India Will Have to Leapfrog Every Major Economy to Reach Net Zero by 2050

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A new analysis by provides the first detailed look at what the South Asian giant will need to do

Top Indian officials are discussing whether to set a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, yet little analytical work has been done on just what the country will have to do to meet that target.

In February, the International Energy Agency found it’s possible for India to zero out its emissions by the mid-2060s. The conclusion was based on the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario, which sees the entire planet reaching net zero by 2070. If that happened, the world would have a 66% chance of keeping average temperature rise below 1.8°C and a 50% chance of limiting it to 1.65°C.

Meeting the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious 1.5°C goal requires reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by mid-century. A new analysis from Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water, illustrates just how much of a lift it’s going to be for India to get there in time.

According to his study, by 2050:

  • Fossil fuels have to fall to 5% of the energy mix, from 73% in 2015
  • The share of renewables (excluding hydropower) will have to rise to 83%, from 10% in 2019
  • Electric car sales will have to make up 78% of total purchases, from 0.1% in 2019
  • Any liquid fuel used will have to be biofuel, which forms a negligible share today

If India were able to deploy carbon capture and storage, which involves trapping emissions from polluting industries and burying them underground, it would only marginally ease the deployment of clean technologies needed. In that case, fossil fuels could be 31% of the energy mix, but renewables would still have to reach 70%.

“Nothing is impossible,” said Chaturvedi. “But we should know what is the level of effort it will take.” His calculations show that, in a high economic growth scenario, India’s effort to decarbonize by 2050 will be six times greater than what it would take China to get there by 2060. Every other large country will have an easier time getting to net zero than China, meaning India would have to leapfrog every major economy to achieve the goal.

Chaturvedi began looking at India’s path to net zero last year. At the time, there was no indication the world’s third-biggest emitter would consider a 2050 target, and no such scenario had been considered in published studies. Chaturvedi said he only added the mid-century target to his analysis in recent weeks.

To keep his analysis manageable, Chaturvedi focused on the energy-related emissions that make up 88% of India’s total contribution to global warming. The bulk of the country’s remaining pollution comes from farming and deforestation, which also releases methane and nitrous oxide.

If India became net zero by 2050, its total share of accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would be just a fifth of what China and the US — the first and second biggest emitters — will have added by 2100. “The climate debate is inequitable,” said Chaturvedi. “The reality of it is that countries like India are being forced, or will have to do much more, to mitigate emissions.”

Those differences become starker when you consider India’s per capita impact on the climate. Let’s assume India manages to reach peak emissions by 2030, before getting to net zero 20 years later. That would mean that, at its peak, India’s emissions for each of its 1.4 billion people would be only one-tenth of the US’s per capita contribution when its emissions peaked in 2007.

Still, as one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate impacts, India stands to gain from setting an ambitious net-zero goal. “India will also benefit from the technology transition that is going to happen,” said Chaturvedi. Using clean technologies won’t just cut emissions, it would also reduce air pollution, which kills more than 1.7 million Indians annually.

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