In the second article of a series examining the state of climate and energy policies in key nations, we turn to India, a country where nearly one fifth of the world’s population resides.

Today, the Republic of India is our planet’s largest by population, with 1.4 billion inhabitants, equivalent to 17.7% of the world’s total population. It is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), behind China and the USA, responsible for pumping out 3.4 billion tCO2e in 2019.

Historically (1850-2021), India is seventh on the list of top cumulative emitters, just ahead of the UK, with a share of 3.4%. Despite large historical and even larger present day figures, India’s per capita emissions are less than half of the global average — just 2.4 tCO2e compared to an average of 6.3 (data from 2020) — according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

In economic terms India is a land of opportunity and increasing importance. The country is the world’s fastest growing major economy and is projected to be its second largest by 2050. In a global market that by then should be hurtling towards carbon neutrality, if it has not already arrived, India will find itself at the heart of future green technologies and advancements, by default if not by choice.

The energy transition

In 2021, 89.6% of India’s energy supply came from three sources: coal (56.7%), oil (26.6%) and gas (6.3%). Low carbon energy sources — which include hydropower, nuclear, wind, solar and ‘other renewables’ — accounted for 10.4% (hydropower accounts for almost half of this low carbon mix).

India’s highly unsustainable energy mix puts its carbon intensity — the amount of CO2 equivalents emitted per kilowatt-hour of electricity — well above the global average, measuring in at 637 grams of CO2e per kilowatt-hour.

In 2015, India became the world’s second largest coal consumer, overtaking the US but remaining behind China. Coal power has underpinned India’s rapid growth in electricity consumption and as Chinese demand plateaus, India is expected to take up the mantle as the major growth engine of global coal demand. Indeed, India’s coal consumption has more than doubled since 2007, at an annual growth rate of 6%, hitting 7% last year — the highest of any country in the world.

“India’s clean energy transition is rapidly underway,” touted one International Energy Agency (IEA) article last year, as it discussed the country’s push towards an environmentally benign energy mix. Despite stubbornly high coal use, renewable energy investment figures and capacity additions appear to corroborate this claim.

A report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) showed investments in renewables in India reaching a record $14.5 billion for the 2021-22 financial year, up 125% compared with the year prior and 72% higher than in the pre-pandemic period of the 2019-20 financial year.

In a separate report, the IEEFA estimates that renewable energy capacity will grow by 35-40 GW annually through to the 2029-30 fiscal year, putting India on track to surpass its target of 50% non-fossil fuel energy by 2030.

In particular, solar power is set for explosive growth in India, with the potential to match coal’s share in the Indian power generation mix within two decades, according to the IEA’s “stated policies scenario” (based on 2021 policies). Other possible scenarios set out by the IEA could mean India passes this milestone much sooner.

As with other emerging and developing economies, electric vehicle sales in India are lagging behind more developed markets. According to the IEA, fewer than 0.5% of car sales are electric in India (2022), with unaffordability being a major barrier to mass consumer adoption.

“India’s clean energy transition is rapidly underway”

That said, sales of EVs in the country doubled in 2021 and some forecasts put the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of India’s EV industry for this decade as high as 66.52%.

Climate Policy

India is a party to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. It is also a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement, of which the overarching goal is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

At COP26 in 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 2070 net zero target for India, falling short of the summit’s stated goal for countries to commit to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The following year, in August 2022, India submitted its updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the long term, non-binding climate action plans that must be submitted every five years under the Paris Agreement.

The new targets strengthened both the value of India’s 2030 emissions intensity target — it now aims for emissions intensity to be 45% below 2005 levels by 2030 — and the share of electricity that will come from non-fossil fuel sources — 50% cumulative electric power installed capacity will be from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030.

Despite updating its targets, Climate Action Tracker (CAT) has rated India’s conditional NDCs as “critically insufficient”, citing the fact that “it is already on track” to achieve these targets and that “substantial improvement” is needed to get India onto a 1.5 °C pathway. Overall, CAT assesses India’s climate policies to be “highly insufficient”.

Under the 2022 NDC update, India will also seek to create a carbon sink of 2.5-3 GtCO2e by 2030 through additional forest cover.

During COP27, the UN Climate Change Conference held last year in Sharm El-Sheikh, India was part of a failed push to get countries to agree to phase down all fossil fuels, rather than just coal as was agreed at the conference the year before in Glasgow. However, it was also India, alongside China, that made a last-minute intervention at the Glasgow summit (COP26) to weaken the effort to end coal power, resulting in participating nations agreeing to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal.

Exposure to the effects of climate change

India is among the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and is already experiencing significant effects from rising global temperatures.

In the spring of 2022, India experienced a deadly heatwave that killed upwards of 90 people and led to an estimated 10-35% reduction in crop yields in some states. An international team of scientists from the World Weather Attribution determined that the event was made around 30 times more likely as a result of climate change.

The country is currently in the throes of another such heatwave, after recording its hottest February since 1901.

Intense heat brings with it risks of drought, while at the other extreme melting Himalayan glaciers and changes to the Monsoon will likely cause flooding of increasing frequency and severity. A 2021 report by the World Bank found that without adaption measures, extreme river floods could affect an additional 13 to 34 million people by the 2040s. Meanwhile, coastal flooding is expected to affect an additional 5 to 18 million by 2070-2100.

Compounding the problems raised by changing weather conditions is the fact that nearly 50% of India’s population are reliant on agriculture or other climate sensitive sectors. Reductions in crop productivity, coupled with a high proportion of poverty in the population — 16.4% of India’s population is poor (2021 data) — have the potential to make food scarcity a severe issue in the future.

In a recently published report by the Cross Dependency Initiative (XDI), over 2600 territories around the world were ranked based on their estimated financial exposure to the effects of climate change by 2050 — India had the third highest number of states in the top 50, including its most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, home to more than 200 million people.