India ‘Walking the Walk’ on Climate: Q&A

By Vandana Gombar, BloombergNEF. This article first appeared on the Bloomberg Terminal.

India – one of the world’s five largest carbon emitters – is set to meet its Paris climate commitments several years ahead of the 2030 target. Is there a case then for the country to take on more ambitious commitments?

Prakash Javadekar, the minister of environment, forests and climate change said the answer to that is “no”, or at least “not yet”. In an interview with BloombergNEF, Javadekar added: “The raising of ambition or ratcheting-up will arise only after a global stocktake in 2023.“

China’s President Xi Jinping last month announced that country’s target for carbon neutrality by 2060. There was speculation about India making the next move, though the two countries with populations of over 1 billion are at very different levels of development.

The global Climate Action Tracker shows India as the only country among the top five emitters whose actions are compatible with a 2-degree warming scenario. The others – China, the U.S., Russia and Japan – are all lagging. ‘We are one of the few countries walking the talk,” said Javadekar, who is also the minister for heavy industry and public sector enterprises, as well as for information and broadcasting. “Don’t ask India to do more.”

Javadekar trumpeted his country’s own track record on climate action: There is one country which is “very clearly a role model as far as climate action is concerned, and that is India,” he said.

On energy transition, India gives out mixed policy signals: it is expanding renewables, as well as coal power. The minister did not see coal exiting the scene soon, even globally, but renewable energy projects in India would likely get fast-track environmental clearance with the new rules that are in the offing.

India’s 2030 climate commitments include:

  • a 33-35% reduction in emissions intensity of GDP (from 2005 level)
  • non-fossil-fuel based power to be 40% of total installed capacity
  • per capita emissions to remain lower than the average of developed nations
  • creation of additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent

Read the Q&A below.

Q: India’s climate story is quite positive. It is likely to over-achieve on the Paris commitments. So my first question to you is: are you thinking of taking on more ambitious commitments?

A: First, let me tell you, that we have already achieved a 21% reduction in emissions intensity. We are on course for creation of carbon stock with the latest target of 26 million hectares of land restoration. Forest and tree cover has increased in the last six years by 15,000 square kilometers. On renewables, we are achieving many things.

It’s a very good performance.

We are one of the few countries walking the talk.

On the issue of raising ambition, I don’t think it is the right time to do anything like that, because we first want to know what other countries are doing. Every climate action has a cost. The cost is ultimately born by the common people. The raising of ambition or ratcheting up will arise only after the global stocktake in 2023.

Q: According to the global Climate Action Tracker, among the top five emitters, India is the only country that is on a path compatible with 2 degrees warming. It goes on to say that India has the potential to be a world leader in climate action. As you answered already, perhaps we don’t want to be a leader in climate action, beyond what we are.

A: I will not say we would not like to be. We are actually doing it by setting an example, but as I told you, every climate action has a cost.

The Prime Minister is very passionate on climate, and he has brought to the table two new issues of climate justice and lifestyle. We are very serious on these issues, and we want to actually ask the world to also report actions on lifestyle issues: whether they are really compromising on something. Our average per capita power consumption is 1,100 units per year.

Theirs is 11,000 units. India’s cars per 1,000 people are just 25 to 30. Theirs are 300-600. That is the real issue. So, you don’t ask India to do more.

Q: Are we communicating that our actions speak louder than words?

Our actions are speaking louder than words. Everybody understands it in this circle but we will also communicate it more effectively.

Q: The Climate Action Tracker also says that the government provides mixed and inconsistent policy signals on India’s energy transition. We are aggressively growing renewable energy, but we also have an aggressive coal plan – 100 gigawatts of new coal by 2040. People wonder which side we are more serious about.

A: I don’t think there is any confusion. We have our developmental needs. We were short of electricity production until seven to eight years ago, and now we have provided electricity connection to everybody. That is the basic right of people to have electricity and access. With aspirations, consumption will grow. I must provide power. Historically, countries today which are advanced economies have benefited from coal emissions. And now, after doing that, now you want to stop everybody else. This is not fair justice. Equity demands that our people have right to development, and we want to make development cleaner. The government is investing 430 billion rupees or nearly $6 billion only to ensure clean coal [coal-to-liquid].

Q: The cheapest source of new power today is solar, and that is especially true for a sunny country like India. In terms of economics, solar trumps coal…

A: I differ here because even today, the absolute coal consumption of U.S. is more than India. Many countries are exporting coal. Why don’t they stop export of coal? Coal will be used all over the world and for the near future, it doesn’t go away. We are on course with new clean technologies, and with new cleaner coal, we are going to achieve our targets much before 2030.

Q: Various countries are looking at emissions in multiple ways: they are looking at CO2, they are looking at greenhouse gases. They are looking at absolute targets, or peak emissions. Some have announced carbon neutrality. Is there any thinking on that?

A: I am very sure that those countries that have already declared carbon neutrality, they have used coal and emitted enough. We have just started around 70 years ago, so you can’t measure us on that criterion because we need time.

People calculate possible carbon emissions and the carbon neutrality to be achieved with today’s status of science. But science is changing every day. It is progressing. I believe that there will be newer technologies. There will be faster solutions. Technologies have to be available at the cost price because you cannot profit from disaster. You need to provide the technology which was promised in Copenhagen, and the $100 billion per year. Unless finance and technology comes in, it will not be a fast forward.

Q: At international climate negotiations, India typically argues for the carbon space for development, but our actions are more positive than our words. I am wondering if that is a strategic ploy? Is there a different implementation strategy, and a different negotiation strategy?

A: No. it is not about negotiating strategy. There are some countries which preach and don’t practice. India on the other hand is a country which practices, and preaches less.

Q: Changing track, you are working on new environment impact assessment rules. The broad thing I wanted to understand from you is: are we loosening the rules or tightening them?

A: We are tightening them. You have asked it rightly. Earlier, there was no public hearing for nearly 21 sectors. We are actually adding to the number of industries going for public hearing. What we have done is only exempted what was exempted earlier. Most importantly, there are existing units that are operating without any environmental clearance and without environment impact assessments. We want to bring under the regulatory regime all the units.

Q: By when will the new environmental rules be notified?

A: I think it will take reasonable time – at least two-to-three months, or even more.

Q: Under these new rules, will there be a fast track for renewable energy projects? That will be required if the 450 gigawatts ambition is to be realized…

A: Yes. All renewable projects. Basically, where there is no pollution load, we want to make the process easy.

Q: On electric vehicles, yours is the nodal ministry. What is the target?

A: The official policy is that we want to move fast on this track of electric mobility, and particularly in [the most polluted] cities. We are expanding both electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. We have already provided more than 1,000 e-buses, in various cities including Delhi.

Q: On air pollution, what does the bird’s eye view look like?

We have the National Clean Air Program, with city-specific plans for 122 cities. We are measuring [air quality] in 328 cities now. Measurement is the first step. In the first phase of NCAP, we have concentrated on cities which are facing real problems as far as pollution is concerned.

Q: There is a perceived conflict of interest between the different hats you wear, especially with heavy industry and environment. Your comment?

Heavy industry is an additional charge. I am happy with any ministry. When your mission is very clear, there is no conflict of interest. Someday, one can even become coal and environment minister simultaneously.

Q: What is the clear mission of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change? What is the main priority?

There are three priorities. One is to ensure that our industrial growth happens, takes place with transparency, and more importantly, with cleaner practices. I understand that we are not part of the problem but we want to be part of the solution. There is also one fact here. Today, the U.S. is not part of the Paris agreement. Unless everybody works in that direction, there will always be a problem because all countries doing something and some countries doing nothing will end up in nothing. Let us unite to fight emissions and climate change.

Q: When you look around the world, do you see any country as a climate role model?

Yes. I have one country [which is] very clearly a role model as far as climate action is concerned, and that is India.

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