Global CO2 emissions: Zeroing in on net zero


The global debate on combating climate change is in a decisive phase. The recent extreme weather events in Uttarakhand and Texas only highlight the challenge ahead. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that global CO2 emissions should reach net zero by 2050 to have a reasonable probability of limiting global warming to 1.50 C. This is a narrow time window. Considering that the global energy industry is fossil dominated, achieving net zero emissions implies an energy transition at a scale not seen before. Therefore, this decade requires decisive action.

Many countries have already announced net zero targets. In September 2020, Xi Jinping announced that China would cut its emissions to net-zero by 2060. Joe Biden, within a few hours of taking office, announced US plans to re-enter the Paris climate accord. The US is also likely to soon announce net zero targets.

These developments obviously turn the focus on India and other developing countries. What are our options? Under the Paris Agreement, India announced its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which include reducing the carbon intensity of GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from 2005 levels and achieving 40% fossil-free installed capacity by 2030. India is on track to achieve these targets perhaps even before 2030. However, even with these policy announcements, various modeling studies indicate that India’s CO2 emissions are likely to reach about 8-10 billion tons by 2050. This is not commensurate with global net zero aspirations.


India must make a strong policy commitment to achieve net zero emissions. The exact timeframe should be determined based on careful analyses and dialogues with key stakeholders. However, it would be ideal to achieve this by 2050. The approach could be — What needs to be done to achieve net zero by 2050? Further, there should be intermediate targets for 2030 and 2040. A long-term target that is not backed up by immediate action is unlikely to be successful.

Our proposition is based on the following reasons.

One, for the world to reach net zero by 2050, it is inevitable for India also to achieve close to net zero at some point in the not-too-distant future. This places India in the unique position of a developing country trying to meet its developmental goals in an increasingly carbon constrained world. India is attempting what no other country has done before (including China): to delink economic growth from fossil fuels. Given the inevitability and magnitude of the task involved, it is imperative to have a clear intent about this long-term transition. This requires careful studies, road mapping and public consultation.

Two, in developed countries, energy infrastructure is already fully developed. In fact, developed countries are now attempting to shift from fossil-based to renewables-based infrastructure. India is in a unique position as most of our future energy infrastructure is yet to be built. Therefore, this is the opportune time to make a clear long-term policy intent so that we are not locked into a future carbon-intensive infrastructure.

To provide an idea of the numbers, India’s present primary energy demand of about 7,000 billion kWh is expected to increase to 15,000-18,000 billion kWh by 2050. Industry (50%), transport (25%) and buildings (10%) are expected to be the main energy consumers. India has done very well in the deployment of renewable energy (RE) technologies. In particular, the cost of solar electricity has dropped to below Rs2 per kWh. India also has an ambitious RE target of 450 GW. There is a realistic possibility of decarbonising the electricity sector within this decade.

However, electricity meets only a fraction of our total energy demand. Industry and transport are heavily dependent on coal and oil. Given India’s growing economy, the transport and industry sectors are expected to increase about three times by 2050. For instance, steel production of 110 million tons is likely to reach at least 300 million tons. Steel manufacture involves the use of coke in the blast furnace.

Similarly, cement manufacture involves the use of limestone as raw material, which leads to process CO2 emissions. These sectors require new technologies, which eliminate the use of carbon-based fuels in the manufacturing process. R&D efforts should start now since commercial deployment takes time. Else we run the risk of developing a large manufacturing capacity of legacy carbon-intensive technologies.

Three, achieving the net zero pathway will require international cooperation, especially in technologies and finance for mitigation and adaptation. India will require several novel technologies, such as hydrogen, fuel cells, electric vehicles, and batteries. Once a net zero policy, is announced, it will be better placed to clearly articulate the technology and finance needs to achieve these targets. India should then argue from a position of strength, given that its historic emissions are negligible.

Finally, the shift from a fossil-based economy to an RE-based economy will have enormous social implications, especially in those states and districts where the economy depends on these fuels. It will also impact many small and medium industries, which are in supply chain of fossil-based energy infrastructure. This transition must be carefully planned and made as smooth as possible.

It is for these reasons that the time has come for India to take leadership, and announce an intent of achieving net zero emissions.

(Bharadwaj is CEO, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation. Godrej is chairman-managing director, Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Company)

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