While 2020 was a grim year defined overwhelmingly by the Covid-19 pandemic, it had certain upsides as well. One of the most significant developments during the year in terms of climate policy was that a growing number of countries committed to achieving net zero emissions. This, notably, comes at a time when the pandemic is set to push back global economic recovery by two years to 2023. Asian giants such as China, Japan and the Republic of Korea have recently pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050-60. While India has not set out a full carbon-neutrality plan, it is moving ahead with one of the largest renewable energy programmes in the world.
So what does net zero mean? Essentially, net zero means that new emissions are not added to the atmosphere. Emissions will continue, but will be balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere. According to the United Nations, globally, the world is not on track to meet the targets agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which stipulated keeping the global temperature increase well below 2°C or at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In fact, 2010-19 is the warmest decade on record.
Power Line takes a closer look at the latest buzzword in climate action: net zero emissions…
As per the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Emission Gap Report 2020, 126 countries, covering 51 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, have formally adopted, announced or have under consideration net zero goals. If the US adopts a net zero GHG target by 2050, as suggested in the Biden-Harris climate plan, the share would increase to 63 per cent. The European Union (EU), Japan and Korea have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050.
In one of the most decisive steps in terms of climate policy, in October 2020, China, which is responsible for a quarter of the current global emissions, announced its aim to halt the rise in its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and, more importantly, to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. The 2060 target date chosen by China is slightly later than the UK and EU target of 2050. How exactly will China achieve this target is unclear, given that more than half of its current energy mix is still reliant on fossil fuels, predominantly coal.
Technology to achieve net zero
As countries across the world make net zero commitments, identifying and investing in a portfolio of technologies that meet their goals will be critical. As per a new KPMG India report, “Decarbonising growth – Managing the transition”, the four dominant clean energy technology pathways are electrification; carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS); hydrogen; and bioenergy.
Direct electrification will be the primary route to decarbonisation, supported by increasingly inexpensive renewable energy and adjunct technologies such as storage, the report notes. It adds that hydrogen, other than helping renewable energy generation, is also expected to play a crucial role in extending the demand for renewables with sector coupling benefits. Green hydrogen is expected to help decarbonise hard-to-abate energy-consuming sectors such as transport and industries. CCUS will also be a key enabler for achieving the net zero goals. With a global coal-based fleet of over 500 GW being added in the last decade, these investments represent substantial lock-ins and CCUS could offer a compelling value proposition as a candidate technology for decarbonisation through the retrofitting of existing plants.
Lastly, the use of biofuels in transport applications is expected to show the strongest growth and play an important role in the decarbonisation of sectors such as aviation, shipping and heavy transport. Also, bioenergy can be a form of negative emissions technology when linked with CCUS. The report adds that with the net zero goal betting heavily on new technologies, progress on these must be backed with appropriate investments in research and development, besides aligning investment horizons with evolving technology types.
India: On track for low-carbon transition
While India has not yet set a net zero emission target, it is working towards energy transition in a big way. The country is pursuing decarbonisation by promoting renewable energy and has set itself an ambitious target of 175 GW of renewable capacity by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030. In fact, India is one of the very few countries among the G20 nations that is getting close to achieving its commitment in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
A recent report by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) has demonstrated that India has adequate renewable energy resources to support a zero-carbon power system delivering 6,000 TWh or more by 2050 at close to no cost to electricity consumers, as well as living standards and economic growth, thanks to the increasing competitiveness of the country’s solar and wind energy. (The ETC is a global coalition of leaders from across the energy landscape committed to achieving net zero emissions by mid-century, in line with the Paris climate objective of limiting global warming to well below 2°C. It has in its fold leaders from global energy producers, energy-intensive industries, financial institutions and environmental advocates.)
The ETC notes that wind and solar power accounted for 8 per cent of India’s on-grid generation in 2019, with nuclear, hydro, biomass and waste plants bringing the total share of low/zero carbon power to 25 per cent. A detailed analysis by ETC India shows that wind and solar generation could increase to about 32 per cent of the country’s total generation by 2030 (with low/zero carbon power increasing to 47 per cent of the total). In such a high renewables penetration scenario, the power system costs, allowing for necessary storage and flexibility resources, would not be higher than if new coal capacity were installed instead.
India can thus deliver rapid increases in electricity supply to support rising prosperity at a competitive total system cost, without building any more coal plants beyond those currently under construction, says the ETC report. Initial work on the power system shows that there are adequate solar and wind resources to support a zero carbon power system, delivering 6,000 TWh or more in 2050, and that the total system costs of achieving that objective will be very small.
Beyond aggressive renewable energy targets, India is advocating a strong shift to electric vehicles (EVs) as well. The country plans to achieve a share of 30 per cent in EV adoption by 2030 from less than 1 per cent currently. There have been encouraging policy developments on the policy front. The government plans to set up at least one EV charging station for every 69,000 petrol pumps to encourage people to use more EVs in future. The government has also decided to reduce the GST on EVs to 5 per cent, besides delinking the battery cost of two- and three-wheelers from the overall cost of the vehicles.
On the green hydrogen front, while current uptake is low, there is a huge corporate interest in this technology. Reportedly, the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) plans to invite bids for setting up green hydrogen plants. India’s largest power producer, NTPC Limited, is also trying to capitalise on the enormous potential of hydrogen fuel cell technology. It has plans to introduce hydrogen-fuelled vehicles in Leh and has recently floated a global tender for the same. Green hydrogen, produced from renewable energy generated in Leh, will be used for this project.
The transportation sector, too, is transitioning towards a low-carbon future. Indian Railways is working towards becoming a “Green Railway” by 2030, with net zero carbon emissions. Railway electrification, improving the energy efficiency of locomotives, trains and fixed installations, green certification for installations/stations, fitting bio-toilets in coaches and switching to renewable sources of energy are all a part of its strategy of achieving net zero carbon emissions. Indian Railways has completed the electrification of more than 40,000 route km (63 per cent of broad gauge routes). It has also started energy procurement from various solar power projects and about 100 MWp of rooftop solar systems have already been commissioned on various buildings and stations of Indian Railways.
It is not just the push by different countries, the Covid-19 pandemic too has propelled net zero to the top of the corporate agenda. Some of the largest companies in the world and in India, including industry leaders in hard-to-abate sectors, have set out net zero targets. India’s largest coal company, Coal India Limited, plans to set up 14 rooftop and ground-mounted solar power projects with 3,000 MW of capacity, worth Rs 56 billion, by 2023-24, and its solar ambitions are central to its goal of becoming a net zero carbon company. Further, last month, as many as 24 top private companies including the Tata Group, Reliance and Adani signed a declaration on climate change by voluntarily pledging to move towards carbon neutrality.
Are the net zero commitments enough? Experts note that many of these commitments are voluntary and not binding and hence, if a country or company misses the target, there are no penalties to pay. Also, more importantly, the transparency around net zero commitments varies widely across countries.
Even as the world deals with the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it continues to battle the climate crisis, with 2020 on course to be the warmest on record. The question that remains to be answered now is, will the leaders be able to walk the talk?