2019 will be remembered as the year when we witnessed the largest global climate strike in history, with over four million participants across multiple nations demanding action to reduce carbon emissions. According to the Global Carbon Project, fossil fuel combustion is expected to release a record 36.8 billion tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2019, more than double the level in the 1970s.
Recognising the growing threat posed by global warming, 65 countries and the EU pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019. However, China and the US, the top two emitters in the world, emitting more than 40% of global CO2, did not show ambition.
India, with its growing footprint, needs a plan too – not least because it will face the brunt of global inaction and bear the proverbial white man’s burden!
Net-zero emissions mean balancing the current carbon emissions with carbon sinks that absorb the emissions, leaving a net-zero impact on the atmosphere. Global average temperatures have already risen by 0.8°C to 1°C, and there is no time to lose.
As per the estimates of GHG Platform India, the economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions of India stood at 22.6 billion tonnes (CO2 equivalent) between 2005 and 2015, while the overall removal was only 5% of the cumulative emissions. A projection of emissions at the current growth rate indicates that the carbon removal capacity through afforestation would drastically fall short of the total emissions in 2030.
Technological solutions and driving behavioural change to assimilate the solutions for a climate-friendly world are the need of the hour.
The main contributors to carbon emissions are fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas. India’s story is no different from other developing nations. Electricity generation, industry, and transportation, collectively contributed to more than 70% of carbon emissions between 2005 to 2015.
Particularly challenging is our reliance on coal – a bulk of it sourced domestically. More than 60% of the emissions were a result of using coal. Coal alone contributes to 74% of the total electricity generation. Industry energy use is also dominated by fossil fuels, amounting to a 65% share in final consumption, while the transport sector almost entirely runs on petroleum products and natural gas.
|Figure 1: sectoral emissions and projections|
A loose set of targets, to counter emissions in various sectors, exist – achieving a 15% natural gas share in India’s energy mix by 2030; 175 GW of installed renewable energy capacity by 2022; 30% share in EV sales by 2030 and so on. The challenge is, few have a clear policy that supports the target.
Further, energy efficiency – the lowest cost way to reduce emissions – has its limitations, particularly in the case of the industry sector. Fuel switching too has shortcomings as less carbon-intensive fuels are pricier.
There also remains the dependence on decades-old processes and products which have seen little innovation. Cement is a perfect example. Even with 100% replacement of fossil fuels with clean energy, the cement sector would still emit 51 million tonnes of CO2 in 2030, only a 25% decrease from the current level. A fundamental change in the materials we use is needed.
The renewable energy target by 2022 is looking insurmountable, as the power sector woes and DISCOM insolvency and technical challenges plague the sector. In transportation, EVs have come to be the proverbial silver bullet, given our inability to drive through hard reform in urban governance and promoting design-rich solutions.
All gloom and doom? Not quite. Sharing the burden, and diffusion of innovation offers hope.
India can take inspiration from other countries to create an efficient strategy for decarbonisation. Germany’s move to completely phase out coal by 2038 is a step in the direction, but the phase-out of nuclear has left a void and reduced the overall carbon space available.
France has invested in research on hydrogen produced through renewables as a substitute for fossil fuels, while the UK generated more electricity from renewables than fossil fuels in the third quarter of 2019. Lighter and more efficient battery chemistries and horizon technologies like nuclear fusion offer more hope for clean energy.
What is clear is, India will have to make do with a lower carbon space than it would have liked. It is also clear that India needs resources – finances, skilling and technology from anywhere it can get it.
To quote from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” We live in tumultuous times shaped by consumer interests. You, me, and many like us can effectively initiate a low carbon transition by being mindful of what we consume, and ask for.
Doconomy, a Sweden-based fin-tech company, worked with Mastercard to launch the world’s first credit card with a carbon limit. It also allows consumers to track their carbon emissions through an app and offset their footprint.
Skyscanner, an online travel company, has started labelling flights based on carbon emissions to help travellers make an informed choice. Our future, along with those of our children, single-handedly depends on the decisions we make now!
About the author: Deepa Janakiraman is a Research Analyst at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), an independent not-for-profit policy research institution.