Is India capable of enhancing its climate change targets for 2020-2030?

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India’s draft Biennial Update Report (BUR) has thrown up several questions for policymakers. The report notes that India has achieved a 21 per cent improvement on the emission intensity of its GDP over 2005 levels ensured that 35 per cent of its power capacity came from non-fossil fuel sources by 2018. 

In light of this, could India ratchet up its climate change commitments for 2020-2030 under the Paris Agreement? Does the better than expected performance on this front suggest India could relook at its domestic goals for energy mix? 

Officials and experts that Business Standard spoke to say several other factors, besides the preliminary findings of the BUR could play a crucial role in answering these two questions and that India has ample time to do so. 

At an average annual improvement in emissions intensity of two per cent of 2005 levels India could achieve its target of achieving 33-35 per cent over 2005 levels well before the committed 2030 deadline. 

“Preliminary reading of the numbers indicate this was achieved by unprecedented structural changes in the economy. There was not a lot of renewable power capacity addition that played a role in this,” an expert involved in the setting of India’s Paris agreement targets said. 

By March 2018, India had installed 55.7 Gw of solar and wind-based power plants. That counted for 16.2 per cent of the total installed capacity. The NDA government has domestically (and not under the Paris Agreement) committed to ensuring 175 Gw of solar and wind power capacity by 2022. 

“With deeper analysis of the data, if it emerges that we are doing quite well with current levels of addition to renewables, then one should consider if India needs to invest a lot in storage and battery for the intermittent renewable sources,” he added. 

Experts have warned that once 15-20 per cent of the power generated comes from these intermittent sources, the nature of the power distribution systems and energy markets would have to considerably alter. “If we are achieving our international targets through changes to the economy and energy efficiency, one should consider what is the investment Indian economy should deploy in storage and renewable, and at what pace,” he added. 

Two experts pointed to the stresses emerging in the solar power market with low bid values and increased tariffs on imports from China. They also noted that official estimates of levelised costs of power from different energy sources (including or excluding public health costs of coal) did not exist to make an economic argument one way or the other. “The discovered tariff price through bidding is not the only metric to consider,” one of them added. 

“There is no argument over solar versus coal. But there are valid technical and economic factors to set the pace of this change,” he added. 

“We also need to understand if these trends (in emission intensity) are cyclical or seasonal. The year 2014-16 saw good monsoons. The emissions would change in average or bad monsoon years as coal gets deployed more,” said another official. 

“Did demonestisation and GST alter economic activity in one or two years, particularly in the MSME sector, and consequently alter the levels of emissions? Were these temporary blips or did we set in any significant structural changes? 

Factors such as these are important to address and will need more granular research,” noted a scientist in the preparation of the BUR. 

International commitments 

Officials involved in negotiations explained that the talks in December on implementing the Paris Agreement need not be the place to announce the future course of India’s climate actions. Therefore, they concluded that there is ample time to look at the performance of India and other countries. 

“There is time for that. Now is the time to focus on pre-2020 ambition and the data shows India is one of the developing countries leading the global effort, even though the developed countries were meant to do so,” an official said. 

“Some developed country partners have threatened to walk out, some are failing their domestic mitigation objectives, and almost all of them are unwilling to come true on their commitments to provide finance to the poor countries. The last round of negotiations in September hit a stalemate when developed country partners refused to discuss the modalities of reporting achievement against their finance and technology commitments,” he said. 

“India is committed to stay in the agreement regardless of how other countries act. It has gone ahead and taken on the costs of mitigation and adaptation without waiting for the international funding,” he added. 

At the negotiations in December, the trigger for enhancing emission reduction targets even before Paris Agreement kicks off in 2020 is likely from a track of quasi-formal talks called the “Talanoa Dialogue”. 

Some countries may look to insert a placeholder to enhance mitigation ambition without assessing what developed countries are doing to provide finance and technology, Indian negotiators said. This could come from the Dialogue, leading to a formal UN decision asking countries to enhance their mitigation targets ahead of 2020. 

“It is of course better to stop global temperature rise at 1.5 degree Celsius rather than 2 degrees. A one degree limit is even better. That is a no-brainer. But the question is are all countries on track to meet even the 2-degree target? We know the answer to that,” he added. 

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