The Paris Agreement and its effect on India

Something has changed, at least on paper. In 1860, John Tyndall discovered the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ which had been proposed by Joseph Fourier in 1824. In 1961, a Caltech professor of oceanography called Charles David Keeling through his extensive meteorological samples taken through atmospheric balloons taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii published the Keeling Curve.

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The Keeling Curve, resembling a zig-zag line that rises exponentially first alerted the world of the rising CO2 concentration levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. This was the first scientific evidence that drew a parallel between the CO2 levels and the increase in global temperatures showing CO2 might be a cause for global warming or climate change. It also won him a ‘special achievement award’ from Al Gore. Mankind’s ability to influence global climate patterns have since been a highly contested topic that have sometimes been pointed out as a myth created by green, environmental ‘weirdos’. The much-needed first victory came in 2014 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organisation within the United Nations published its Fifth Assessment Report. For the first time, human influence have been officially accepted as one of the ‘dominant causes’ towards climate pattern changes like rising sea levels and global warming.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was setup in March 1994 to ‘stabilize greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. To this effect since 1995, an annual Conference of Parties (COP) has been held with the aim of assessing progress reports from mitigation activities and create a ‘legally binding’ framework for all nations  to reduce their individual emissions so as to limit the temperature change to within 2OC of pre-industrial levels. Now imagine of a group of nations, as varied as the USA, China, India, Bolivia, Iran and Maldives to determine a legally binding agreement that will determine individual impacts on climate change and set a target. The argument always turns to a developed nations vs developing nations debate where one section have historically enjoyed high emitting sources to develop their individual nations and now ask non-developed parties to restrict their own economic development. China and India have been particularly against such a framework leading to none of them signing the Kyoto Protocol. Hence, after previous fiascos it was quite an achievement for the Paris Conference of Parties (COP21) to have 197 nations reach a mutual agreement.

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The Paris Agreement has been able to get all attending parties to agree on a 2oC limit on global temperature increase with an effort to restrict it to 1.5oC. This is done by asking all attending parties to provide an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) based on their own targets (ambitious of course) that can allow them to significantly decrease their overall emissions. Since the targets are provided by the parties themselves, this avoids parties feeling pressurised into accepting an unfavourable agreement. The Paris Agreement goes into effect 3 days after at least 55 parties (top 55 emitters) ratify the agreement or at least 55% of the global greenhouse gas emissions have been covered by the signing parties.

The top three emitters – the USA, China (both 3rd September) and India (2nd October) have all ratified the agreement. With a total of 79 signatories currently, the agreement is stated to go into effect from 4th November, 2016. A list of the signatories can be found here.

India ratified the agreement on the Gandhi Jayanti (the birthday of Gandhi – 2nd October, 2016) with the following declaration –

“The Government of India declares its understanding that, as per its national laws; keeping in view its development agenda, particularly the eradication of poverty and provision of basic needs for all its citizens, coupled with its commitment to following the low-carbon path to progress, and on the assumption of unencumbered availability of cleaner sources of energy and technologies and financial resources from around the world; and based on a fair and ambitious assessment of global commitment to combating climate change, it is ratifying the Paris Agreement.”

The INDC submitted by India before the Paris conference lists out the steps that it will be taking to mitigate climate change. The key points are –

1.       Faced with a rapidly urbanising population, electricity demand is stated to increase to 2499 TWh by 2030. India ranks 135 globally with a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.586 which it aims to bring up to at least 0.9 which will also demand large quantities of energy.

2.       Domestic fiscal instruments such as coal cess, reduction in cross-subsidies, increase in petrol and diesel taxes and other market-based mechanisms like Perform Achieve and Trade (PAT), Renewable Energy Certificates (REC) and Renewable Purchase Obligations (RPO) are the instruments India hopes will reduce its GHG emissions.

3.       India produces around 36 GW of renewable energy presently which it aims to increase to 175 GW by 2022.

4.       India aims to harness the significant hydroelectric potential in the north-eastern region of the country as well as increase installed biomass-based capacity to 10 GW by 2022.

5.       With 4.3 GW of nuclear power under different stages of construction, India aims to increase its nuclear-based energy portfolio if a proper supply source of fuel can be obtained.

6.       India is largely dependent on coal-based power for its energy needs. India aims to replace its old and inefficient thermal power stations with supercritical and ultra-supercritical Ultra Mega Power Projects.

7.       Through its National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency (NMEEE), India aims to increase lightning and appliances efficiency for demand reduction along with promoting energy-efficient in commercial and domestic buildings.

8.       Smart Cities Mission, Waste to Energy and other initiatives like Solid Waste Management (SWM) and Urban Transport policies aim to reduce further emissions from transport and urban infrastructure.

9.       National policies like the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 (NEMMP) and National Policy on Biofuels aim for faster adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles and the promotion of biofuels in bulk users like the railways. Vehicle Fuel Efficiency Programme aims to improve national fuel standards as well as the fuel-efficiency in passenger/commercial vehicles.

Looking at the list of action to be taken makes one feel that finally someone means business. However, certain aspects of the list also does make you think aloud that whether such bold actions were put forward only as a means of a political statement or actual need-to-do basis. For example the current plan looks at a significant increase from the present levels of renewable energy present. The Central Electricity Authority (India) keeps an updated list of the total installed capacity within the country. The list can be found here. India has a total installed capacity of around 306.4 GW of which around 69% is sourced from coal/oil/gas. Renewables, not counting hydroelectric amount to only 14% of the overall mix supplying a total of 44 GW. Hence a target of 175 GW in the next seven years basically boils down to an installation of 51 MW of renewable capacity each day! Wind and solar based energy amounts at just 27 GW and 7.8 GW respectively. Before I’m termed as an overtly sceptic here, let me say that there is however a silver lining to be noticed. It’s been a long time since we have finally taken a strong decisive step regarding reducing our energy emissions. Thus not only will the targets adopted by India have significant impacts in global emission levels but also within the domestic energy and industrial sectors.

So, coming back to the original title of this piece, what has changed for India? Well, it does mean that India does need to step up to the world stage and make some of the serious changes that it has promised if it wants to be taken seriously. India is also among the most vulnerable nations when it comes to changing climate patterns (full text-based on a report by the World Bank can be found here). India is already facing severe drought in various regions and experts predict that this can be expected to rise along with changing rainfall patterns giving rise to agricultural and food insecurity. Not a rosy picture for an agricultural nation like ours. Kolkata and Mumbai, two of India’s largest urban centres are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels. Many regions of India are already facing severe water stress and this trend will continue to be on the rise owing to changes in climate and rainfall patterns. This can give rise to conflict (Cauvery water dispute), migration and even energy scarcity because cool water is a major component for thermal power stations.

But it’s not too late to change. Perhaps the time has come to diversify our energy resources (which is being done) and diversify our energy generation base from moving from distributed energy generation resources. Creation of micro-grids can have a dual effect by increasing energy access of remote regions and decongesting networks. As of now micro-hydro (≤ 25 MW) installed capacity in India is only about 4.3 GW. Off-grid distributed solar PV is around just 400 MW (May 2015) in the country. An accelerated timeline for the Paris agreement might just allow for a faster integration of solar into the overall energy mix. The major challenge that has to be tackled is the reduction of the country’s dependence on cheap imported and domestic coal. Reduction of imports by the Coal Ministry in the last couple of years by boosting of domestic production have been beneficial both from a financial and environmental point of view.

However, not everything paints a rosy picture. The power sector remains beleaguered because of instability in the T&D (transmissions and distribution) sector. Lack of long-term PPAs (Power Purchase Agreements) and reducing plant capacity factors threaten the energy distributors as the financing industry feels uneasy about steadily reducing renewable energy prices (more on that on a separate post). The current government has a wonderful opportunity to significantly impact both Indian and global emissions and create a lasting legacy for the Indian power sector to follow. Let’s wait and watch and see if Mr. Modi and his government can deliver.

Written by Sagnik Ghoshal

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