Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

India Pledges Clean-Energy Push in UN Climate Submission

  • `Emissions intensity' would drop 33-35 percent by 2030
  • Third-biggest polluter was last major holdout in UN talks

India, the world’s third-biggest polluter, pledged to slow the rise of greenhouse gases produced by its growing economy and to rapidly build up clean-energy sources, becoming the last major country to submit its plan for tackling global warming emissions.

In a plan filed to the United Nations Thursday, India said it would reduce its “emissions intensity” -- the amount of pollution released for each unit of economic growth -- by 33 percent to 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The country also set a goal of having 40 percent of its installed electric capacity powered by non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030.

The pledge reflects Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s challenge in balancing the desire to build India’s economy with the need to be seen as a participant in the global push to reach an international accord to battle climate change. India’s policymakers have long argued that the richest countries shoulder the greatest responsibility in combating global warming.

The country’s “strong climate plan offers a comprehensive approach to curb the worst impacts of climate change,” said Rhea Suh, president of the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council. “India now has positioned itself as a global leader in clean energy, and is poised to play an active and influential role in the international climate negotiations.”

India’s pledge, detailed in a document infused with references to Mother Earth and the ancient Indian practice of yoga, arrived at the deadline set by the UN for countries to file their pollution-cutting plans, commitments that form the heart of a deal nations hope to complete in Paris in December. India was the last holdout among major economies and its cooperation was seen as critical for producing a credible strategy to hold down rising temperatures.

Renewables Pledge

The 38-page plan calls for a doubling of India’s current share of electricity provided by clean-energy sources. That’s contingent on international financing to help afford the shift away from fossil fuels, India said.

Unlike other major countries like China and the U.S., India’s plan doesn’t commit the country to an absolute reduction in carbon emissions levels. Instead, the plan acknowledges that India’s emissions will continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace than if the nation had taken no action.

“Nations that are now striving to fulfill this ‘right to grow’ of their teeming millions cannot be made to feel guilty of their development agenda as they attempt to fulfill this legitimate aspiration,” India said in its submission. “Just because economic development of many countries in the past has come at the cost of environment, it should not be presumed that a reconciliation of the two is not possible.”

More controversially, the plan says coal will continue to dominate power generation in the future, a point of friction with environmental groups that say the fossil fuel should be phased out. Coal-based power currently accounts for almost 61 percent of India’s installed capacity, according to the INDC submission.

Though Modi has vowed an aggressive expansion of renewables such as wind, solar and hydroelectric capacity, the challenges remain huge. Currently, India has as many people with little or no access to electricity as there are Americans.

Coal Demand

Under one scenario presented by the International Energy Agency last year, coal demand in India is projected to more than double between 2012 and 2040.

“India’s continued commitment to expand coal power capacity is baffling,” Greenpeace India said in a statement. “Further expansion of coal power will hamper India’s development prospects, by worsening the problems of air quality and water scarcity as well as contributing to the destruction of forests and the displacement of communities.”

While India’s emissions of carbon dioxide are about one-quarter China’s and one-third of the U.S., its release of global-warming gases is accelerating. India’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy use rose 8.1 percent in 2014, making it the world’s fastest-growing major polluter, according to a report released in January by BP Plc.

The results are profound. According to a World Health Organization report, India is home to 13 of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. As measured on a country basis, India is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind only China and the U.S. The 28-nation European Union’s emissions are also higher.

India emitted about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2014, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Development Aspirations

Days before publishing the INDC, Modi expressed "uncompromising commitment on climate change" to U.S. President Barack Obama, maintaining that this should not affect the "development aspirations" of his country.

Modi has already vowed that India will quadruple its renewable-energy capacity by 2022, to 175 gigawatts, including 100 gigawatts of solar power alone.

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