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On climate change, India’s challenges leading the Global South

The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai brought global attention to the need for urgent action against global warming, with India positioning itself as a leader of the Global South. Climate justice has been India’s position at COP meetings over the years. In his address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the inequity of climate impact. While the conference’s final text stopped short of explicitly calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels, the historic agreement on transitioning away from fossil fuels hinted at the potential “beginning of the end” for the fossil fuel era. India’s role at the conference was, however, noted for its absence in signing crucial decarbonisation pledges, including the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge aimed at tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030.

This stance seemed contradictory given India’s commitment to expanding renewable energy. India has made strides in the RE sector, securing the fourth position globally for renewable energy capacity installations in 2022. The International Solar Alliance, a joint initiative of India and France launched during COP21, testifies India’s will to promote REs. Solar energy in India attracted investment worth $310 billion last year. It is expected to be $380 billion this year. The latest National Electricity Plan projects a leap in solar and wind energy production to 35 per cent of the country’s total electricity output by 2032, up from 10.6 per cent in 2022. India’s updated Nationally Determined Contributions sets a goal of approximately 50 per cent of the country’s cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030.

These investments and plans are in stark contrast with India’s position in Dubai on fossil fuel. India continues to rely on fossil fuels. According to the Central Electricity Agency’s monthly report, RE generation during October 2023 decreased by 12.38 per cent as compared to October 2022 and thermal power plants, mainly coal-based, generated around 78.74 per cent of the total electricity in the same month. Renewable energy comprised 17.9 per cent of the total, while nuclear and hydro contributed 3.02 per cent and 0.34 per cent. Ember, an independent energy think tank, estimates that fossil fuels accounted for 77 per cent of India’s electricity production in 2022. Coal had the largest share at 74 per cent, followed by gas (2.7 percent) and other fossil fuels (0.1 per cent). The Net Zero Emissions scenario by the International Energy Agency projects that to keep global temperature increases under 1.5 degrees, India would need to eliminate sub-critical coal facilities by 2030. It will need to achieve a completely decarbonised electricity sector by 2040 in order to attain net-zero emissions by 2050. However, India’s current commitments are to achieve net zero by 2070 and ensure that 50 per cent of its energy capacity comes from renewable sources by 2030.

The trajectory of India’s energy development is indeed complex. On the one hand, there’s a recognition of the need for renewable energy sources. This is evident in the National Electricity Plan which outlines a strategic shift towards renewables up to 2026-27 and beyond. But, the plan also anticipates a more than 150 per cent increase in additional coal capacity in the latter half of the decade — going against earlier drafts and signaling a significant ramp-up from 9.4 GW to 25.5 GW in the final version. While the plan does eliminate some coal capacity envisaged for the near term, the 25.6 GW already under construction is to remain — this adds up to an additional 51.1 GW of new coal capacity over the next decade. Only a minimal retirement of the existing coal fleet is planned — a stark deviation from the path needed to align with the objective of carbon neutrality in 2070, that India committed to at COP 26.

The Climate Action Tracker has described India’s climate targets and policies as “highly insufficient”. This assessment is based on the expectation that, under current policies, India’s overall emissions will continue to climb past 2030. To contribute fairly to the global fight against the climate crisis, India’s emissions would need to not only meet but stay below the projections under current policies.

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The impact of climate change is palpable across India, with heatwaves becoming both more frequent and severe. The country now averages 23.5 heatwaves annually, over double the yearly average from two decades prior. The decade from 2010 to 2019 saw a 25 per cent increase in heatwave incidents compared to the previous decade, with a corresponding rise in heat-related mortality. Last year, India recorded twice the number of heatwave days compared to 2012 — the previous record year. Research suggests that climate change has made such extreme heat events 30 times more likely with urban areas, often several degrees warmer than surrounding rural regions, feeling the most intense effects. These heatwaves underscore the urgency for India to enhance its renewable energy infrastructure to meet the increasing demand for electricity, especially for cooling purposes.

In facing this reality, India’s energy policy decisions in the coming years will be critical. Its ability to balance its economic development with environmental sustainability will be a test of its leadership in the Global South and its commitment to the Paris Agreement. Choosing a renewable energy trajectory also makes economic sense as they are the cheapest source of power — a new report of the International Renewable Agency has confirmed that renewables would lead to savings of $156 billion for emerging economies. India has immense potential to develop RE and the manner in which it expands and scales up this capacity will be a critical barometer of its contribution to global climate change mitigation in the coming decade.

Thakker is a student of environmental policy and Jaffrelot is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London

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