We have heard the term net zero, but what exactly does it mean? Net zero means achieving a balance between the volume of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced and removed from the atmosphere. This is crucial in an era where GHG emissions are already causing climate change, with all its adverse impacts.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at the 26th United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021 that India will achieve net zero emissions by 2070. He also announced some steps to be taken by 2030 to reach that goal. These steps were refined and submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in August 2022 as an update of India’s pledge to the world to combat climate change.
What will India’s transition entail? What steps are needed to move towards the target, and what will need to be done to ensure the country is on track for a just transition?
There is a dearth of in-depth and engaging media coverage on these topics. In the coming years, journalists will need to keep the public informed about what’s at stake and hold policymakers accountable to their commitments. This tipsheet will help journalists in India looking to report more effectively on the path to net zero — including the prospects, potential opportunities and challenges that will be faced along the way.
Read on to gain a deeper understanding of the concept of net zero and learn about India’s progress towards this goal.
Why is India’s pledge important?
To keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C — the aspirational goal in the Paris Agreement — global emissions would need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (fourth if one considers the combined emissions of European Union countries). The country was responsible for around 7% of global GHG emissions between 2015 and 2020. The way India develops — especially its energy infrastructure — has profound implications nationally and globally.
"How India chooses to act on climate is a very big deal. If the world's third-largest polluter drops all 'ifs', 'ands', 'buts' and — despite its low per-capita income — wholeheartedly joins the global effort to save the only planet we have, it is bound to capture the imagination of those countries that remain sitting on the fence," wrote former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the first head of Indian government’s think tank NITI Aayog Arvind Panagariya in their op-ed in the The Economic Times.
In 2023, India has the rotating presidency of the G20 summit, making the country’s actions all the more important.
The Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) has produced a detailed analysis of the route to Getting India to Net Zero. The report says achieving net zero emissions by 2070 could boost India’s economy by as much as 4.7% above projected baseline growth in GDP terms by 2036 — worth a total of US$371 billion — with long-run effects still maintaining 3.5% growth above baseline by 2060. It has also analyzed the implications if India were to advance its net zero year to 2050.
The current situation
India is the world’s fifth-largest economy and is about to become the most populous country in the world. It is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The Centre for Science and Environment has reported that in the first nine months of 2022, one place or the other in India faced extreme weather — heatwaves, cold waves, floods, storms, landslides and so on — almost every day.
EJN grantees regularly report on these topics:
Covid-19, climate change pushing women in India's Sundarbans to distress by Namrata Acharya — Al Jazeera
Climate change is forcing Indians to migrate far from home by Sibi Arasu — Mint
A disappearing beach in eastern India comes back to life by Nidhi Jamwal — Gaon Connection
The Indian government has declared that electricity has reached every village in the country, but there are still millions of people without access to electricity because they cannot afford it. Coal remains the dominant fuel for electricity generation. India’s GHG emissions are still rising.
India is a strong proponent of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” of countries to mitigate GHG emissions.
This principle, enshrined in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), acknowledges the different capabilities and differing responsibilities of individual countries in addressing climate change.
The Indian government maintains that the overwhelming majority of GHG in the atmosphere has been emitted by developed countries since the start of the Industrial Age. It also points out that developing countries have a right to the global carbon space so that they can develop.
Still, India’s pledges show the country’s commitment to move away from coal, oil and gas in electricity generation. However, all policies to do so are not yet in place. For example, the Ministry of Power has advised that all coal-based generation units of over 25 years of age be retired. But the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology, a think tank aptly named iFOREST, points out that India’s current environmental, land and labor laws are inadequate to deal with the decommissioning of industries and thermal power plants.
"If the Ministry of Power’s advisory to retire coal-based generation units of over 25 years of age is implemented, then as much as 50,000-60,000 MW capacity will have to retire by 2030," said iFOREST CEO Chandra Bhushan.
iFOREST has pointed out that there are no laws in India that mandate decommissioning, remediation and repurposing of a coal-based power plant. As the law stands now, locals who gave up their land for the establishment of a power plant must be included in any formal mechanism to decide the fate of the decommissioned power plant land. Current labor laws are not designed to deal with large-scale closure of industrial facilities.
How much money does India need to reach net zero by 2070?
India will require investments – foreign, domestic, public and private worth over US$ 10 trillion to achieve net zero by 2070, according to a study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water’s Centre for Energy Finance (CEEW-CEF). This will help decarbonize India’s power, industrial, and transport sectors. The study estimates that India may face an investment shortfall of US$ 3.5 trillion to achieve its target. Developed countries will have to provide US$ 1.4 trillion in concessional finance to mobilize private capital that can bridge the gap, the report says
"A transition to net-zero emissions would require mammoth investment support from developed countries. Developed countries must ramp up hard targets for climate finance over the coming years," said Arunabha Ghosh, CEO, CEEW.
The investment requirements during the country's transition are not constant over time. They increase significantly close to net zero years. Had India chosen a 2050 net zero target year, the average annual investment support requirements in decades 2 and 3 (US$ 47 billion and US$ 80 billion respectively) would have been 3.9 times and 2.3 times the corresponding values for the 2070 target year selected.
Total investment, gap and support (in USD) for India’s 2070 Net Zero target
Many studies have been conducted on possible sources of such finance and the advantages of moving toward net zero — including the saving of lives, catalyzing new industries, creating over 50 million jobs and contributing more than US$15 trillion in beneficial economic impacts. The World Economic Forum summarized the possibilities in an article, with the full findings available in their study.
Here are some more studies:
- IEEFA: How finance can propel India’s net zero transition
- India’s path to net zero
- How to get green financing to take off
Some Indian corporate houses have announced that they will reach net zero by 2050 or earlier. These include Mahindra & Mahindra, Aditya Birla Group, JSW Group, Adani Transmission, Vedanta, and Dalmia Cement. Reliance Industries, the largest corporation in India by market capitalization, has set a goal of being net zero by 2035.
A group called the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has said growing numbers of Indian companies are joining them. “India leads emerging economies in the number of SBTi commitments, with 79 Indian companies joining the initiative as of April 2022,” says SBTi.
What is Just Transition?
No move away from coal, oil or gas can succeed without a just transition. The International Labor Organization defines just transition as “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.” A just transition from a carbon-based to a green economy essentially means safeguarding the jobs of all those who now work in the carbon-based economy and providing additional job opportunities. According to a study published by the University of British Columbia in 2021, around 3.6 million people are either directly or indirectly employed in India's coal mining and power sectors
Just transition is about ensuring none of them suffer as India phases down coal use and moves toward renewable energy sources.
The G7 established a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) with South Africa in 2021 to support coal phaseout. Many countries, including India, are watching the effect. Meanwhile, some civil society organizations have worked out the potential benefits of a just transition.
What does a healthy, fossil free economy look like?
While India has not yet made any announcement about ensuring a just transition, the government is pushing forward in the direction of a greener economy. Apart from renewable energy, it is encouraging electric vehicles, new battery technologies and manufacturing and the use of green hydrogen. NITI Aayog, a public policy think tank of the Government of India, estimates that adoption of green hydrogen would enable India to abate 3.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions cumulatively between now and 2050, and save on energy imports. (Carbon dioxide is the main GHG warming the atmosphere.)
What is net zero?
Net zero is the perfect balance between GHG emission and absorption. Forests absorb carbon dioxide — the main GHG — during photosynthesis. The ocean also absorbs carbon dioxide, though its ability to do so is reducing as it gets more and more saturated with dissolved carbon dioxide.
How will net zero help stop global warming?
Governments across the world have pledged to keep average global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius from the pre-Industrial Age, and to strive toward a 1.5-degree ceiling. The global group of climate scientists — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — has said global GHG emissions must reach a net zero level by 2050 to keep this pledge and to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts.
Possible story themes
- How is the Russia-Ukraine war impacting the move away from fossil fuels? What will be the long-term impact on the global goal of net zero by 2050 recommended by IPCC?
- What will be the impact on severe weather disturbances if the world reaches net zero earlier? Or later?
- The role of agriculture, including dairy, in methane emissions and their mitigation, and the role this sector can play in moving towards net zero
- How can policymakers move towards a net zero goal that will be of special benefit to women, the poor, Indigenous communities and other marginalized groups?
- We know climate change is affecting human health. How will this situation change if net zero is reached earlier? Or later?
- What can be the role of businesses, corporates and private companies in the move towards net zero?
- What will be the benefits of net-zero transition to biodiversity?
- What would a just transition look like for Indigenous and / or marginalized communities?
- What should be the role of civil society, NGOs and youth activists in the move towards net zero?
- What are the safeguards necessary as India moves towards net zero, especially as it accelerates the rollout of renewable energy projects?
- What India’s Net Zero announcement means for businesses: Observer Research Foundation
- India approves climate plan with increased ambition, clarifying energy goals: Climate Home News
- India’s net-zero dream: between diplomacy and reality: The Third Pole
- Green Finance in India: Progress and Challenges: Reserve Bank of India paper
- Where is India spending more – fossil fuels or renewables: The Third Pole
- Frequently asked Questions on Just Transition: International Labor Organization
- What is a Just Transition: European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
- Building a Powerful and Coherent Vision for Net Zero in Asia: Asia Society Policy Institute
- India Inc on Net Zero path: EY
- Outlook On Green Finance In India: Mondaq
- Energy security and climate finance at the heart of India’s G20 presidency: Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis
- Net Zero By 2070. A Roadmap For India: imrenew
Banner image: Coal mining and miners in Singrauli, India / Credit: Joe Athialy via Flickr.