India’s narrow window for achieving net zero

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If India commits to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, the country would need to generate at least 83% of its electricity from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. This is according to the latest research by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

The CEEW study focuses on insights related to four alternative scenarios relating to India’s energy transition, namely; 2030 emissions peak”2050 net-zero, 2030 peak”2060 net-zero, 2040 peak”2070 net-zero, and 2050 peak”2080 net-zero.

The scenarios, which emphasise renewable sources such as wind and solar over hydropower, are in line with India’s policy direction and show that a massive 55-fold increase in the use of non-hydro renewables in electricity generation is needed within the coming three decades.

Further, to achieve net zero by 2050 the share of electricity in India’s industrial energy use must rise three-fold, from 20.3% in 2018 to 70% in 2050.

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The share of electric vehicles in passenger car sales would also have to rise to 76% in 2050 from just 0.1% in 2019.

These estimates are based on CEEW’s best understanding of progress on mitigation technologies. To meet net zero, India would need to either completely eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or balance these by sequestering GHG emissions.

The CEEW study is the first exercise to outline multiple pathways for India to attain net zero emissions, rather than fixating on a single scenario or a single year.

It highlighted that India would need to reach peak emissions within this decade if it were to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century, a pace of transition unlike anything the world has seen before.

This would give India an extremely narrow window to ensure a smooth and equitable transition from a peaking year to a net zero year.

Key report findings:

  • Carbon dioxide currently accounts for 88% of India’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including land-use change emissions.
  • For fast-growing economies with a rising emissions trajectory, the need to understand the key variables that impact the choice of a peaking year is as critical as the determinants for the selection of a net zero year.
  • The analytical formulation shows that the economic growth rate significantly impacts ‘effort gap’. For India, peaking in 2030 would be challenging given the expected economic growth rates for at least the next two decades.

Dr Vaibhav Chaturvedi, Fellow at CEEW and author of the study, said: “Our first-of-its-kind analysis is intended to provide policymakers with different options in making a critical decision for India’s future. We find that India would need to undergo a double transition, through faster electrification of sectors and an increasing share of renewables in power generation, if it were to announce an ambitious net zero target.

“Policymakers would also need to identify manufacturing sectors where electricity could replace fossil fuels. Reducing the cost of electricity to make it competitive would be equally critical. Finally, the rate of decline in India’s emission intensity of primary energy would have to be ramped up drastically to peak within the coming two decades.”

Dr Arunabha Ghosh, CEO at CEEW, said: “Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 or 2060 would need rapid systemic changes across all sectors and sections of society. This, in turn, would require significant international financial investments and technological transfer from or technology co-development with the developed world. It would be equally important for India to closely examine trade-offs such as increasing cost of household electricity, increasing railways passenger fares, fiscal challenges for coal-dependent states, job losses for over half a million coal mining workers, and the shifting geopolitics around energy trade and the energy transition before announcing its net zero targets. We need an informed debate based on analytics, not just heuristics.”

The CEEW study explains why India’s case is different from the net zero pathways of China, the EU, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. First, the per capita emissions for all other economies in their respective peaking years would be much higher than India’s, even if India were to peak in 2050. Secondly, India’s real GDP growth rate would be much higher than any other country post their peaking years. This indicates that India would need to put in significantly more effort to peak and subsequently reduce emissions. Thirdly, India would have a much lower per capita income to support the transition, even if it began the post-peak transition in 2050, let alone 2030.

Download the study.

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