Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, UK, November 1 (Photo: Getty Images)
WHEN PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi made his dramatic announcement in Glasgow on November 1st about India’s plans to combat climate change, it marked a breathtaking leap of faith. The “Panchamrit” goals represent the most ambitious pitch ever made by India on tackling a problem that is now an undeniable existential threat to the world.
India’s promise to go “net zero” or carbon neutral by 2070 is perhaps the most ambitious among the five goals listed by the prime minster. If India is to attain carbon neutrality by 2070, the very nature of its economy will have to change in the next 50-odd years. From agriculture to transport and from power consumption to industrial output, nothing will remain the same in 2070.
An even more challenging, and shorter-term, goal is that of non-fossil fuel energy capacity of 500 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, roughly eight years from now. At the moment, India’s total installed capacity is 390 GW of which non-fossil fuel generation accounts for less than 40 per cent (12 per cent hydroelectric power, 26 per cent solar, wind and other sources and 1.7 per cent nuclear power). This, of all the goals, is a gigantic leap of faith. If the target is to be met by 2030, India will need to install 62.5 GW of non-fossil fuel power every year. Another goal is that, by 2030, India will meet 50 per cent of its energy requirements from renewables. For perspective, India currently meets less than 10 per cent of its electricity generation from renewable sources. “Energy requirements” is a much wider term and this is a far stiffer challenge than installing 500 GW of non-fossil fuel power.
As a result of the Panchamrit goals, everything about the Indian economy will have to change. Two questions arise almost immediately. First, how will India muster the political and economic wherewithal to make the necessary changes? It must be remembered that, at the moment, a comparatively simpler economic challenge—implementing reforms in the agriculture sector—has been roadblocked. The climate change mitigation goals require revolutionary changes in the Indian economy. At the moment, there are no clear answers. Western countries want climate change action but are unwilling to commit the financial resources or share the necessary technology to meet that end.
Some things are feasible. For example, India could always increase nuclear power in its electricity mix from the dismal 1.7 per cent currently to a much higher level, say 10 per cent, provided it got access to raw materials (such as uranium ore) and advanced power generating nuclear reactors. This is relatively less painful: India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—blocked by China and some “peace-loving” countries—will solve a part of the problem. In any case, India is pursuing solar power generation with gusto. But all said and done, 500 GW of non-fossil fuel energy by 2030 is a stiff challenge.
The second question, the why of the leap of faith, can be answered and has a lot to do with India’s national interests.
When one maps climate change dynamics with the dynamics of negotiations to limit climate change, an interesting trend is visible.
Twelve years ago, at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15), there was bitterness and rancour over targets that were sought to be imposed on developing countries like India. The beating stick was familiar: India was among the highest carbon emitters when seen in absolute terms, according to Western countries that controlled the puppeteer’s strings in Copenhagen. It was another matter that in per capita terms, India was among the lowest emitters in the world. But that did not matter. Depending on how one viewed the situation, India’s voice at the negotiating table was seen as one of an obstructor or a supplicant for money. Come COP26 in Glasgow, India is one of the top movers in the climate change mitigation efforts.
What has changed? What Prime Minister Modi promised in Glasgow is based on India’s interests and its capability. There is little doubt that climate change mitigation requires a coordinated effort among countries and India, despite its ambitious goals, cannot meet the challenge alone. But if one looks at rapidly deteriorating climate conditions across the world, especially in Asia, it is clear that by 2070, India will confront existential threats. There are plenty of studies that show that, by 2070, climate change will make South Asia one of the worst affected parts of the world. Large parts of central and eastern India will heat up dramatically to make the region unviable for habitation. India stares at this doomsday scenario if it persists with a “business as usual” attitude. Modi has signalled that is about to change.
This is not just an economic and climate change but a security threat as well. Managing a huge number of people from that unliveable area will become a near insurmountable challenge. Relocating such persons across different states will be fraught with political challenges. On India’s western and eastern borders, Pakistan and Bangladesh also face similar threats. Entire eastern Pakistan is considered dangerously close to unliveable conditions. But the biggest threat to India as a cohesive nation state comes from Bangladesh. Submergence and its large population are a major threat to India’s entire eastern flank from West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. These states are already home to a large population of illegal immigrants. With a climate catastrophe, the pressure from Bangladesh’s population to move into India will become inexorable.
These possibilities were known in 2009, too, when India went to Copenhagen. Back then, too, an effort was made by India’s leaders to get the country to agree on some kind of a “targets regime”. But the coalition Government, its multiple pulls and pressures, made any coherent policy difficult. More importantly, the deterioration in climate, visible so starkly now, was absent back then. That is how rapidly adverse climate change is progressing.
The big rhino in the room is whether these ambitious targets will be achieved in the timelines set for them. It is difficult to say anything affirmative except that there will be a determined move to meet them. Some difficult trade-offs are obvious even now. India’s economic growth is energy-intensive. Any immediate reduction in energy intensity (per unit energy use for every unit of output) without a technology that can yield the same output will lead to lower growth. This will hurt economic prospects. India’s ability to meet its multiple goals—poverty reduction, ease of life for all citizens, making basic goods available to those who need them—will be badly dented. Even if a detailed blueprint is created, one that outlines the means to achieve these goals, sector by sector, there is always a transition period when matters get a bit dodgy. Then there is the issue of uncertainty: any reasonable plan has to make room for unexpected events and shocks to the system. Indian planning was derailed in part because our planners—sound economists all—never thought about the role of uncertainty in planning. Making plans to take on the climate change problem confronts what is truly uncertain in our times: the pace of climate change itself.
What is good in all this is that India has seized the bull by its horns. Now, it has to tame the beast.