the country makes any pledge for the future for 2050 or 2060 then it needs a mechanism to decide what kind of action is needed today. India’s present commitments are not driven by climate mitigation but by domestic concerns of job creation, providing enough electricity, lighting-up homes etc. 
 
India’s transition to net-zero will be surely different from anything the world has seen so far. In his study, he has clubbed net-zero with peaking year. 
 
The question of peaking is implicit in the question of net-zero. There are two principles we need to think about, one is credibility of policy and the second is of certainty. Net-zero gives a sense of certainty of the future. But there is a lack of credibility unless the peak year is announced. Without it, stakeholders have no sense of urgency. Therefore, it is imperative to announce a peaking year or in combination with a net-zero year to give a sense of credibility.
 
Taking 2050 as a net-zero year, India will have no choice but to peak by 2030. Keeping this in mind, the rapid case of transition will be unimaginable. By 2050, India will have to be in a situation where the share of non-hydro renewable energy would have to be beyond 80 percent, notes Chaturvedi. 
 
In terms of the political economy, the challenge is the trade-offs. The electricity charges for households will have to increase as the electricity pricing reforms are yet to happen. Regarding dependence on coal and moving to alternative sources of energy, policymakers will have to think about shifting to a new and different economic paradigm.  
 
The kind of transition needed to achieve net-zero can be understood by knowing the fact that between its peaking year and net-zero year, the EU has 71 years, the UK has 77 years, Japan has 46 years. Even China, if it peaks in 2030, will have 30 years of transition given the net-zero year it has announced (2060). Compared to this, India will have just 20 years of transition. 
 
Another way of looking into India’s net-zero goal is that if India peaks in 2030, its per capita emission by then would be a little over 2 tonnes whereas when the EU or China or Japan peaked, they had 9 tonnes per capita emission. The US peaked at 19 tonnes per capita.
 
It is not about yes or no or should we aim for it or not, the pace of transition has never been achieved anywhere in this world. If India has to lead the world in this regard, it will have a lot more investment to do, a lot more technology to put to use and a complete overhaul on how we imagine our economy. 
 
The question is whether better participation of states and making the process more decentralised will make India’s task easier or not?
 
Traditionally, India works on the basis of state and district plans. National plans are built upon these local plans. However, in Kerala, it is further broken down to the level of panchayat or corporation plans, he informs and adds that it helps in making people aware of bigger ambitions. 
 
The Kerala model for mainstreaming climate concern is required for the entire India. Otherwise, debates related to sustainability or climate are at best at the margin whether it is state or central level debate. 

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