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It’s not just about energy. India has to assess technological, economic and societal transitions

By Jyoti Parikh and Kirit Parikh

Recently, there has been a flurry of articles on whether India should commit itself to attain net zero emissions of greenhouse gases and if so, when. What net zero emissions mean is that India will emit only as much emissions as could be absorbed by our forests, crops, vegetation, soils etc. Most articles point out the difficulties of meeting such goals and the high cost of doing so, whereas those in favour have optimistic views of technologies. We flag key issues, fallacies and pointers in this debate, some not raised before.

  1. Target year is not the only measure of an achievement. Somehow reaching ‘net zero’ is seen as the goal only in terms of a year by which it is to be achieved: 2050, 2060, 2070 etc. We recall that the GHGs, especially CO2, have very long lifetimes and persist for more than 100 years. In such a long-term pathway, the peaking year, peaking height, the rate of decelerating to zero, and time taken to reach net zero are equally important.

One can combine all these in one number: Cumulated emissions of an entire pathway. So it is not how early you arrive to net zero, but how little you emit along the way, that will cause less damage. Even if one reaches late but emits less along the pathway, then that country is more climate-friendly. If cumulated from 1990-2017, India has emitted 33 GT compared to 147 and 149 GT by the US and China out of 733 for the world. Putting pressure on India is not equitable to India.

Illustration: Chad Crowe
  1. Some argue favouring net zero goal early, because when many countries announce their intentions there is usually technological progress. For example, subsequent to the Paris Agreement in 2015, solar prices fell dramatically and so did energy storage prices. So if net zero announcements and action make them fall further and bring new innovations, transition may be less difficult than we imagine. Thus, this trend among the nations is to be supported but when India can reach net zero and what are the challenges ahead need to be examined first.
  2. Critical problems may arise in most countries for their governments which are run by collection of massive taxes and excise duties on crude and refined products such as petrol, diesel, LPG, aviation fuel and taxes on coal. In India, these amount to around Rs 3,80,000 crore in the 2021-22 Budget even without including the taxes paid by the public sector fossil companies and constitute nearly 17% of central government’s tax revenue. Currently, Indian Railways subsidises passenger travel rates by the high freight rates on coal. How will the Centre and states meet their expenditures for health and education without fossil fuel taxes?
  3. Fossil industries have created a large number of jobs in various phases of the supply chains ranging from coal mining, coal handling, washing and transport and finally building power plants, transmission and distribution networks, and in operating them. For oil and gas, it is shipping, port handling, exploration, refinery, dispensing and supplying to the consumers on daily basis for decades. In contrast, the jobs generated by renewable energy installation are ‘one-time’ jobs for putting up the solar or wind generation facilities amounting to weeks, months or a year depending on the size.
  4. Fossil behemoths such as Coal India, NTPC, Indian Oil, BPCL, HPCL, ONGC may need to change their business tactics or give way to small, medium and large solar, wind and hydropower agencies. The central government basically has a hold over the energy sector through these companies. In a low or zero carbon world, this sector will be relying more on the consumer-oriented private sector.

Thus we see that the transition to net zero seen by most as an energy sector problem concerns tax resources to run governments, stranded assets, and associated non-performing assets of the banking sector, and large-scale employment issues. We are facing triple transitions – technological, economic and societal.

Yet, India is in a good position as its emissions are quite low despite its 1.3 billion people now. It has the opportunity to leapfrog to LED bulbs, electric vehicles, electric cooking and digital technologies which can create an enabling environment. The issue is how soon India should do net zero and how. It calls for a careful consideration of the above factors.  Simultaneous modelling efforts by multiple teams are needed to decide this. Yes, India need not rush without chalking out a clear strategy.

Meanwhile, GoI rightly worries about the sanctity of the international commitments because in the past, these commitments were not met: Rio Convention’s pledge to go back to the 1990 emissions levels in 2000, revised Kyoto commitments of 1997, pledges of $100 billion of finance made at Copenhagen in 2009, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that was given up halfway.

The Paris Agreement began in earnest in 2015 and making net zero as a follow-up programme makes better sense than starting a new race, a new goal post. However, net zero should not merely be defined by the date of reaching it but also by the cumulative emissions of the emission pathway that a country makes till that date from 1990 onwards.

Jyoti Parikh is Executive Director and Kirit Parikh is Chairman of Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe)



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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