05 Nov 2021 23:22 IST

What the COP 26 jamboree hopes to achieve

India has made some serious commitments towards achieving ‘net zero’ status by 2070.

COP 26 — the global environment jamboree — where leaders from world over have assembled for a two-week conference at Glasgow, Scotland, were preceded by floods and landslides in Kerala and Uttarakhand. Both these natural disasters led to tragic loss of lives and property. In Kerala it was the second time in three years that the State was witness to such unprecedented flooding.

There is little doubt now over what has caused these floods and landslides. It is the untrammelled destruction of forests in the hills — both in the Western Ghats and Uttarakhand — in the name of development that are the prime reasons. The unusually heavy rains in Kerala are proof of the fact that climate change is a clear and present danger, not something that is likely to occur in the distant future.

Construction activity, quarrying and mining are changing the landscape of the hills in both States. Though development is absolutely essential for a country like India which is aspiring to be a middle income country, time has come to take the environmental angle seriously.

Economists Pulapre Balakrishnan and Srikumar Chattopadhyay in a recent newspaper column have exhorted the Kerala government to review two major infrastructure projects that may have serious environmental implications. One is the Silver Line project, a railway line that is to connect the northern and southern ends of the States. The second, which Balakrishnan and Chattopadhyay argue, has got much less media attention, is the widening of the roads and highways across the State, which has led to the cutting down of many trees.

They argue that the economic benefits of both these projects are debatable. So in the development we may end up doing long-term damage to the environment which will lead to more economic hardship in the not so distant future. They say that more technical expertise is needed and, “new railway lines and highway widening should be undertaken only after public hearings open to citizens.” A couple of years ago Tamil Nadu witnessed massive protests over a highway project which would have swallowed many hectares of fertile agriculture land in the western part of the State. The project is still hanging fire.

The development dilemma

India is a country where an unacceptably large number of people still live in poverty and raising their standards of living is of utmost importance for both the Union and State governments. The pandemic has also led to a lot of economic misery and driven a lot of people below the "poverty line".

In this context, to raise the standards of living of the poor, some amount of fossil fuel burning has to be tolerated. Which is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a commitment to make India “net zero” by the year 2070. So this gives us close to 50 years to improve the material lives of the poor. Though India is the third largest country in terms of emissions, after the US and China, in per capita terms, it is still much lower on the charts. Actually, EU as a region is the third largest “emitter.”

The US and EU have promised to become "net zero" by 2050 and China by 2060. But as the recent disasters in Kerala and Uttarakhand show us that we cannot turn a blind eye to environmental damage in the name of development anymore.

India’s COP26 commitments

So what does it mean for India to become “net zero” by 2070? And what exactly does “net zero” mean? Under “net zero,” a nation’s carbon emissions will be fully absorbed by its “carbon sinks” — the forests, lakes and other natural bio-diversity reserves it has created. So it becomes a “zero emitter” in net terms.

India has made five (”Panchamrit”) important commitments:

(i) To build 500 GW non-fossil fuel electricity capacity by 2030,

(ii) To ensure that 50 per cent of India’s energy requirements are met by renewable sources by 2030,

(iii) To cut one billion tonne of emissions by 2030,

(iv) 45 per cent lower emissions intensity of GDP by 2030 and,

(v) Net zero emissions by 2070.

These are important commitments much of which will have to be achieved in the next one decade. This includes a serious push towards renewable energy and a drastic cut on the reliance on coal for generating energy.

Economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia in a study has said that India’s emissions are likely to peak around 2035 and then start tapering. A study by think-tank Centre for Science and Environment estimates that emissions are set to peak around 2040 and move towards “net zero” around 2070.

But for this to happen much of our energy sources, transportation, and industry will have to adopt cleaner fuels. The Prime Minister has also sought $1 trillion from the developed countries to fund climate change mitigation plans in the developing countries. Whether this fructifies remains to be seen. On the renewable energy front there is a growing consensus that the targets are achievable. But the real challenge for India is to ensure development without damaging the environment at the community level.