India sets ambitious climate action goals - Biting off more than what we can chew?

India announced a few headline grabbing targets at the recently concluded COP26 forum in Glasgow. Can we deliver on them is the question.

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Jitesh Surjiani | 21 Nov '21

The World Leaders' Summit segment of the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded this week. The two-week climate conference in Glasgow saw heads of government discussing the challenges of global warming and making individual commitments to address the crisis. Over 120 countries submitted their official climate pledges in the form of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC).

As a participant in the COP26 conference, India made some bold and headline-grabbing pledges that were lauded by all nations. India set itself 5 key targets, four of which are to be achieved by the end of the decade:

  1. Achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. This means no more greenhouse gas will be added to the atmosphere than is removed by the year 2070.
  2. Reduce carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030
  3. Reduce carbon intensity to 45% below 2005 levels by 2030.
  4. Raise the non-fossil electricity capacity to 500 GW by 2030 from the initial target of 450 GW set in 2015
  5. Use non-fossil-fuel (renewable) sources for meeting 50% of India’s electricity needs by 2030. This raises the initial target of 40% set in 2015.

Challenges and dependent factors

The exuberant cheers and applauds for the ambitious targets have somewhat overshadowed the challenges they pose. As praiseworthy as the targets may be, much depends on a number of internal and external factors as well as contingent conditions accompanying them. Let’s look at each of them individually.


The rich nations had pledged $100 billion a year to the poor and developing nations back in 2009 to help them combat climate change. This was considered as a form of compensation for their shameless abuse of fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil to achieve industrial growth while the poor nations were being asked to curb their growth ambitions by limiting the use of fossil fuels. Over the last 12 years, the highest amount actually received by the recipient nations is $80 billion, and that too only this year. However, India has asked for $100 billion in compensation each year “only for itself”, as much as is committed for all nations collectively. Environment Secretary Rameshwar Prasad Gupta has confirmed that India will move away from the dirtiest fossil fuel (coal) ONLY if it gets $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

As of Oct’21, the electricity distribution companies (discoms) owe ₹1,13,560 crore (USD 85 billion) to the power supply and transmission firms of which ₹19,000 crore (USD 14 billion) is to renewable energy firms. Many discoms have outstanding dues of between 6 and 12 times their monthly bills. Even with a strong power sector policy by the central government, it will be a challenge to have the near-bankrupt discoms honor their long-term power purchase agreements or pay on time. With such heavy debts, the government will financially struggle to raise its non-fossil electricity capacity by 350% by the year 2030.

Highly ambitious targets

Firstly, it needs to be understood that the revised target of reaching 500 Gigawatts (GW) of installed power capacity from non-fossil (renewable) sources by 2030 announced in COP26 this year is just the same as its earlier target of 450 GW set in 2015. This is because large hydropower dams (which also count toward non-fossil fuel sources) that already generate 46 GW were not included in the 2015 target. So, the revised target is nothing but a tricky play of numbers.

Installed Capacity for Renewable Energy - India

Installed capacity is the maximum output of electricity that a generator can produce under ideal conditions. India's installed capacity for renewable energy (incl hydroelectric) stands at 140 GW as of March 2021. This means the country needs to add another 360 GW by 2030 at the rate of 40 GW per year over the next 9 years. In the preceding 9 years, India has added 77 GW of renewable energy capacity and in the next 9 years, it is expecting to add almost 5 times that with 360 GW.

Renewable Energy Sources - India

India’s target for 500 GW of renewable energy installed capacity seems to be baselined on the Central Electricity Authority's Report on Optimal Generation Capacity Mix for 2029-30 as per which 280 GW would come from solar power, 140 GW from wind energy, and 30 GW from other hybrid energy sources. Solar power appears to become the primary contributor for reaching the target of 500 GW of renewable energy installed capacity with an expected growth of 700% in the next 9 years. Such was the emphasis on solar power that PM Modi even quoted the Suryopanishad in his address to the group calling for ‘One Sun, One World, One Grid' to improve the viability of solar power. He even announced that India's space agency ISRO will soon provide the world with a solar calculator application.

Absence of baseline

One of the short-term goals is to reduce 1 billion tonnes of carbon emission by 2030. However, there seems to be no baseline provided based on which this reduction will be computed. Hence, validating the achievement of this target will be subject to individual interpretations.

   Also read: Data and expert analysis on Electricity & Power sector

Climate Action vs Climate Justice

India has surely set itself up for an ambitious target that is fraught with Himalayan challenges. At the global level though, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Special Report on Global Warming has stated the world must reach net-zero emission latest by 2050 to have any hopes of curtailing temperature increase at 1.5°C (the most ambitious target of the Paris Agreement). It is also on record that for the world to go net-zero by 2050, China should go by 2040 and OECD countries by 2030.

Share of Global Carbon Emissions - India

The three largest polluters who together are responsible for emitting 52% of the carbon in the atmosphere have all shed their responsibility. USA has committed to 2050, China has committed to 2060 and India has committed to 2070. Only once we stop emitting additional carbon from fossil fuels, can we begin to deal with all the emissions we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere over the last few decades.

   Also read: Data and expert analysis on Carbon Emissions

"The problem is not India," Brandon Wu, director of policy & campaigns for Action Aid USA, wrote on Twitter. "The problem is the U.S. and rich countries refusing to couch fossil-fuel phaseout in the context of global equity."

At the forum, India reiterated its position that the concept of the fair share must be considered as developing countries like India have a greater developmental imperative than USA or China who has grown by exploiting cheap fossil fuel for decades. As a result, the rich and developed nations need to set even stricter net-zero targets to leave carbon space for nations like India to grow. India, along with other BRICS countries suggested there is an urgent need to look beyond coal at other polluting fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil used by the rich nations to grow and collectively requested the rich nations to provide them with additional finance and technology for a just transition.

At the close of the forum, COP26 Head Alok Sharma was moved to tears and felt "Deeply Sorry” for failing to realize the climate change commitments from all nations. Until the collective greed for money does not give way to climate action, let us only hope that we will not be sorry when nature decides to exact its revenge.

Only when the last tree has been cut down, have the last fish been caught and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money. – Cree Indian Proverb


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Jitesh Surjiani

Jitesh Surjiani

Jitesh Surjiani is passionate about progressive change for India and its citizens. He writes about issues that are roadblocks in improving quality of life and interpersonal interactions as well as areas of public governance that fall short in intent and action.

India sets ambitious climate action goals - Biting off more than what we can chew? India sets ambitious climate action goals - Biting off more than what we can chew?
India sets ambitious climate action goals - Biting off more than what we can chew?
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