Nov 1, 2021 - Politics & Policy

India's long road to "net zero"

Data: Climate Action Tracker; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

GLASGOW, Scotland Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's much-anticipated speech today at the COP26 climate summit broke new ground for the world’s third-largest emitter, but it won’t calm fears that the summit has failed to summon the urgency required to truly change the trajectory of the planet.

The big picture: Success or failure in Glasgow will largely be defined by the plans that individual countries bring to the table to limit their emissions this decade and strive toward net zero.

  • With China’s Xi Jinping limiting his participation to a written statement and Russia’s Vladimir Putin also staying home, much of the attention shifted to Modi.

Driving the news: India tonight joined all of the world’s other big polluters in committing to a “net zero” target date — not 2050 as the U.S. and other rich countries have advocated, or 2060 as China has adopted, but 2070.

  • That’s still notable, considering Modi’s environment minister dismissed the idea of net zero pledges just last week. But it’s also a half-century away.
  • Modi also increased the target for India’s renewable energy production by the end of this decade, a crucial piece of the puzzle since India’s demand for energy is projected to rise significantly, unlike in many developed countries.
  • He argued that to fund such transitions, developed countries must “make $1 trillion available as climate finance as soon as possible.”

What he’s saying: Modi said he felt a "duty to raise my voice for developing countries."

  • He noted that rich countries had fallen short of their previous promises, including to provide $100 billion in annual climate financing beginning in 2020.
  • At a separate event alongside fellow world leaders, Modi used his time to highlight the help that countries like India need to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Flashback: India used to enter such summits with the attitude of "we have such low per-capita emissions, don't even talk to us because we will never exceed where you are at," says Amar Bhattacharya, former director of the “Group of 24” club of developing countries and now a fellow at Brookings.

  • Now, Modi’s position is that India still needs fossil fuels but is prepared to become a renewables powerhouse if the investment is available, Bhattacharya says. Other big developing countries like Vietnam, which today pledged to reach net zero by 2050, are in a similar boat.
  • Yes, but: India seems to be in no hurry to quit coal, which currently accounts for 70% of its energy mix.

What’s next: Developed countries produced most of the carbon that's already in the atmosphere, and the developing countries "need space to grow," says Bhattacharya.

  • That growth doesn’t have to be powered by fossil fuels. But that just underscores the urgency of advancing alternative paths in Glasgow.
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