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Why India is key to heading off climate catastrophe » Yale Climate Connections

Decisions made in India over the next few years will play a key role in global efforts to head off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

The country has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and its energy consumption is growing rapidly as a result — but it still relies largely on fossil fuels. India has a general election that will wrap up in June 2024, and both major parties say they support moving the country away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, a position backed by a sizable majority of citizens.

Global institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have pledged to help finance efforts to cut climate pollution. But many experts say more help is needed if India and other developing countries are to meet their energy goals.

As Indian Environment Secretary Rameshwar Prasad Gupta said in an interview with the Economic Times, “Without adequate climate finance being definitively available, we can’t commit” to curbing India’s carbon emissions fast enough to meet the country’s targets under the global Paris climate agreement of 2015.

How much does India contribute to climate change?

India has only generated about 3% of total historical climate pollution compared to 25% for the United States. But it is the third-highest carbon-polluting country today. To have a chance of meeting the Paris targets, the world cannot afford for India and other developing countries to follow the same path that made rich countries wealthy: burning “cheap” fossil fuels, because we now know the tremendous indirect costs of fossil fuel via environmental and health damages.

The size of India’s economy has almost doubled since Narendra Modi became prime minister a decade ago. The country surpassed China last year to become the most-populated country in the world with over 1.4 billion people. The number of Indians living in poverty has declined from 317 million in 2016 to 140 million today, although 90% of the population still lives on less than $10 per day.

With improved living conditions comes greater energy use and more pollution. India’s coal consumption has nearly tripled since 2005. India accounts for 14% of global coal demand, behind only China and is expected to account for most of the increase in global coal consumption in the coming years. India’s overall climate pollution is about 75% higher than in 2005, largely due to coal-fired power.

Still, although per-person carbon emissions in India have doubled since 2005, the average Indian’s carbon footprint remains less than half the world average and seven times lower than the average American’s.

chart showing electricity generation in India by source, dominated by coalchart showing electricity generation in India by source, dominated by coal
Sources of electricity generation in India. Created by Dana Nuccitelli with data from the government of India.

Troubling details of India’s climate vulnerability

Like other industrializing countries, India is among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. A 2018 paper in Nature Climate Change estimated that climate change will impose the highest social costs on India of any country, primarily due to its already-hot climate combined with its large and rapidly developing economy, whose growth will be curbed by climate damages such as extreme heat waves, droughts, and floods.

Extreme heat could prove especially dangerous. A 2023 study in Nature Sustainability found that on the current track of about 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) of global warming by 2100, about 600 million people in India would be exposed to unprecedentedly dangerous heat. An analysis by the World Weather Attribution group also found that a dangerous 2022 record heat wave in India and Pakistan was made 30 times more likely by global warming.

And a 2023 study in Science Advances found that warming temperatures are drying out the soil. Indian farmers have pumped more groundwater to irrigate their crops, exacerbating droughts and aquifer depletion that “will likely further threaten India’s food and water security over the coming decades.” It’s an impact with global implications since India is the world’s second-largest producer of common cereal grains like rice and wheat.

India’s citizens also are aware that their country is highly vulnerable to these damages. International surveys conducted in 2022 and 2023* showed that 85% of Indians expressed worries about human-caused climate change, compared to just 63% of Americans. And 87% of Indian respondents said climate change is an important issue their country should take measures to fight, compared to just 71% of Americans.

What has India promised to do about climate change?

In its 2022 updated international climate commitment, India made two key pledges: to reduce the emissions intensity of its economy by 45% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to “achieve about 50% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030, with the help of transfer of technology and low-cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund.”

The first commitment reflects the challenge of reducing climate pollution outright as the Indian economy and energy demand grow rapidly. Instead, the country will reduce a specific quantity: tons of carbon pollution per dollar of economic activity. That’s not a well-defined metric and is complicated by factors like inflation rates and national purchasing power adjustments. But the International Energy Agency, World Bank, and Indian government estimate that so far it has declined by between 20% and 33% since 2005, and the country is on track to surpass its pledge of a 45% reduction by 2030.

The key caveat in India’s second commitment is that it aims for half its power capacity to come from clean resources by 2030. India is a sunny country with great solar power potential, and it has been solar farms at a rapid clip. As a result, clean sources account for 41% of India’s power-generating capacity today, up from about 30% in 2005.

But power capacity refers to the maximum amount of electricity that can be produced at any one time. Solar panels can only generate that maximum power when it’s sunny. As a result, they generate significantly less electricity relative to their capacity than a less variable source like a hydroelectric dam or coal power plant. That’s why coal still accounts for over 70% of Indian electricity generation, compared to one-quarter from clean sources.

India is on track to meet its pledge to reach 50% clean power capacity by 2030, but for the foreseeable future, most of its total electricity will come from burning coal. A more rapid transition away from coal would help India meet its climate goals and also vastly improve public health. A 2021 study estimated that the air pollution from India’s installed and planned coal power plants would be responsible for over 100,000 premature deaths per year if they’re all built as anticipated.

India has a long-term low-carbon plan

In late 2022, the Indian government published its long-term low-carbon development strategy. The document notes, “India is committed to combating climate change, by making development choices that ensure growth and development of the economy along low carbon pathways towards net-zero by 2070.” It lists strategies like expanding renewable energy, strengthening the power grid, improving energy and resource efficiency, and restoring forests. It notes, “the need for climate finance for India’s low-carbon transition is considerable.” To that end, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have identified that they need to do more to finance clean energy infrastructure in developing nations like India.

“The Council on Energy, Environment and Water’s Centre for Energy Finance says India needs $10 trillion to reach net-zero by 2070,” Sustainable Futures Collaborative climate policy coordinator Aman Srivastava wrote via email, adding that international climate financing “should ideally be much higher” than it is today.

India is in the midst of a general election that will end at the beginning of June. Prime Minister Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are expected to retain power. Their party promises to “harness [India’s] renewable energy potential, targeting 500GW of renewable energy through the establishment of mega solar parks, wind parks, and the Green Energy Corridor project, among others.”

The main opposition, the Indian National Congress, is similarly supportive of clean energy policies, stating, “The future of our energy is green energy. We will mobilize the massive capital required for our green energy transition.”

*Editor’s note: The 2023 study was led by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the publisher of this site.

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