India's plan to reduce carbon emissions: Could it really work?

Coming on the heels of celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi's 146th birthday, India has announced bold steps to reduce its CO2 emissions. But not everyone agrees it's enough.

Ajit Solanki/AP/File
In this Oct. 1, 2015 photo, an Indian man cleans solar panels installed on rooftop in Ahmadabad, India. As the last major economy to submit a target for a global climate pact, India is pledging to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions and boost the share of electricity produced from sources other than fossil fuels to 40 percent by 2030.

This week, India unveiled a plan to cut carbon emissions by 33 to 35 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, join several other nations submitting their emissions-reductions plans ahead of the United Nations Paris Climate Change conference in December.

India is the world’s third-largest carbon polluter, behind China and the United States. The Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), as India’s plans are called, are receiving attention not only for their intended scope, but also for their symbolism: they were released on Friday, amid a week of celebrations around Mahatma Gandhi’s 146th birthday.

“This day was deliberately and specifically chosen… because [Gandhi] had described that we should act as 'trustees' and use natural resources wisely as it is our moral responsibility to ensure that we bequeath to the future generations a healthy planet," Arun K Singh, the Indian Ambassador to the US, told reporters in Washington. He went on to state that the Ghandian principle of ‘ahimsa,’ or nonviolence, also applies to an independent, Indian-developed, climate change pact.

However, environmentalists are concerned that the emissions targets are tied to a continued and even increased dependence on coal, even as India examines natural gases and other alternative sources of energy. Air pollution levels in New Delhi are routinely higher than those in Beijing, causing both health and political problems as foreign diplomats curtail their visits. India has said that its economy is too small and emergent to make immediate and complete shifts away from fossil fuels.

The Washington Post reports that some analysts forecast that if India’s economy continues to grow at roughly the same pace for the next 15 years, its greenhouse gas emissions could jump by more than 77 percent, reaching about 11 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions by 2030. This would outpace even China, currently the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

During his first official state visit to the US, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to implement a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions in 2017, with a peak in emissions expected by 2030.

Elements of the Indian plan include boosting its electricity grid’s reliance on non-fossil fuels, including solar, wind, hydro-power and nuclear, from 28 percent to 40 percent by 2030. India also plans to plant more trees to create a carbon sink capable of absorbing 2.5 billion to 3.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

According to the Indian government, the country will need $2.5 trillion by 2030 to achieve the proposed plan, but whether these funds will come from the proposed emissions cuts, funding from wealthier nations, or a combination of the two is not immediately clear.

Even so, some observers remain optimistic about India's carbon-emission plan.

“Despite the challenges in implementation, this plan reaffirms India’s intent to achieve its bold renewable energy goals,” Nitin Pandit, head of World Resources Institute India, told the Washington Post. He said, “Surprisingly, the country’s carbon intensity target doesn’t fully capture the emissions it would avoid if it succeeds in meeting its renewable energy goals. We expect India can exceed its carbon intensity target in the course of shifting to non-fossil energy.”

The New Delhi-based Center for Climate and Energy (CSE) voiced similar sentiments. “India’s INDC reflects its development challenges, aspirations of large numbers of poor people and the realities of climate change,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the CSE in a press release.

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