On his very first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order “returning” the United States to the Paris climate change agreement, thereby reversing the decision of his climate-denying predecessor, Donald Trump, to pull out of the accord. Satisfaction over the return of the prodigal should be tempered with a measure of caution.

Despite his dedication to the climate change cause, president Barack Obama was unable to enact meaningful legislation to curb US emissions. Biden will face similar opposition in Congr­ess. Like Obama, he will have to fall back on executive orders with limited impact. Thwarted at home, Biden may be expected to follow Obama’s example by seeking his climate laurels through international initiatives. What might this portend for India?

Biden has declared that the US will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Given the US refusal to recognise the differentiated responsibilities of developed and developing countries, we should not be surprised if the US applies heavy pressure on us to commit ourselves to the same target, notwithstanding the yawning gap in levels of development and per capita energy consumption or emission levels.

Can India achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050? A recent study by the prestigious Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests an answer. The alternative scenarios explored in the report include a “Sustainable Development Scenario” (SDS) that works back from a specified outcome to identify the actions required to achieve the end. In this case, the key outcomes are the goal of limiting rise in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C; ensuring universal access to modern energy; and reducing air pollution. In this IEA scenario, “India is on track to reach net-zero emission around the mid-2060s”.

What would India have to do to achieve this outcome? The IEA scenario indicates that India would have to ensure that its “CO2 emissions never return to 2019 levels at any point”, and to progressively reduce its emissions from 2022. In other words, India would have to cap its emissions immediately and begin reducing them progressively from next year. The IEA rightly notes that “India’s emissions per capita rank among the lowest in the world today and it accounts for only about 3% of historic energy sector and industrial process CO2 emissions since 1850 (compared with around 30% for Europe, 25% for the United States and around 15% for China)”. In the SDS, India would be obliged to immediately cap and reduce its exceptionally modest emissions!

This would not only require strict controls on the carbon footprint of new capital stock but would also necessitate outright replacement or major overhaul of existing power plants and factories, including those that have been recently commissioned. “If these existing plants and factories operate as planned, then SDS is out of reach,” warns the IEA. The plants and factories would have to be compulsorily retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technology, or switch over to bio-mass fuels, or be retired altogether. This, in turn, would require, by 2030, a massive three-fold increase in clean energy investments over 2015-2020 levels.

Leaving aside the question of feasibility of these measures, we should note that even if these draconic measures were to be implemented, India would not achieve “net zero” emissions till some 15 years after 2050.

The plain truth is that there will be no magical year in which every country simultaneously attains “net-zero” emissions. Since forests act as carbon sinks, some densely forested and sparsely populated countries are already deemed to have net-zero — or even negative — emissions. Some affluent countries might be able to claim net-zero emissions on the basis of artful accounting of “carbon credits” purchased from countries with “negative” emissions. All others will have to rely on a massive shift from hydrocarbons to “clean” sources of energy. And, as in every other major technological transformation, these new “clean” technologies will originate mainly in scientifically advanced countries that also possess the financial resources to absorb the relatively high initial overhead costs of research and development. As costs come down with economies of scale, less affluent countries are able to adopt the new technologies. Global “net-zero” emissions can be achieved by 2050 only if affluent countries and world leaders in science and technology achieve the target well before 2050, with other countries following in due course. Indeed, a few European countries have already pledged themselves to achieve net-zero emissions earlier than 2050.

As an environmentally-responsible country, what position should India take on net-zero emissions? We may declare our commitment to the global target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and pledge our full contribution to the global effort, in conformity with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and our national circumstances, as required under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement. In endorsing a global target, we do not commit ourselves individually to the 2050 target date, citing provisions of the climate treaties that differentiate between the obligations of countries at different stages of development.

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