17/02/2017 12:20 PM IST | Updated 21/02/2017 3:08 PM IST

India's Role In Keeping Global Warming Under 2°C

Svante Arrhenius, a Nobel laureate in Chemistry, was, as far back as 1896, an early proponent of the earth's warming with increasing carbon emissions. While his study was related to explaining ice ages, a steam technologist named Guy Callendar working for the British Electrical and Allied Industries was the first to publish very detailed calculations in 1938 on the accumulation of carbon and measurable global warming, which also included urban heat islands, projections of carbon concentrations and global warming estimates out to 2100. His conclusions were optimistic since he focused on the role of fossil fuels in providing heat and energy as well as delaying the dangerous ice ages permanently. But dire warnings on the dangers of global warming began to make headlines only in 1980s, following Dr. Charles Keeling's data on CO2 pouring in after the 1960s, the implementation of global climate models since the 1970s and the availability of satellite data from the 1980s. Lord Stern's "Review on the Economics of Climate Change" published in 2006 arbitrarily defined 2°C above the global mean temperature at the beginning of Industrial Revolution as a dangerous threshold that must be avoided. Our models are not precise enough quantify all the impacts of a 2°C warming, but flags have already been raised that this threshold may need to be lowered or that all our actions, including the Paris agreement, will not guarantee that we will contain global warming. But there may be some hopeful signs emerging in the recent decade in terms of a reduction in the energy intensity of GDP growths and the decrease in carbon intensity of energy production. India too needs to establish its goals for energy intensity of its GDP and carbon emission of its energy portfolio.

Reducing the carbon intensity of energy production requires a special focus on upping the contribution of renewables to the total energy portfolio.

India often gets mentioned as one of the top carbon emitters, even though its total emissions and per capita emissions remain relatively small (a total of about 2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year as of 2014, compared to about 11, 6, and 4 billion tonnes per year respectively for China, US and EU). A fortunate combination of a global economic slowdown, the rise in renewable energy production and the switch from coal and petrol to natural gas have produced a flattening of the global emissions since 2012 or so, especially for China, the US, and the EU. India, however, remains on an upward trajectory of increasing emissions during this period. But even for India, there is a ray of hope since the energy intensity of GDP growth shows a slight decrease. However, the carbon intensity of energy production shows an upward trend. A cautionary note, of course, is that despite the reductions or flattening of carbon emissions, carbon continues to accumulate in the atmosphere due to its multi-century-long residence time.

Similar to all other top carbon emitters, India's largest carbon footprint comes from fossil fuel consumption related to transportation and industrial activities. But India is also the second largest producer of cement, which adds to the increasing carbon emissions. India's infrastructure and housing boom can be expected to continue along with the urbanisation of agricultural land around the megacities and growing city centres. Reducing the carbon intensity of energy production thus requires a special focus on upping the contribution of renewables to the total energy portfolio. This is critical considering India's dependence on fossil fuel imports and the potential instabilities in the main oil suppliers from the Middle East. India's investments in solar and wind continue to grow, although not operating at full potential capacities as of yet. These investments obviously need to continue but research on energy storage for intermittent sources like solar and wind also need to transition to operations to establish a modern decentralised energy network. Just like the rest of the world, India also needs to seriously ramp up its energy production from biofuels and nuclear. Each comes with its own caveats of course. Nuclear has safety and security issues and waste disposal needs. Biofuels have played a negative role in food security in several developing countries even though plants like jatropha are touted as high oil yield sources which can be grown in marginal lands. Other stressors on food security include the continued loss of fertile agricultural land to urbanisation and the downward trend in the monsoon. On the other hand, research on biofuels in India has reached a healthy state and will hopefully yield scalable energy productions before too long.

India must focus on reducing the energy intensity of its GDP growth and the carbon intensity of its energy portfolio, which itself needs to diversify rapidly.

India's bold moves on committing to the Paris agreement in terms of its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to emission reductions need to be matched by brave steps on reducing the energy intensity of its GDP growth and on lowering the carbon emission per unit of energy production. Despite all the good news at the global level on a flattening total carbon emission (~36 billion tonnes per year since 2014), the world as a whole needs to implement large-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. It is unclear what other game-changers may come along in terms of mitigation technologies, but it is clear that India needs to explore the economic opportunities of CCS technologies. Whether we will overshoot the 2°C threshold for global warming and whether that proves to be dangerous or not, India's goals are fairly clear. Its own food, water and energy security and the health and wellbeing of its citizens require that India focus on reducing the energy intensity of its GDP growth and the carbon intensity of its energy portfolio, which itself needs to diversify rapidly.