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Decoding India's big net zero pledge at COP26

India's promise to achieve carbon neutrality in 2070 has received all the attention. But it's the 2030 commitments that will show the way

PM Narendra Modi speaking at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
PM Narendra Modi speaking at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. (Bloomberg)

Speaking to Lounge on the eve of the COP26 climate conference, policy experts had stressed on the importance of behind-the-scenes negotiations at summits like these. Big, headline-grabbing announcements like India’s 2070 net-zero pledge are often the results of such diplomatic wrangling. As this column had mentioned a few weeks ago, achieving carbon neutrality by 2070 was always the most likely target for India. What was surprising was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would actually go ahead and declare it.

Now that India has well and truly grabbed all of the attention at the summit, the real hard work begins. As many analysts have pointed out, the 2070 pledge is not the most important aspect of the announcement. After all, that’s too long a horizon to predict. Near-term decarbonisation and energy goals, stretching through this decade and further, are much more important and tangible.

Also Read: How India can achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2070

To this end, these are the more interesting parts of PM Modi’s announcement: the promise to generate 50% of India’s energy needs through renewable energy (RE) by 2030, 500GW of non-fossil-fuel installed energy capacity by that same date and a 45% reduction in the economy’s carbon intensity, also by 2030. Modi also promised to make the Indian Railways carbon neutral by the end of this decade. 

These are all more tangible goals, and an improvement on India’s current, stated NDC (nationally determined commitment) for the 2015 Paris Agreement. However, these are also more difficult to attain, and the country has only nine years to implement them. Take, for example, the energy transition pledge. That would mean that over the net nine years, India will have to start abandoning coal, which currently accounts for 70% of the country’s energy needs, at a rapid rate. It’s a necessary transition, but one that will need to be handled very carefully. It also flies in the face of the government’s stance so far, including the auctioning of new coal blocks last year. How will these contradictions be resolved? For this, we will have to wait for more details to emerge from the government. 

Also Read: India to be carbon neutral by 2070, but what are the challenges?

As far as India’s demand for $1 trillion in financial assistance from the developed world, it is not clear where that money will come from. However, it should also not be forgotten that the COP will go on till 12 November, and once the political leaders leave the scene, the real negotiations will begin. The UK-India global solar grid plan might turn out to be important, and is an ambitious plan. On the other hand, India’s refusal to sign the UK-led deforestation declaration (Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Argentina and South Africa are other G20 nations not to sign it) reflects poorly. Watch out next for the finalisation of carbon trading rules, which will affect India quite directly.

Also Read: Why the COP26 climate summit is important

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