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Carbon abatement to tackle climate change: India's failure has 'outpaced' its success

By Satorupa Karmakar* 

On November 01, 2021, India took a pledge of reaching a carbon-zero stage by 2070, at the COP-26 held in Glasgow, UK. As ‘ambitious’ and dubious it may sound to some, with a short-term delay in renewable energy generation (which gained the pace post-September 2020) and drastic fall in greenhouse gas (GHG) emission level as COVID-19 emerged as a ‘necessary evil’, the path of India’s clean energy mission could be seen being paved throughout this time.
Currently ranked as the third largest GHG emitter in the world, India is projected to demand more energy in coming years due to a large population base (1.3 billion as per 2011 Census data) and primarily coal-based fast-growing economy.
Rapid industrialisation in post-colonial developing countries like India, stimulated by a larger and cheaper pool of fossil fuels and labour-force depicted a continuous upsurge in temperature, heavy precipitation in some places with an overall declining rainfall and a burgeoning social cost, accounting to be the highest (USD 86 billion per one ton CO2) in 2018.
Unlike the popular belief that foregrounds industry as the solely responsible factor behind an ascending GHG concentration in the atmosphere, a study conducted by World Resource Institute (2018) has identified power, transport, habitat and agriculture as four dominant GHG emitters in India, along with the industrial sector.

Towards carbon neutrality

Subsequent to signing the Paris Agreement (2015), India has devised National Electricity Plan (2018) aiming to revolutionize Indian power sector by shutting down 48.3 GW capacity coal plants and augmenting reliance on renewable sources and UJALA (Unnat Jyoti by Affordable LEDs for All) scheme (2015) to enhance energy security by distributing LED-bulbs.
On the policy front, however, India has witnessed more failure than success during implementation, due to various reasons ranging from unequal allocation to beneficiary unawareness to local political influence and social-cultural rigidity.
Despite present-day technology hindrances for clean energy generation, renewable energy sources in India account for almost half (43%) of the total ‘capacity for power generation’. In addition to this, 3% of Indian GDP goes into energy sector, with the bulk of it being invested in clean energy generation.

MAC curves as alternative

Marginal Abatement Cost (MAC) curves as adaptation and mitigation strategy towards the catastrophic impacts of climate change were popularized in the mid-2000s. Abatement cost is the cost of clean production without emitting GHGs whereas, MAC refers to the cost required for one unit of pollution or ‘carbon emission’. While various organizations have worked towards generating MAC curves, the one introduced by McKinsey & Company has gained significant appreciation. Presenting the Business-as-Usual (BAU) scenario and an alternate post-abatement scenario, the MAC curve is independent of taxes, subsidies and transaction and implantation costs.
A MAC curve that depicts the abatement costs (cost required for reducing emissions by saving one ton CO2 which is expressed in € per ton CO2) along the vertical axis and abatement potential (capacity of an option to reduce GHG emission, either CO2 or CO2eq post its implementation as compared to a BAU situation) along horizontal axis, is useful for sector-wise analysis and policy-making. Along the vertical axis, cost in negative values refer to higher returns in long-run, implying economic efficiency.
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Possible approaches

In the view of physiographic, climatic, vegetational, demographic, economic and social-political variations across India, implementing a single nation-wide strategy may seem difficult and therefore, I suggest three possible approaches towards achieving 400MtCO2eq by 2030 in India.
The target of 400MtCO2eq is based on the projection in US that the GHG emission could increase up to that mark in the coming years. The first approach focuses optimizing abatement cost where sectors like industry, transport, habitat, agriculture and forestry are involved. 
 In the chart as we go to the right, the cost efficiency decreases and, therefore, the options across the horizontal bar up to 400MtCO2eq potential are considered. This is crucial since 25.8% GHG emission comes from industrial sources only, where the use of traditional equipment and predominance of fossil-fuel have yielded negative results by inducing GHG emission. 
Replacing hand pumps with electric pumps in the agrarian sector and emphasis on electric two-wheelers remain economically viable (in long-run) and contributes to the sustainability agenda. Despite having limited potential, LED-bulbs are suggested here since they save electricity and ensure energy security.
Considering the need for maximizing the abatement potential here, the second approach chooses three options in power sector, namely: solar PV, biomass power and nuclear power. 
In addition to launching International Solar Alliance with 101 ‘sunshine’ countries to gear up solar power generation, biomass power generation accounted for 10 GW by 2021 whereas the nuclear power sector showcases positive directions as the government takes the vow of increasing ‘nuclear capacity three times than at present in the next 10 years’. With already existing plants in states like investing in these options will be beneficial for the country in long run.
Upon emphasising on abatement cost and abatement potential simultaneously, the third approach consist of all five sectors (power, industry, transport, habitat, agriculture and forestry).
Deploying the bulk of total production cost in energy extraction builds up the rationale behind suggesting energy-efficiency for otherwise ‘energy-intensive’ steel industry. In energy sector, investing on small hydropower seems lucrative in a monsoon-dominated country like India. Additionally, a ‘potential of producing 10600 MW geothermal power’ in future will be economically beneficial.
Rice management through climate-smart farming strategies for example, shallow-flooding technique is argued to reduce GHG emissions in a cost-efficient manner. Furthermore, a preference for energy efficient buildings (commercial) will encourage ‘passive solar-design strategies’ and minimise energy demand. A sharp rise in vehicular ownership and resultant increase in GHG emission necessitates the urgency of modal shift towards public transport, for example, bus, train.
Considering the pivotal need of tackling climate change, ‘climate action’ is listed under Sustainable Development Goal 13 that necessitates sound policy-making and awareness-generation among the mass. Unless people are rightly concerned about the future climate extremities, journey to the renewables will be rarely smooth. Given the ongoing urban transition in India, incorporating climate change in urban planning regulations is highly recommended for combatting further deterioration.
While the three scenarios portray a win-win situation in general, implementation of the same would face the question of ‘access’ in a developing country like India. Despite receiving government-sponsored LPG cylinders, lack of financial capability and inability to refill gas cylinders has forced many beneficiaries to depend on fossil fuels again. Apart from the urban-rural gaps, intra-urban inequality makes energy efficient buildings and vehicles unaffordable for majority of the population.
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*Currently pursuing PhD from the University of Queensland-Indian Institute of Technology Delhi Joint PhD Programme

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