Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s net-zero emissions by 2070 goal is subject to multigenerational vagaries

Mayank Chhaya-


Mayank Chhaya

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made an extravagantly ambitious commitment to net zero emissions by 2070 at the ongoing Conference of the Parties 16 or COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow.

Given the timeline of the next 50 years when the 71-year-old Modi himself and most of his fellow leaders would be long gone this is a multigenerational commitment vulnerable to India’s volatile and often capricious politics as well as societal vagaries. By its very nature such a commitment is more wishful thinking in its underpinnings than a practicable strategy over the next five decades. Notwithstanding that, it is being seen as a remarkable promise by India which was seen as one of the last major holdouts as a major economy to make net zero commitment. Technological advances in renewable energy are expected to make such commitments more achievable than wishful by a growing number of experts.

In the shorter-term the prime minister’s five specific commitments by 2030 are being seen as rather significant by the world community. As the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the United States and China the country of 1.3 billion plus people is a key player in ensuring that the world manages to achieve the target 1.5 degrees Celsius, a number by which humanity must not allow the average global temperature to rise above preindustrial levels to prevent catastrophic climatic upheavals.

The five specific commitments that Modi made with 2030 as the deadline are to make 50% of India’s power generated by renewable energy, dramatically increase its non-fossil energy capacity to 500GW, reduce its projected carbon emissions by  one billion in the next ten years and a 45% reduction in the carbon intensity of the economy. These too are ambitious targets which can be realistically tracked by this generation of Indians as they unfold. Whether they are a hyperbole from a leader frequently susceptible to hyperboles or quantifiable and trackable targets in terms of their progress year after year is an open question.

It is also a function of Modi’s own longevity as prime minister with the next general elections just three years away. Although the vast and vocal support base of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would have the world believe that Modi will remain in power as long as he chooses to by easily winning mandates for the next decade, there are variables and vagaries of Indian politics that are impossible to predict. Modi’s own age is also a factor.

The political piece of these targets is a crucial one because it is not altogether inconceivable that any political dispensation other than Modi’s aggressively right wing may not run with the specific goals if they were to come to power in 2024. However, in so much as they capture a major economy’s sense of responsibility towards the planet Modi’s pronouncements are seen as highly commendable.

It has been noted that India’s promise of net zero emissions by 2070 are two decades longer than those by the U.S. and Europe for 2050 and a decade longer than China’s and Saudi Arabia’s of 2060 but they are seen as achievable under models worked out by climate experts.

Experts bear in mind that India is still decades away from its peak economic growth as well as energy consumption. The next three to five decades will witness a significant rise in its energy demand, expected to be the fastest-growing in the world. Add to it the population piece where India’s population is expected to overtake that of China by or before 2027, according to the United Nations. Also, projections show that the country will add some 275 million people by 2050 and there are expectations that India’s population will peak at 1.64 billion.

According to a 2019 report by the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “The new population projections indicate that nine countries will make up more than half the projected growth of the global population between now and 2050: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Indonesia, Egypt and the United States of America.”

That intensity of demographic pressure on India’s economy and environment will have a direct bearing on the country’s politics within which Prime Minister Modi’s long-term net zero commitments will have to be realized.

In a recent report the New Delhi-based independent thinktank Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) said, “The country would need to bear economic losses due to shift in investments patterns across sectors needed to achieve the peaking and net-zero targets. The shift in investments that would need to happen due to stringent decarbonization policies implies that investment that was otherwise profitable in the absence of climate change mitigation policies would have to be forgone for the sake of more expensive low carbon choices. The cumulative discounted economic cost for India (discounted up to 2015 at 4 percent real discount rate between 2015 and 2050, and at 2 percent for years beyond 2050) in the 2030 peaking – 2050 net-zero scenarios ranges from 1353 to 1872 billion USD (2015 prices) between 2030 and 2050, and 12,562 to 19,318 billion USD, between 2050 and 2100.”

The prime minister’s commitments, as remarkable as they are, ought to be assessed against that backdrop and across multi-generations until 2070 with the impressive target of net-zero emissions. It is five decades from now when even those in their 20s would be in their 70s by then.