Cop26: Why Modi’s climate pledges have sparked confusion in India

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Narendra Modi’s promise of a net zero future and increased renewable energy came as a welcome surprise at the Cop26 summit and helped set the world on a path towards keeping global warming within the Paris Agreement’s goals for the first time. However, the Indian prime minister’s speech also left room for a lot of confusion, and lacked crucial technical details.

Since his announcement earlier this week, conflicting statements from Mr Modi and the country’s Ministry of External Affairs have triggered widespread confusion around the promises, especially those related to energy consumption, since India fulfils 70 per cent of its requirements using coal, which the PM said the country could be looking at phasing out within years.

Addressing the gathering of world leaders at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, Mr Modi announced: “India will [increase] its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030,” and said that it would meet “50 per cent of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030”.

This was a landmark announcement coming alongside an emissions-reduction goal of 1 billion tonnes, which would represent a 2.5-3 per cent reduction in absolute emissions over the next nine years. Some experts have referred to these other pledges as even more important in tackling the climate crisis than India’s net zero emissions target of 2070.

But analysts have been grappling to find answers to a series of questions raised by Mr Modi’s speech. Is India’s 50 per cent renewable target for its total consumption of installed capacity? Is the emissions-reduction target referring to carbon or total greenhouse gases? Are these commitments conditional based on the availability of climate finance like its previous targets? There is no clarity on any of these aspects; there are only conflicting statements.

Mr Modi’s announcement of 50 per cent energy consumption from renewables was soon contradicted by the country’s Ministry of External Affairs, which said India’s touted new pledge was actually an expansion of its previous goal – one of its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – of increasing the capacity of renewables, not energy consumption, to 50 per cent.

“You would be aware also that in Paris our NDC said that 40 per cent of our installed electricity capacity would come from non-fossil-fuel-based energy sources,” India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said at a press briefing. “The prime minister announced today that in fact 50 per cent would be met from renewable energy sources.”

Those two metrics – installed capacity, as cited by the ministry official, and energy consumption, to which Mr Modi referred – are different and change the way India’s pledges to reduce fossil dependence are interpreted.

Installed capacity refers to the total capacity electricity plants can produce. However, it isn’t the same as the output, especially in the case of renewables such as solar and wind, which depend on natural factors including time of day and speed of winds and therefore do not have a full capacity output.

Coal, on the other hand, constitutes a little over half of India’s installed capacity, but has a larger share of overall output.

With Mr Modi’s announcement referring to energy requirements, a broad term that refers not just to electricity production but also to uses of fossil fuel in, for example, the cement and steel industries, India’s pledge appeared far more ambitious, perhaps even unrealistic, to experts in the country.

But the installed capacity target for renewables is something India has achieved faster than any other target. India has already attained 39 per cent of installed capacity producing about 92.54 GW till January 2021, according to government data, reaching its NDC pledge nine years ahead of the intended deadline.

However, Mr Modi did not make any commitments for phasing out coal, or not building new coal-fired power plants, in Glasgow this week, leaving uncertainty over India’s plans for its coal usage. Despite the country’s expanded renewable capacity, it has also been increasing its coal production, especially under the energy crunch reported last month that threatened a blackout in Asia’s third-biggest economy.

India hasn’t yet official submitted its NDCs to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) registry, which would formalise its pledges and provide clarity on the announced targets. However, according to experts who spoke to The Independent, the consensus is that the 50 per cent target Mr Modi mentioned refers to installed capacity.

Some have pointed out that the poorly drafted speech left room for confusion in India’s climate-action pledges. However, the target of 500GW renewable energy is also very ambitious, according to Apurba Mitra, head of climate policy at environmental research charity WRI India.

“We are at a little over 100GW at the moment and we will have to increase the capacity by five times in nine years, which is not going to be easy. Possibly achievable but not easy,” she said.

“The 100 GW we achieved is also achieved over the years – the efforts began before 2015. For this new target, there are a lot of challenges to be overcome.”

However, strong policy signals have been a major contributor to the rapid growth of renewables, she added.

“It’s a stretched target, but that is the intent,” Ms Mitra said. “If your target is high, you may not get to it, but in trying to achieve that you reach somewhere ahead of where you started.”

Mr Modi’s speech also failed to specify whether India’s emissions-reduction target referred to total greenhouse gases or carbon, but since India’s earlier target referred to total greenhouse gases, experts believe it is in line with the expansion.

On the matter of climate finance, India’s stand has remained clear – it wants developed countries to take responsibility for their historic emissions and work towards financing the transition in countries that haven’t contributed as much to global warming.

In Glasgow Mr Modi did demand a massive $1 trillion in climate finance, but he did not specify whether India’s new plans depended on its availability. Some of India’s previous NDCs were conditional on funding.

An official NDC submission to the UNFCCC registry may be able to clarify the picture, but there’s no clarity on when that will happen.

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