Depending on developmental needs and pace of economic growth, India’s emissions growth is most likely to remain within the commitments it has made under the Paris climate pact

Prospects for new coal-fired power plants is currently low in India (Photo by J.W. Vein)

In 2030, when countries have to take stock of their commitments under the Paris climate agreement, India will double its carbon dioxide emissions from its 2012 levels, but will still be within its intensity pledge, according to a new study by experts from the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and elsewhere.

This is because India is starting with a very low base. “India’s 2030 per capita emissions will be below today’s global average and absolute emissions will be less than half of China’s 2015 emissions from the same sources,” says the study, the lead author of which is Navroz Dubash of the CPR.

The study notes the models predicting future emissions vary widely because they are based on different, often implicit, assumptions. The authors use a novel interpretive approach where they make clear the assumptions regarding technologies and policies in their model-based scenario analyses. They use these as a benchmark to judge scenario assumptions and results.

According to the study, India plays a key role as a “significant” emitter of greenhouse gases, but starting with a low base level, and as a large emerging economy, is also a major actor in mitigating carbon emissions. It observes that perceptions of India’s role vary from “an energy-hungry climate deal-breaker to a forerunner of a low carbon future.”

Thus a 2017 paper by R. Fofrichof the University of California at Irvine and Christine Shearer from the NGO CoalSwarm on future carbon dioxide emissions and electricity generation from proposed coal-fired power plants in India states: “India represents a critical unknown in global projections of future CO2 emissions due to its growing population, industrialising economy, and large coal reserves.”

It assessed existing and proposed construction of these plants and evaluated their implications for future energy production and emissions in the country. “In 2016, India had 369 coal-fired power plants under development totalling 243 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity. These coal-fired power plants would increase India’s coal-fired generating capacity by 123% and would exceed its projected electricity demand.”

“India’s current proposals for new coal-fired power plants would be forced to retire early or operate at very low capacity factors and/or would prevent India from meeting its goal of producing at least 40% of its power from renewable sources by 2030. In addition, future emissions from proposed coal-fired power plants would exceed India’s climate commitment to reduce its 2005 emissions intensity 33-35% by 2030.”

Differing perceptions

By contrast, an article in Scientific American journal last April also refers to the CoalSwarm survey on which the previous study was based, but takes a more positive view. It noted the survey came a year after an International Energy Agency projection that India would be responsible for around half of the coal-fired power capacity added globally until 2040. A research paper based on the survey, which was released in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future, concluded that India would be unable to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement if all those plants were built.

However, the article noted that subsequently, the Indian government decided that more such plants wouldn’t be built for a decade and “about 50 GW of planned coal capacity has either been shelved or left inactive, and the country has targeted a 275-GW renewable energy share for 2027 instead.”

“Planned coal plants in India totalled 290,000 MW in 2015 — equivalent to nearly 500 large coal fired-units. As of mid-2018 that number has fallen to just over 100,000 MW, as most of the planned capacity has been cancelled. This is a fast and remarkable development, aided by the steep decline in renewable energy prices that the study by Dubash and colleagues cite,” Shearer told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Prospects for future coal plants are currently low, as the Indian government estimates 40,000 MW of the country’s coal plants are financially stressed, including 25,000 MW that have been completed without any power purchase commitments. These trends are only likely to continue, and India may soon be the most rapid example of the energy changes overtaking much of the world.”

“The paper is a timely review of modelling and scenario analysis for India,” said Tim Buckley of the International Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in Sydney. “India is at the very least on track to deliver its NDC (nationally determined contributions) and if current policy remains in place, there is a high probability of a materially better outcome.”

Fifteen scenarios

Dubash’s paper looked at assumptions of 15 scenarios drawn from seven studies, and grouped the studies into interpretive categories to extract conclusions on future emissions, energy demand and energy supply. It reported only the components that were comparable — CO2 emissions from energy, excluding CO2 emissions from industrial processes and land use changes.

In 2012, this subset of emissions represented about 68% of India’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The authors reported projections for 2030, the target date for India’s (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. They also compared scenario projections on India’s energy needs for development, since divergent assumptions about energy needs may help explain disparate projections.

The modelling studies project a wide range of 2030 projections for CO2, the lowest projecting a 9% increase from 2012 levels, and the highest a 169% increase. Underlying these projections are a range of assumptions about India’s development needs. “The scope for variation in these assumptions is large because India has not, as yet, locked into infrastructure, socio-economic patterns and technology choices around energy use,” the study says.

India will have to undergo three major transitions: provide commercial cooking energy to 800 million people and electricity to 300 million; manage a shift from 30% to 50% urbanisation; and provide jobs for an estimated 10 million new job seekers a year. The country’s growth trajectory will obviously impact its emissions and models have to simulate these choices and their effects.

Growth in renewables

The studies project high rates of non-fossil fuel electricity growth, primarily from modern renewables. India is projected to generate as much non-fossil fuel electricity by 2030 as it generated from all sources in 2012. However, total electricity demand will rise even faster than renewables, necessitating an overall growth in fossil fuel use.

The authors state that these results have to be assessed in the context of falling renewable energy prices globally, increasing stranded coal assets and decreased estimates of coal requirements in India and increasing consideration of environmental co-benefits such as air quality which collectively point to a lower carbon future than currently projected.

By contrast, China’s 2015 emissions from energy of 9,085 metric tonnes (Mt) CO2 is more than double India’s projected 2030 emissions from energy that the study considers an upper limit. Hence, over the next decade, India’s emissions growth, while significant, is at a lower scale and pace than China’s in the preceding two decades. The authors conclude: “India is unlikely to play as dominant a role in shaping global emissions futures as China has played in the past decade.”

“This is an interesting meta-analysis of other studies, which seems to broadly suggest that India will most likely meet its emissions intensity commitment under the NDC,” Ashok Srinivas of the Pune-based energy research group Prayas told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The policy announcements around 2015 seem to play a significant part in lowering expectations of future emissions, which is an interesting insight.”

Ashish Fernandes, a Greenpeace campaigner now in the US, added: “This analysis reiterates how fast the energy world is changing. For example, the wind tariffs mentioned in the paper are already out of date, with the new low being Rs 2.4, not Rs 3.4 per unit. India looks certain to meet its Paris NDCs, but we cannot rest on those limited ambitions.”

“Research methodologies, especially qualitative ones, are very robust and detailed. In the paper this might have been followed, but is not very clear,” Vaibhav Chaturvedi from the Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), another think tank in New Delhi, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “In absence of this clarity, the conclusions should be taken more as authors’ opinion rather than an insight that is robust to multiple approaches.”

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