#58 The sharp edge of a net zero pledge for India
By Lou Del Bello in Delhi
A carbon neutral India is a dream that few have dared to entertain - until now. A fast growing, coal-driven economy, India is adding more renewables to its energy basket by the day, but shows little sign of letting go of coal, which currently makes up for 70% of the total mix.
India is the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US. A full decarbonisation of its economy is both important to curb global climate change and politically smart for India, which wants to match the ambitions of China, the US and other major economies. Last week, reports suggested that the government was taking the idea seriously, planning to announce a net zero target by 2050 or 2047, to mark one hundred years from British independence. But just yesterday news emerged that the plan may not even be on the table after all.
The loud debate sparked in India by what is effectively a series of contrasting rumours, at least for now, may seem futile. Two dense research papers modelling what it would take to get to net zero by 2050 in the country were released back to back; countless opinion pieces were penned about an announcement that may never come.
Lessons from net zero dreams
But the simple possibility of such fast, drastic energy transition has put into sharper focus a detail that activists all over the world seem to forget: revolutions come at a price, and it’s never the rich and privileged who pay it. India’s poor have the tiniest carbon footprint, but are also disproportionately dependent on polluting industries, such as informal waste management, construction work - responsible for a significant amount of urban air pollution - and coal.
The country is home to half a million coal miners, who are already starting to suffer as Indian coal giants start to shut down the smallest, least productive sites. “It's easy to say that many more new jobs in solar will be created, which is true,” says Vaibhav Chaturvedi, an economist with the non profit Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in Delhi, and author of an analysis on potential net zero pathways for India. “But that's a very different skill set,” he explains. “Solar jobs are much more technical in nature, even if it’s just a matter of mounting solar panels. Indian mining is not a high-tech form of mining at all, it’s very labour intensive because [here] labour is cheap”.
The Indian Railways are another coal dependent giant which Chaturvedi says would hugely suffer from a sudden move away from fossil fuels.
With 1.4 million workers, the government-owned company is one of the largest employers in the world, and keeps India moving - providing an essential service to the millions who don’t own a car and can’t afford a plane ticket. In air conditioned carriages passengers enjoy a 12 hour journey for around $15, but in more modest back carriages the same distance will cost around $4.
“Coal is a big component of the Indian railways’ revenue,” Chaturvedi says. “It has exclusive rights for hauling coal from the mine mouth to all industries across the country, especially to the power plants.” Revenue from coal transportation in turn helps cross subsidise passenger traffic, and “the moment you take out coal, you have taken out a very big income stream from them”.
Experts in India suggest a different approach. Instead of going for an overhaul of the entire economy, they recommend targeting the more polluting sectors first, including steel and iron production, and coal power. Instead of shutting them down, India should look for ways to remove as much carbon as possible from their production chain, replacing fossil fuels with clean energy.
The cruel irony of climate change
In a cruel catch-22, the poorest and marginalised in India are also those who are bound to suffer the most from the impacts of climate change. A recent study found that deadly heat waves will become more common across South Asia even in a best case scenario in which global warming is kept within 1.5C above pre industrial levels., Should temperatures reach 2C or more - a threshold that we are currently on track to breach - their occurrence will nearly triple.
It’s not hard to tell who will be damaged the most - people who work outdoors and those who don’t have access to air conditioning and plenty of freshwater to drink. In India, this means tens of millions of people, from farmers and street vendors to construction workers.
The debate over net zero in India may or may not lead to a formal climate pledge, but it has shown us the paradox that comes with simple, catchy solutions for our warming planet. On the one hand, addressing climate change is an imperative that India, one of the countries more at risk from climate change, takes very seriously - to the point of contemplating unrealistic goals. On the other hand, as a developing economy and the world's second most populous country, it has too much to lose to embark in haphazard endeavours just to appease its international partners.
Must reads from the region:
Bangladesh at 50: Why climate change could destroy my ancestral home, Qasa Alom, BBC - A British-Bangladeshi embarks on a journey to his motherland, where he is struck by the brutal impacts of climate change in Bangladesh, an extremely vulnerable country that a local scientist describes as “God's laboratory for natural disasters”.
Crisis in the Himalayas: climate change and unsustainable development - Benjamin Parkyn, Financial Times - The disastrous flood that hit the northers state of Uttarakhand last month has brought into focus what locals and scientists say is a crisis unfolding in the Himalayas, an explosive cocktail of climate change and aggressive road and dam building in geologically unstable terrain.
Unfair trade barriers will hinder climate consensus - Charmi Mehta, Down to Earth - A developing world perspective on carbon border agreements. In this piece, the author argues that these deals “are in many ways modern instruments of imperialism that punish developing nations for making slower progress towards greening their economies,” and that for many countries the “transition to coal may not be a matter of choice”.
What else I am listening to:
I can’t wait to dive into the second season of Atmospheric Tales, a podcast delving into the multifaceted realities of climate change from hard science and communication, to peacemaking and religion. Every episode pairs up an expert with a keen interviewer, and every season features a bouquet of truly diverse voices from all over the world.
Who we are
From A Climate Correspondent is a weekly newsletter exploring the climate crisis from around the globe run by four journalists. We regularly feature guest writers.
Lou Del Bello is an energy and climate journalist based in Delhi, India.
Jocelyn Timperley is a climate journalist based in San José, Costa Rica.
Purple Romero is an climate change and human rights journalist based in Hong Kong.
Mat Hope is investigative journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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