How to make India carbon-neutral

The news on climate change is usually bleak, but there have been some remarkably positive developments recently. In June, UK and France became the first two major economies to set down in law that they would be net carbon-neutral by 2050. California has a law providing for fossil fuel-free electricity, as well as an executive order by its governor for net carbon neutrality — both by 2045.     

The goal of a carbon-neutral economy is at last being considered feasible by governments. The share of renewables in Germany's total electricity generation went up to 44 per cent in the first half of 2019. In UK, the share of electricity from fossil fuels is now less than half. The prices of solar panels have become a fraction of what they were a decade ago. Electric vehicles (EVs) have arrived. Batteries, including larger ones for grid storage, are getting better and cheaper. Based on the experience of solar panels, it is reasonable to expect a decline in costs of electricity storage, though it may not be as steep.      

India’s shift to a low-carbon growth trajectory has been striking. India’s position has been that carbon emissions are a problem created primarily by the developed, industrialised countries; hence, they should bear most of the cost of solving the problem. As a result, the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” was incorporated in the Kyoto protocol. It implied that the developing countries, which still had huge challenges in providing basic minimum needs to their citizens, could not be expected to have similar responsibilities as developed countries. Rich countries were expected to provide funds and technology to developing countries to do more than they could on their own.

Developed countries have so far not kept their part of this compact. The willingness to provide funds on any significant scale was never there. Technology was developed by private firms who owned the intellectual property, which was protected. So, it was asserted that governments of developed countries were in no position to transfer technology, as they did not own it.

India also argued, without success, for the acceptance of the per capita principle that all human beings had to have the same entitlement to carbon emissions. India offered to follow a low-carbon development path to ensure that its per capita emissions never crossed that of the developed countries, which would be reducing emissions.

India decided to launch the National Solar Mission in 2010 with what then appeared to be the difficult target of 20,000 Mw of solar power by 2020-22. Initial success gave confidence. India agreed to be a part of the Paris accord and indicated a far more ambitious voluntary target of 40 per cent share for renewables in total power capacity by 2030. Then came the higher target of 170,000 Mw for renewables by 2022. At the recent meeting of the International Renewable Energy Agency, India announced that it now plans 500 Gw of renewable energy capacity by 2030. This shows an altogether new level of confidence and ambition.

It is also feasible. An attractive feed-in tariff for decentralised solar power generation in rural India would lead to a surge in private investment and an increase in farmers’ incomes. India has around 600,000 villages and installation of one Mw per village within ten years should not be difficult. 600 Gw of solar power could be installed in India with private investment and without subsidy.     

India could also start creating a competitive industry structure for electricity storage. It could do so by inviting bids for batteries on a modest scale, as it did for solar power initially. It would then get the full benefit of the expected global decline in costs of storage. It would be well-placed to scale up storage rapidly, as it is now doing with conventional solar power. With scaling up of storage, fossil fuel-free electricity becomes feasible.                

The finance minister in her Budget speech declared India’s intention to be a global hub for the manufacture of EVs. This needs rapid provision of a charging network in cities with emphasis on battery swapping — not difficult in this digital world. Thereafter, regulations mandating the use of only electric three-wheelers, taxis and city buses would be a catalyst for making India a hub for EVs. Within 10-15 years, EVs could overtake conventional vehicles in market share.

Indian Railways is going fully electric. On highways, the German pilot project of testing the use of hybrid trucks with overhead charging cables, so that they run only on electricity on the highways, promises a breakthrough in truck movement by electricity. This would be commercially attractive, just like electric taxis. India could be an early starter on this.

As surface transport starts becoming fully electric and as renewables replace fossil fuels as a source of electricity, India would move towards net zero carbon emissions. It could then become a global leader and be among the first in the world to become net carbon-neutral. It can afford to do so by making the right initial moves now. As one-seventh of the human population is Indian, this would substantially enhance the probability of mankind averting disaster.   

The writer was Secretary, DIPP, and is currently Distinguished Fellow, TERI. These are his personal views