Vijay Jayaraj: India’s COP-26 promise of Net Zero by 2070 overshadowed by coal use

On COP26’s first day, India’s Prime Minister Modi announced that the world’s second largest coal consumer would become Net Zero by 2070 — a commitment that means almost nothing given realities of the subcontinent’s dependence on fossil fuels to meet the energy needs of 1.3 billion people.

Though Modi’s efforts were praised by British PM Boris Johnson, the target of 2070 only reveals the country’s unwillingness to embrace any meaningful emission-reduction policy.  Contrary to media reports, India’s 2070 target is merely a tactic to enable its proliferation of fossil fuel use.

Even as Modi was speaking in Glasgow, back in Delhi on the very same day India’s Union Coal Minister called for industry to achieve historic output in the coming years. Speaking virtually at an event, Minister Pralhad Joshi asked state-run Coal India Limited — the world’s largest coal miner — to attain 1 billion tons production (of coal) by the end of 2024. He implored mining heads of to make revised targets and detailed strategy to reach the target, leaving no room for doubts of India’s commitment to coal.

A recent coal shortage threatened the country’s electricity supply, which depends on the fuel for 70% of its output. Coal India has been asked to ensure that there is at least 18 days worth of stock at every coal-fired generation plant in the country.

On October 28, Coal India recorded its highest-ever, single-day coal supply to power plants — 1.8 million tons. October witnessed a 23% rise in year-on-year coal supply from Coal India. Economic times noted that Coal India’s 7-month (April-October) supply of 364.4 million tonnes is the highest ever for this period in the company’s history.

India’s Finance Minister has asked the coal industry to ensure that on-going projects are completed on time. Twenty-eight coal plants are under construction in India, and the country seeks to add more. Some of these plants will be operational at least for the next three decades, supplying electricity to hundreds of millions.

Authorities in India are candid about the irreversible dominance of coal. India’s environment secretary told the Indian media, “We have coal, we have to depend on it.” One official from my home state’s electricity department said, “You can have the cake of coal (power) and the icing of solar (power),” explaining the baseload energy requirement can be met only by coal or nuclear.

Meanwhile, India is also looking to secure oil imports, including from newly emerging sources in South America and Africa, and to strengthen its own oil sector, approving construction of new refineries. Boosted by inventory gains, the largest state-run oil firm recorded a record profit during the second quarter in this fiscal year.

India’s promise to become Net Zero by 2070 cannot be considered a serious commitment. Fifty years is a long time. It is unlikely that India’s current administrators will even be alive by then and doubtful that the Modi promise will remain unaltered by successive administrations.

Importantly, India’s Nationally Determined Contribution — the official emission reduction commitments made as a part of the Paris climate agreement — clearly states that the country’s emission-reduction promises do not override its domestic energy needs. In other words, the country is free from any binding clause that would limit its dependency on fossil fuels. Though India has always supported U.N. climate initiatives and even has installed massive amounts of solar technology, it has been increasing the simultaneous use of fossil fuels.

Moreover, India has practical problems preventing it from taking the decarbonization path. For example, India needs more capital and raw material to increase its supply of nuclear power — the only non-fossil fuel source capable of providing baseload electricity. However, neither funds nor abundant supply is available for nuclear development. India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which would allow it to have a more reliable supply of nuclear raw material, has remained impossible due to China’s opposition.

Piyush Goyal, India's Sherpa to the G20 Summit, said that under these circumstances it won’t be possible for India to achieve its climate targets. He suggested the burden of emission reduction must be on the developed countries to achieve “net-negative.”

So, for India, the promise of 2070 Net Zero appears shallow while the commitment to fossil fuels is clearly deep.

Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Va., and holds a Masters degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, England. He resides in Bengaluru, India.

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