Inflexion Points: India doing well on reducing emission intensity

March 5, 2021 6:00 AM

Its transformation to a competitive, prosperous yet low-carbon economy now needs big bets on technology for industry, transport and cities, given how energy-use sectors will determine how quickly India’s decarbonisation unfolds.

India has already signed an agreement under the 2015 Paris Agreement for climate change. Representative Image

By Arunabha Ghosh

Is India on track to reducing emissions-intensity of its GDP as per the international commitments it has made? Should it do more? Even if other countries are not doing their bit? The answer to all three questions is yes.

As an emerging economy, India’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to rise. But it has also committed to reducing the emissions-intensity of its GDP by 33-35% over 2005 levels by 2030. It wants economic growth with lower emission. Between 2011 and 2016, while its GDP (current prices) rose at 12% CAGR, emissions increased at 4% CAGR. This is revealed in India’s latest Biennial Update Report (BUR) submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

BURs are the foundation of transparency in the international climate regime, to check how countries are doing against stated goals. Here, India scores a point. Its measurement, reporting and verification has sound foundations comprising dashboards/portals, apps, data repositories and initiatives by non-governmental institutions. While 63 countries have submitted BUR-1 and 31 have submitted BUR-2, India is one of only 13 to have published BUR-3 (three countries have submitted BUR-4). China and the US, the largest current and historical polluters, respectively, have submitted two reports.

Broadly, emissions can be lowered by reducing energy used or the carbon content of the energy mix. During 2012-16, emissions intensity of GDP reduced by 11% at constant 2011 prices (24% reduction since 2005). By contrast, energy intensity of GDP decreased 7% at constant prices (see graphic). While the share of agriculture emissions fell, energy-use emissions increased to three-fourths of all emissions. Emissions from residential and commercial energy use grew the fastest (12% CAGR, signalling rapid urbanisation), followed by energy industries, manufacturing and transport (CAGRs of 5%, 3% and 4%, respectively).

Thus, bulk of India’s achievement in reducing emissions intensity has been thanks to energy efficiency. Programmes includeUjala scheme for LED light bulbs (180 million tonnes of CO2, or mtCO2, saved between 2014-15 and 2019-20), Perform, Achieve and Trade scheme for industries (31 mtCO2 saved during 2012-15 and 61 mtCO2 during 2016-19), efficient street lighting (14.82 mtCO2 saved between 2015-16 and 2019-20), the Krishi Sinchayee Yojana for agriculture (11.979 mtCO2 saved during 2017-19), and 20.69 mtCO2 avoided by March 2017, thanks to supercritical coal power plants (avoiding sub-critical units). Smaller savings have come from fuel efficiency norms for passenger cars, support for EVs, energy efficiency schemes for small industries, efficient water pumping in cities, and building retrofits. Together, these resulted in a net reduction of 23.728 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2018-19, roughly 6% of total energy consumption that year.

In future, too, energy-use sectors will determine how quickly India’s decarbonisation unfolds. Across energy-intensive industries, cement and non-ferrous metals had the highest reduction in energy intensity (21% and 14%, respectively), but iron and steel increased energy intensity of output. These heavy industries will continue to pose a challenge.

Despite massive deployment, the share of renewables in India’s primary energy mix has increased from 0.1% to merely 2% during 2011-19. Electricity still accounts for only about 26% of India’s final energy consumption and renewables have only a 9% share in power generation. For faster decarbonisation, there must be a double transition: faster electrification of sectors and rapidly rising share of renewables in power generation. The Railways, for instance, will become the first major railway system to be fully electrified and seeks to become a net-zero emitter by 2030. For heavy industry, the recently announced National Hydrogen Mission could be fundamental in switching to renewables-derived hydrogen instead of coal.

Compared to other countries, India does better. According to the International Energy Agency, barring China, India outperforms many major emitters (the US, EU-4, Japan, Russia and Brazil) in reducing energy intensity of GDP during 2011-17 (see graphic). The BUR calculates a carbon budget based on equal per capita allocation. There is no set rule to allocate a carbon budget across the world’s population; each country looks for ways to have a larger share of a shrinking pie. Nevertheless, using such a definition, India’s per capita cumulative emissions during 1990-2017 was only 27% of its fair share of emissions. This contrasts with emissions exceeding the fair share in the US (417%), Germany (242%), Japan (211%), or China (109%). Moreover, rich countries have failed to redeem past commitments to cut emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, they were meant to cut these to 5% below 1990 levels during 2008-12. Not all rich countries participated, the US being the most notable case.

By one measure, participating countries did well with 22% reduction. But this largely owed to inflated base year emissions. For 15 economies in transition (former Soviet bloc countries), CEEW analysis finds, emissions fell by 37% on average during 1990-1997. These reductions were not due to any concerted effort to cut emissions but the result of economic collapse. Claiming this as an achievement is akin to saying that fall in emissions during the pandemic is appropriate climate strategy!

Thereafter, the Doha Amendment to the Protocol set out a second commitment period (2013-20). Participating countries were nudged to reduce emission by at least 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020. This time, several more major emitters (Canada, Japan, Russia) did not participate.

The reality of developed-country emissions becomes stark when the performance of the non-participating countries is considered. Their aggregate emissions increased 106% against the business-as-usual scenario in the first commitment period. In the second period, emissions dropped, but only 12% against BAU. Net of economies in transition, aggregate emissions of developed countries decreased only by 1.6% during 1990-2018—the needle of emissions reduction barely budged.

India is going to meet its emissions intensity targets. But that is not the same as emissions reductions. Its transformation to a prosperous yet low-carbon economy needs big bets on technology for industry, transport and cities. Better performance compared to developed countries positions India as a reliable climate stakeholder. International climate discussions must recognise it as such. However, faced with extreme climate vulnerability, it must continue to show the path forward.

The author is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water
Twitter: @GhoshArunabha @CEEWIndia

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