In 2021 the Indian government made major headlines at the United Nations Climate Change Conference—AKA COP26—in Glasgow. The headlines weren’t entirely positive. Alongside its role in the closing stages surrounding the pledges pertaining to coal (more on that to follow) the announcement of its target to achieve net-zero by 2070 was positive in the sense it finally saw New Delhi set a target for net-zero—something until that time it hadn’t done—but ultimately the 2070 target is a full ten years after China’s goal of reaching net-zero by 2060, and twenty years after the 2050 target nations such as the U.S. have set.
Yet perhaps the greatest disappointment surrounding India’s participation in COP26 is that by many measures these moves overshadowed the major announcement by India surrounding its quest to see 50% of its energy needs met by renewables by 2030. While India has a challenging task before it in its quest to get to 50% in less than 8 years—accounting for 500GW of renewable capacity overall—unquestionably success in achieving this aim by the end of the decade would provide a positive platform for India to build on in seeking to perhaps reach net-zero before 2070. So what hurdles are ahead of India in seeking to meet this 2030 goal, and build on it?
Coal Today Remains a Key Element of India’s Economy
India received a substantial amount of criticism for its push during the closing stages of COP26 to alter the language surrounding the final agreement, advocating for there to be a "phase down" as opposed to a "phase out" of coal use. India was not the only country that stood to benefit from this change, but the Indian government nonetheless became something of a lightning rod for criticism just the same following the end of COP26. Yet this move by New Delhi at COP26 is not surprising when considered in the context of India’s current reliance on coal.
Estimates hold that coal is responsible for around 70% of India’s electricity output. What’s more, numerous Indians in the east among India’s coal belt have long been heavily reliant on it as a source of industry. Where many Indians once looked to farming, annual floods have done away with agricultural roles. While leaders of the national government in New Delhi may paint a picture of a clear and consistent transition by India to a clean and green economy, at the grassroots level Indians who today rely on coal will be looking to the future conscious of the need for the nation to go green in the long term, but anguished about what precisely that may mean for their livelihoods. This is something New Delhi will have to wrestle with in the years ahead.
Mustering the Energy to Reach the 2030 Goal
It’s held India has already crossed the 100GW of renewable energy milestone, and thus can be regarded as one-fifth of the way to its target of 500GW. Accordingly, the task of reaching the 500GW figure is less difficult than it first appears. But overall, some among the green energy community would feel "the devil is in the details" when it comes to India’s 2030 goal. Though it may certainly be possible by 2030 for India to have 50% of its energy needs come from non-fossil fuel sources, this is not the same as having 50% of its power come from eco-friendly sources.
Certainly, there is the exciting potential for the strong growth of solar and wind within India in the next few years, but so too can it be expected New Delhi shall factor in hydropower and nuclear energy as avenues for a transition away from coal. Ultimately, many people would still regard such a transition as real progress, but concerns about the broader environmental impacts of hydro and nuclear power could really dampen enthusiasm for this 2030 policy.
The Domestic and International Dynamics Informing India’s Aims
Though India is already among the top 10 largest economies in the world—and according to a PWC report will be the world’s second-biggest economy by 2050—the fact is it today remains a developing nation, and one where significant levels of poverty remain. Certainly, there’s no controversy surrounding the fact that the greater use of renewable energy in a country can increase jobs and economic growth, but precision surrounding the transition away from fossil fuel sources will be particularly vital for India. Debate persists in the nation regarding just how fast and how far India should be ready to go in ending fossil fuel use, and thus the jobs of Indians who currently rely on it as a source of income, and who could be financially imperiled in the future if this transition is turbulent.
In such circumstances, just as India has seen many years of terrific economic growth during this century—mindful of the disruption the pandemic has caused to India’s economy as it has to economies of other nations—there is understandably a weariness among Indians to pursue any action that could hinder it. Especially as many Indians (just as others do in developing nations) contend that the lion’s share of action in driving down emissions should come from developed nations.
This perspective is informed by the reality that developed nations have historically generated a far greater amount of emissions, and thus it’s held that it should be them who now make the most substantial changes most rapidly to see global emissions reduced. In turn, developed nations should allow developing nations an easier path to pursuing green change as they also look to maintain the economic growth necessary to continue lifting citizens out of poverty. Such a debate is inherently complex, and unpacking it fully is beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless, it’s essential to understand this perspective will inform New Delhi's approach going forward towards 2030, and beyond.
2030 a Stepping Stone to 2070 Goals
The next 8 years will place new hurdles in India’s path when considering the goals of 2030 and 2070 in full context. The rising wealth of India will see more families move into the middle class, obtain greater access to modern amenities, and have a greater demand for energy to power more electrical goods. In turn, the ongoing increase in the use of digital devices in India (and globally) affirm there will also be a huge increase in demand for electricity to power goods such as laptops, tablets, TVs, and more. Succeeding in its 2030 aim in light of the ongoing speed of its economic growth, in tandem with the digitization of daily life generally, also serve as key hurdles in India’s path domestically between now and the end of the decade.
Yet success is certainly not just reliant on the policies of the Indian government alone. An international community intent on seeing India meet—and potentially even exceed—its goals surrounding 2030 and 2070 will recognize the outcomes will not simply owe to the decisions made in New Delhi, but also in capitals further afield. Ultimately, succeeding in the green energy transition and putting an end to global warming will certainly require India to play its part, and so too for other nations to recognize the shared stake all have in seeing India succeed in it. comment↓