India’s declarations on emission reduction at the Glasgow COP26 UN climate conference, which have been appreciated by many, appear proactive and ambitious but seem to be deceptive on deeper scrutiny.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow Courtesy: UNFCCC/Kiara Worth
Voices Climate change Wednesday, November 17, 2021 - 19:36

India being the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) per the Emissions Gap Report from the UN Environment Programme, its stand on emission reduction at the Glasgow COP26 UN climate conference was eagerly watched. India’s declarations based on the ‘five elixirs’, which have been appreciated by many, appear proactive and ambitious but seem to be deceptive on deeper scrutiny. The five commitments made by India at COP26 are:

> To raise the non-fossil fuel-based energy capacity of the country to 500 GW by 2030

> To meet 50% of the country’s energy requirements using renewable energy sources by 2030

> To reduce the total projected carbon emission by one billion tonnes between now and 2030

> To reduce 45% carbon intensity by 2030, and

> To become carbon neutral and achieve net-zero emissions by 2070

As part of the Paris Agreement of 2016, India had committed to producing 40% of its total electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. Then again, in 2018, India’s Central Electricity Authority set a target of producing 57% of the total electricity from non-fossil fuels sources by 2027. India has also set a target of 175 GW renewable energy production by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030. The new commitment of 500 GW by 2030 at COP26 is a notable increase from earlier projections and promises, and hence appears laudable.

India’s present capacity of non-fossil fuel energy has reached 146 GW, which is almost 38% of the country’s total installed capacity and 21% of the electrical energy generated. However, this 146 GW includes Large Hydro (46 GW) and Nuclear (7.5 GW) energy projects too, all of which were implemented decades back. In 2019, India declared large hydropower plants as renewable energy resources whereas until then only projects smaller than 25 MW were deemed to be renewable. This, of course, was part of the global consensus to include large hydro and nuclear energy projects into low-carbon solutions to combat climate change. With the change in classification, India has added large hydro and nuclear energy projects into the new basket.

The greening India picture painted on achieving the set target is partly due to the re-classification of resources. It is also important to note that both large hydro and nuclear are not considered to be sustainable sources of energy by a large group of climate activists, environmentalists and scientists.

Lack of visible smoke does not make it green

Nuclear power plants need large amounts of water for cooling compared to other thermal power plants, as overheating can present a major safety risk. Nuclear plants reject more heat into the atmosphere compared to the coal counterparts of similar size and age. The thermal discharge from coastal nuclear power plants (this is true for thermal power plants too) into the ocean is harmful to phytoplanktons that contribute 50% to 85% of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. It also affects animals as well as their habitats. While nuclear plants cause direct global warming, other fossil fuel-based plants also cause indirect heating through their GHG emissions. In these times of frequent disasters, the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan remains an unresolved puzzle, as we have not fully addressed the safety concerns even after a decade.

Large hydro is considered an acceptable source of energy. However, studies show that reservoirs built for hydropower generation have been identified as significant sources of carbon dioxide and methane – major GHGs – in the atmosphere.

A bubble-based emission analysis by a team of researchers (Abril et al., 2005) found that dams emit more methane than lakes and wetlands. The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculates the impact of methane as 34 times higher than that of carbon dioxide per ton of gas considering a 100-year time horizon, and 86 times in a 20-year time horizon. Adding to this, large dams have caused unending woes to local communities who are displaced; caused fish community alteration and vanishing of many species and commercial fishery practices; caused loss of biodiversity; and affected natural and agricultural ecosystems. Some reports show that between the years 2000 and 2009 more than 200 notable dam failures happened worldwide. A study by the Army Corps of Engineers in the US found that 1,800 non-federal dams and 275 federal dams are unsafe. Removing a hydro dam could even cost more than building one, especially where reservoir sediments contain heavy metals and other toxic contaminants.

Just because there is no visible smoke from the large hydro or nuclear power plants, they do not qualify as a green or sustainable source of energy for the future. Adding them to the nationally determined contributions to combat climate change needs to be reviewed and scientifically justified. Until then they should not be accounted as a part of Clean Development Mechanism.

Energy is not just electricity

India’s second commitment says that 50% of the country’s energy requirements will be met using renewable energy sources by 2030. The Energy Statistics Report published by the Government of India shows that the energy resource consumption in 2019-20 was 32,514 PJ, out of which electricity was 4,649 PJ (only 15%).

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2019) report, 72% of the final energy in the industry sector and 98% in the transport sector is dependent on fossil fuels. In the residential sector, 68% is from bioenergy and waste. Electricity is not the major component of energy for all sectors except the service sector. Hence, when India talks about 50% of energy being sourced from renewables, it is to be understood that it is only about electrical energy and not the total energy requirement. Meeting 50% of the energy needs in the industry or transport sector through renewable energy by 2030 is a ‘Mission Impossible’.

Absolute reduction – the way forward

Among other major commitments, reduction of carbon emission by one billion tonnes between now and 2030 is a major attraction. India’s present carbon emission is 2.7 billion tonnes and the cumulative figure will reach not less than 20 billion tonnes by 2030. Reducing the total “projected” carbon emission by one billion tonnes is not a difficult task as system efficiencies are improving day by day. The projections of carbon emissions are normally based on business as usual scenarios. However, it is to be noted that the energy demand for road transport is projected to double over the next two decades and the total energy consumption is expected to nearly double as the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expands to an estimated $8.6 trillion by 2040. The nation’s coal demand is also estimated to rise by nearly a third by 2040. Hence, a reduction of one billion tonnes from the projected estimates is not going to make an impact on the actual emissions and their harmful effect on the earth’s energy balance. Resetting the target as reducing emissions by one billion tonnes every year would have provided an extra impetus to the country’s green commitment.

Intensity and per capita

India’s commitment to reduce emission intensity by 45% is a proactive step. However, reducing intensity need not reduce the absolute emissions. As discussed above, India’s energy consumption is going to double in the coming two decades and thus the actual emissions will increase even with a reduction in energy intensity.

In the climate change scenario, what matters most is how the atmosphere’s natural capacity to absorb GHGs is not overburdened. Studies show that oceans absorb 93% of the total heat increase and that they have reached the tipping point. Hence, what is needed is an absolute reduction in the activities that have high global warming potential and not a mere change in the ratios such as emission intensity or per capita energy consumption.

Net-zero emissions

Achieving net-zero emissions by 2070 is a daunting task. One of the major components for this objective is increasing forest cover. Hence, it is intriguing to note why India is among the countries that have chosen not to sign up for a Leaders’ Declaration on ending deforestation by 2030 at COP26, which was signed by over 100 countries.

Thus, the five goals declared by India at COP26 looks like a numbers game, lacking in commitment. As 14-year-old Vinisha Umashankar, an Earthshot Prize finalist, said during the conference, the new generation is angry and frustrated at the false promises made by our leaders. India needs to stop playing the number games with flashy names.

Jayaraman C is an Indian Fulbright Climate Change Doctoral Fellow (2018-19), who holds a PhD in Energy Management.

Views expressed are author’s own.

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