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Carbon Chronicles & India’s Climate

by Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh
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The past four decades have seen India journey through a complex developmental trajectory. A rapidly industrializing economic engine has driven the creation of immense wealth, and improved the quality of life for millions, but has also resulted in large-scale environmental degradation, wide-spread air pollution and an explosion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In 1990, India emitted a little over one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e; this unit includes emissions of CO2 as well as other GHGs like methane and nitrous oxide, normalised by their respective global warming potentials). By 2020, that number had reached over 3 billion tonnes, accounting for approximately 7% of global GHG emissions – a dramatic increase over the course of just 30 years. This upward trend is projected to continue, and India is expected to contribute to over 10% of global carbon emissions by 2030. Given the dire consequences of unchecked climate change, these statistics underscore the importance of taking concrete steps to decarbonize the nation’s economy. With that in mind, it’s a useful exercise to systematically break down the primary drivers of GHG emissions and delve into the specific levers for carbon reduction. In March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a synthesis report that summarized our scientific understanding, gleaned over many decades of study, into the causes and impacts of climate change. The report provided an updated, credible and extensive science-based review of the dynamic coupling of human activities and climate change (i.e. – the impacts of human activities on climate change, as well as the impacts of a rapidly changing climate on human society). It is a sober read, and should leave us all with a lot to think about.
In it, over 600 of the world’s most renowned domain experts, across three different working groups, leveraged state-of-the-science research methods to conclude that human green-house gas (GHG) emissions had “unequivocally” warmed the global climate, increasing the planet’s average surface temperature by over 1°C above pre-industrial averages. The scientists were also clear that the surge in GHG emissions over the past century had led to important changes in the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. While limiting global warming to 1.5°C (i.e. around half a degree over what has already occurred) is a commonly stated objective in political discourse, the report suggests that it is likely we will see this level of warming in the next 10-20 years unless we take targeted steps towards reducing global GHG emissions. In fact, the IPCC projects that if nations do not become increasingly ambitious about decarbonizing their economies and continue at their current levels of ambition, global temperatures will likely rise by 2.8°C (relative to pre-industrial temperatures) by the end of the century. Climate Change is poised to fundamentally disrupt India’s social and economic systems over the next few decades unless we understand how to effectively mitigate and adapt. In this new series, we focus on exploring how this societal challenge interacts with individual sectors of our economy, shedding light on the opportunities for targeted action along the way. These temperature thresholds are not always intuitive, so it’s worth explaining how to interpret them. The impacts of climate change are pervasive, but nuanced. Increased warming (as depicted by a temperature rating, e.g. 1.5°C, 2°C, etc.) can be viewed as a proxy for how strongly humans are perturbing global and regional climate systems. Higher the temperature change, higher the perturbation.
The near term effects of this perturbation include (1) increased heat-related death and illness, (2) food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne diseases, (3) human displacement and productivity loss, (4) sea-level rise and coastal flooding, (5) biodiversity loss, (6) intensified monsoons and tropical cyclones, (7) droughts and (8) immense stress on regional food production systems. The higher the temperature change, the more intense these impacts. For instance, for many regions in India, the difference between a 1.5°C and 2.8°C warming could mean the difference between experiencing 50 days of hyperthermia (heat-stroke) inducing heat and 150 days of the same levels of heat. Anyone who has been exposed to an Indian summer can attest to the fact that this kind of shift in weather would fundamentally alter society, impacting human health, productivity and quality of life. Similar shifts can be expected from monsoon patterns, leading to unpredictable floods and droughts that will impact millions of vulnerable small-holder farmers and shock the national food system. Despite these very clear risks, we are currently well on our way to around 2.8°C in warming. As a result, between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people (over 40% of the world’s population) now live in regions that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The doom and gloom in the previous two paragraphs are not meant to dissuade efforts to combat climate change. To the contrary, they are intended to provide a clear and cutting rationale for why we need to prioritise efforts in this space. As the most populous country in the world, India finds itself at a remarkable inflection point – poised to expand on its economic commitments but still well-positioned to make and meet ambitious environmental ones. As climate change becomes an undeniable reality, decisions made by Indian stakeholders will become increasingly pivotal towards determining the global climate trajectory. While an important portion of these decisions will be made by governmental regulators, private industry will play an equally crucial role in ushering in a decarbonised Indian economy. Given that corporate sustainability and fiduciary commitments are often positioned as adversarial, this series will focus on exploring opportunities for them to thrive synergistically, unpacking the benefits and tradeoffs of different decision-making levers across individual sectors of the economy.
In order to understand the role of India in the global climate landscape, it’s essential to start by contextualising its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. India contributes around 7% of global GHG emissions, making it the third-largest emitter after China (around 33%) and the United States (around 13%). However, it’s important to remember that, in per-capita terms, the average Indian emits around 2.5 tCO2e per year, much lower than most developed economies (US: 17.6 tCO2e per year, EU: 7 tCO2e per year, Japan: 9 tCO2e per year). That said, as the Indian economy continues to develop, these per-capita numbers are positioned to explode – unless we actively chart a more sustainable development path for the country. India has made substantial pledges to reduce its GHGs, including to reduce its GHG intensity (relative to GDP) by 45% from 2005 levels by 2030. The country has also set an ambitious target of achieving 50% of its total electricity generation from non-fossil fuel sources by the same year. Meeting these targets will require stakeholders in each sector of the economy to take targeted decisions to set and meet ambitious decarbonisation goals. As it stands today, the most polluting sectors in India (by absolute GHG emissions) are the Power Sector (around 36%), Agriculture (around 21%), Manufacturing and Construction (around 17%) and Transportation (around 9%). Several key sectors (such as steel and cement) have disproportionately high carbon emissions intensities relative to their GDP contributions. Future installments of this series will delve into these sectors individually, exploring why they are so carbon intensive and what we can do to decarbonise them. In particular, we will focus on the strategies, methods, technologies and tools available to private-sector stakeholders in these sectors that are interested in decarbonising their operations..
The power sector: lighting up India, at a cost India derives around half of its electricity from coal (over 70% from fossil fuel sources in total), consuming the better part of a billion tonnes of coal per year (~15% of the world’s consumption). Coal power is highly carbon intensive, and is one of the most polluting sources of energy (more so than other fossil fuels like natural gas). India’s outsized reliance on coal has resulted in the power sector alone contributing to approximately 36% of the nation’s total GHG emissions in a given year. The past two decades have seen almost a four-fold increase in coal-based power plants in the country, resulting in a drastic increase in thermal-coal-related GHG emissions. While these statistics set context for the urgent need to decarbonise the power sector and reduce our reliance on coal, they also mask a meaningful shift in recent policy. In 2015, as part of the Paris Agreement, India set an ambitious pledge to reduce its reliance on coal power. Then, in 2022, the nation announced an updated commitment to meet 50% of its electricity requirements from renewable energy sources by 2030 (the number currently hovers at about 20%). In accordance with this updated pledge, solar capacity has been growing at a tremendous rate, increasing by over 40% in 2022 alone.
(Writer can be reached at:[email protected])

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