India Promises to Slash Emissions, but Wants Help

The third-largest carbon polluter says it needs $2.5 trillion over the next 15 years to transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change.
India's carbon emissions rank No. 3 in the world

India is the world's third-biggest polluter, but it is also still a developing country that needs resources to tackle climate change. Credit: Mark Danielson via Flickr.

India submitted its long-awaited climate pledge on Thursday, vowing to reduce the intensity of its emissions 33 to 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

India is last of the major carbon emitters to reveal its pledge in advance of the global climate talks scheduled for December in Paris. And unlike the other largest countries, it did not promise to cap its emissions. Instead, the Indian government outlined a host of renewable energy projects, mitigation and adaptation strategies and policy initiatives designed to achieve its target. It also estimated that it will require $2.5 trillion to follow through on its pledge.

Although it trails only China and the U.S. in carbon dioxide emissions, India is also a still-developing country with significant energy needs that are not being met, with an estimated 300 million people lacking access to electricity. India's commitment to reducing its carbon footprint is crucial to ensuring a successful climate treaty at the end of the year in Paris, so its actions have been closely watched by the international community.

"It's an aggressive, positive, solutionary and balanced approach," said Harjeet Singh, a policy manager on climate change for ActionAid, an international non-governmental organization.  "It gives a lot of confidence to the world that there are a number of things they're doing on the ground."

So far, more than 140 countries have submitted pledges—known as INDCs or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions—to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, accounting for about 90 percent of global emissions. According to Climate Interactive, a nonprofit tracking the progress of the global climate change movement, if countries follow through on the pledges they've submitted, it will limit warming to 3.5 degrees Celsius. In order to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, scientists believe global temperature rise must be capped at 2 degrees C.

Although India's per capita emissions are well below the global average, its population of 1.2 billion continues to grow rapidly and includes a burgeoning middle class Its emissions are projected to more than double by 2030 without any intervention. If India holds to its pledge, emissions would grow by about one and a half times.

Coal is the major source of power in India, accounting for about 44 percent of the energy mix. Nuclear power, hydroelectric and renewable energy combined make up a small sliver—about five percent—of the energy pie.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are aiming to change that, with a multi-faceted approach to reduce its dependence on imported energy and also help lift the poorest in the country out of poverty.

The pledge submitted Thursday includes the target the Indian government announced earlier this month to secure 40 percent of its total power from renewables by 2030. To achieve that, India will have to raise electricity production from renewables from its current capacity of about 34 gigawatts to 350 gigawatts. The U.S., by comparison, currently has about 23 gigawatts of solar capacity and 66 gigawatts of wind power.

"Its commitment to renewable energy will pave the way to sustainable economic growth that creates jobs, protects natural resources, and provides cleaner air and water for Indian citizens," Rhea Suh, president of the National Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "India now has positioned itself as a global leader in clean energy, and is poised to play an active and influential role in the international climate negotiations this December."

At the same time, India is doubling down on coal, projecting that coal will continue to be the dominant source of energy. It is, however, quadrupling the tax on coal and funneling the money into clean energy projects.

Last year, the Indian government also announced it would no longer subsidize diesel, saving the country $10 billion a year and improving air quality. Although diesel has a lower carbon footprint than gas and achieves greater mileage, burning it releases black carbon, a particulate that is the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide.

Unlike China, which committed to providing $3.1 billion to poor countries, India believes it should receive funding from developed countries to adapt to climate change.

In an interview earlier this week with The Hindu, Prakash Javadekar, the country's minister of environment, forests and climate change, said, "We are the vulnerable countries. We are the sufferers...Today, we are suffering because of their sins. Therefore, the principles of historical responsibility and polluters to pay have to remain intact."

In its INDC, the Indian government said its efforts to reduce emissions are tied to the "availability and level of international financing and technology transfer since India still faces complex developmental challenges."

So far, international commitments for climate financing fall well below the amount requested by developing countries. Poor nations have asked for more than $380 billion and developed nations have committed  about $13 billion so far. And even that is far from guaranteed. The pledge from the U.S. requires Congressional approval and faces major political hurdles.

Neil Bhatiya, a policy associate with the Washington-based think tank The Century Foundation, said India's commitment to reducing emissions while underlining the issues they want to see addressed is an effort to avoid throwing a spanner into the works at the international climate change talks in Paris.

"In contrast to their attitude in the past, they're willing to take mitigation action upfront and willing to sign on paper to do that, but they want to see the [developed countries] live up to their promises too," he said.

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