September 04, 2022

India’s Updated but Downgraded NDC


IN his speech at last December’s COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Prime Minister Modi surprised everyone, perhaps even his own official delegation, by making five rather striking promises to reduce emissions even more than India had pledged in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) tabled under the Paris Agreement (PA). Such raised ambition was precisely the objective at Glasgow, given the increasingly alarming findings of several scientific reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the widespread acknowledgement that the hitherto pledged NDCs of all countries put together would not suffice even for the goal of keeping temperature rise to under 2 degrees C, leave alone the growing consensus around a limit of 1.5C. The PM’s announcement not only delivered the higher ambition expected from all countries at Glasgow, they also compared favourably with the frankly disappointing pledges made by the developed countries, notably by the US, Japan and even the EU.

That the PM had chosen to announce these upgraded commitments himself gave them greater authority and significance. Everyone both at home and abroad knew that the PM was the first and last word on government policy.  

However, even at Glasgow itself, dark clouds were already visible behind these silver linings. No official statements were released, an updated NDC was not formally tabled, and officials in the Indian delegation were making quite contrary remarks in India and in Glasgow right up to the PM’s speech. Senior Indian officials were loudly proclaiming the unlikelihood of higher targets by India, and unacceptability of the “net-zero” targets being aggressively pushed by the US and other developed countries and also UN agencies including the UN secretary general. Officials had further muddied the waters, even after the PM’s Glasgow announcement, by stating that the new pledges were contingent upon substantial financial assistance from developed countries, with figures such as $1 trillion being mentioned in media interviews.

People in India are familiar with the PM’s penchant for dramatic announcements seemingly made individually by the PM. These add to his mystique and the sense of his personal power and far-sightedness. But the value of such PR tactics in the international climate negotiations is questionable. In Glasgow, India insufficiently communicated the significance of its enhanced commitments, especially in contrast to the weak pledges of developed countries, and little effort was made to leverage India’s updated pledge to extract deeper emission cuts from them. The impact of the PM himself announcing enhanced targets was also undermined by discordant statements by senior officials, virtually erasing any PR gains from the PM’s declaration.

Finally, after a long silence, the union cabinet has formally approved an updated NDC, further detracting from the lofty expectations raised by the PM’s Glasgow speech. Several elements of the PM’s Glasgow announcement have been dropped, revealing a lower level of ambition than announced at Glasgow, raising questions about India’s future emissions reduction trajectory, and the seriousness of its overall approach to tackling climate change. This also damages India’s and the PM’s personal credibility in the international arena.


The updated NDC contains essentially two major mitigation (ie, emission reduction) commitments, over and above those pledged in the existing NDC under PA. First, it raises the current pledge to reduce emissions intensity (emissions/GDP) by 33-35 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020, to an enhanced target of reducing EI by 45 per cent by 2030. Second, it promises to achieve 50 per cent installed capacity in electricity generation from non-fossil fuel energy sources. (Note: this redefines renewable energy or RE to include large hydro and nuclear).  

Significantly however, the updated NDC has dropped three other quantitative mitigation targets announced by the PM at Glasgow namely (i) to reduce total emissions by 1 billion tons of CO2-equivalent by 2030; (ii) achieve 500 GW installed capacity from RE by 2030; and (iii) achieve net-zero emissions by 2070 ie, annual emissions being equal to the amount absorbed by sinks such as forests. The updated NDC puts a “spin” on these omissions by claiming the PM’s lofty pledges in Glasgow, including the above, were not commitments at all, but have been “translated” into just the two enhanced targets!

The EI reduction targets are moderate at best and mainly reiterate actual current rates rather than any enhanced ambition. India’s existing NDC confirms a steady decline in EI of over 2 per cent p.a. from 2005 onwards, so the promise to reduce EI by 45 per cent by 2030 implies a lower rate of decline, quite expected from an emerging economy.

The target of removing 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) would have been the first time India made a quantitative pledge for absolute emissions cuts, rather than the more fungible EI target that depends on both GDP and emission reductions. India’s current annual emissions are around 2.8 billion tons and projected to reach about 4.5 billion tons in 2030 on the current trajectory, so the pledged reduction represents a substantial 20 per cent absolute cut in emissions, comparing very favourably with several developed country targets. A target in absolute emissions also enables better planning, monitoring and implementation of a low-carbon development trajectory that an EI target. This opportunity has now been lost. 


One may accept that the 500 GW RE installed capacity target is just a sub-target of the 50 per cent RE installed capacity goal, although the more specific quantitative target would assist in better planning and roll-out strategies. Some quarters are apprehensive that India is taking on onerous RE power generation targets under international pressure. The reality, however, is that India’s RE goals are mostly self-set, through possibly over-ambitious solar and wind power targets set by the present government.  The earlier NDC had incorporated the government’s own earlier declared goal of 175 GW from RE by 2022, even though the NDC stretched to 2030! However, India has reached only around 101 GW of solar and wind power due to numerous constraints. Adding large hydro and nuclear, both now considered renewable, current RE installed capacity is about 150 GW or just under 40 per cent of total, almost achieving by 2022 itself the NDC target for 2030!

The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) in its 2020 Report on Energy Mix for 2029-30 has projected around 525 GW non-fossil fuel installed capacity. Out of this, only 267 GW are projected to come from coal and lignite, compared to 203 GW in 2019, so almost all of India’s future growth of capacity is projected by CEA to come from RE. Even accounting for some confusion whether the PM spoke of installed capacity or electricity produced, India’s Glasgow pledge of 50 per cent electricity from RE by 2030 is just a tad more than the CEA projection of 44.7 per cent. For various reasons such as leveling-off of wind power potential, falling investments in RE, conflicts over land for large solar power plants, inadequate attention to rooftop and decentralised solar applications, problems of storage and grid stability, and import dependence, India’s own projections and international RE commitments may prove problematic.  


The omission of the net-zero target by 2070 is deeply regrettable, despite the highly flawed nature of the global net-zero target. The scientific projection of the need to achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050, has been wrongly interpreted as being applicable to all countries individually with the same timeline. This schema, pushed for obvious self-interest by the US and other developed countries and many international NGOs, does not provide for common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR). Developed nations have made disproportionately high historical contributions to the accumulated greenhouse gases (GHGs) and hence to the total carbon budget, so clearly the same timeline for net zero cannot apply to the US and developing countries like India. Even China, currently the world’s largest emitter and far outpacing other developing countries, has set itself a 2060 target for net zero, so India may be seen as justified in putting forward a 2070 timeline. However, a more correct interpretation of global net zero by 2050 would mean a much earlier net zero by developed countries and early measures to absorb atmospheric GHGs (ie, negative emissions) through more sinks or by other technological means.

India could have made this argument forcefully, underlining the enhanced role and responsibility of developed countries. But dropping the net-zero target altogether conveys the wrong idea to the most vulnerable countries and the international community at large. A net zero target would also have pressed India, and its present and future governments, to look closely at all aspects of the economy and society, and work out appropriate low-carbon, socially equitable development pathways.  As things stand, the government can be content with a few limited and moderate sector-specific targets and not look at the numerous economic activities and government programmes with deep impact on climate.

It has long been argued in these columns and elsewhere that India’s official international negotiating position mistakenly refrains from an aggressive stance demanding deep emission cuts by developing countries, in the hope that the US and its allies will reciprocally accept weaker commitments by India. This has repeatedly proven to be incorrect, and also ignores worsening climate impacts in India. South Asia is among regions worst affected by climate change and so, for its own benefit, India must put more pressure on the US and other developed countries to raise their ambitions much higher than they have hitherto. This shift in strategy too has once again gone abegging in Glasgow and in India’s updated but downgraded NDC.