In the world third largest carbon emitter after China and the United States, India ranks seventh climate risk index. Unless India, along with some 200 other signatory countries to the Paris Agreement, is taking aggressive action to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, physical and financial losses from floods, droughts and cyclones could become more severe than they are today . Similarly, the health impacts associated with dangerous levels of air pollution that currently affect more than 90% of its population.
To address climate and air pollution risks and meet the growing demand for energy from its population, India will need to significantly decarbonize its energy system over the coming decades. To this end, its initial commitment to climate policy under the Paris Agreement calls for a reduction carbon dioxide intensity of GDP 33-35% by 2030 from 2005 levels, and an increase in non-fossil energy to around 40% of cumulative installed capacity in 2030. In COP26 international conference on climate change, India announced more aggressive targetsincluding the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2070.
Meeting its climate goals will require reducing emissions in all economic sectors, including those where emissions are particularly hard to reduce. In these sectors, which involve energy-intensive industrial processes (iron and steel production, non-ferrous metals such as copper, aluminum and zinc, cement and chemicals), decarbonization options are limited and more expensive than in other sectors. While replacing coal and natural gas with solar and wind power could reduce carbon dioxide emissions in electric power generation and transportation, no easy substitute can be deployed in many heavy industrial processes that release CO2 in the air as a by-product.
However, other methods could be used to reduce the emissions associated with these processes, which use about 50% of India’s natural gas, 25% of its coal and 20% of its oil. Assessing the potential effectiveness of such methods over the next 30 years, a new study in the review Energy saving led by researchers from MIT Joint Program in the Science and Politics of Global Change is the first to explicitly explore emission reduction pathways for India’s hard-to-reduce sectors.
Using an enhanced version of MIT’s economic projection and policy analysis (EPPA), the study assesses existing emission levels in these sectors and predicts how much they can be reduced by 2030 and 2050 under different policy scenarios. Aiming to decarbonize industrial processes, the scenarios include the use of subsidies to increase electricity consumption, incentives to replace coal with natural gas, measures to improve industrial resource efficiency, policies to carbon pricing, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, and hydrogen in steel production.
Researchers find that India’s commitment to the 2030 Paris Agreement could further increase fossil fuel use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, projected carbon dioxide emissions in difficult sectors to reduce increasing by about 2.6 times between 2020 and 2050. But scenarios that also promote electrification, support for natural gas and resource efficiency in hard-to-reduce sectors can reduce their CO emissions.2 emissions of 15 to 20%.
While appearing to move the needle in the right direction, these reductions are ultimately negated by increased demand for products emerging from these sectors. So what is the best way forward?
The researchers conclude that only incentivizing carbon pricing or advancing disruptive technologies can bring emissions from the hard-to-reduce sector below their current levels. To achieve meaningful emissions reductions, they argue, the price of carbon must be high enough to make CCS economically viable. In this case, reductions of 80% from current levels could be achieved by 2050.
“In the absence of major government support, India will not be able to reduce carbon emissions in its hard-to-reduce sectors in line with its climate goals,” says the deputy director of the joint program at MIT. Sergei Paltsev, the lead author of the study. “A comprehensive government policy could provide strong incentives for the private sector in India and generate favorable conditions for foreign investment and technological advancement. We encourage policy makers to use our findings to design effective pathways to reduce emissions in these sectors, and thereby help reduce climate and air pollution-related health risks in India.