COP27: Are India’s climate pledges a lot of hot air?

While many have praised the Modi-led government’s commitment to cut greenhouse emissions, some remain wary of it being realised.

Mining is in progress at an open-cast mine near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Operations at an open-cast mine near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city, in Jharkhand state [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

India – the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world – has forced climate activists and experts to increase their scrutiny over the South Asian’s nation’s climate-change policies.

The world’s second-most populated country is also one of the most affected by extreme weather as deadly floods and heatwaves have become the norm.

In August, the Indian government greenlighted plans to update some climate pledges from those committed under the 2015 Paris agreement. Under that deal, signatory nations are supposed to submit new plans to the United Nations every five years.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi first made the commitments at last year’s UN Climate Change Conference or COP 26 in Glasgow as part of five total pledges, including reaching net-zero emissions by 2070.

In the updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the government ratified two pledges:  First, reducing emissions intensity – or the volume of emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) – by 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, a 10 percent increase from what it agreed to in 2015.

Second, the government committed to meet 50 percent of its electric power needs from renewable, non-fossil fuel energy sources – up from 40 percent committed at the Paris agreement.

While praised for the moves, critics remain wary of whether the Modi-led government’s ambitious plans will materialise because of its dependence on fossil fuels.

Reliance on coal

India’s coal minister earlier this month announced its use would continue until at least 2040. According to Pralhad Joshi, demand for coal had not yet peaked and was an affordable source of energy for Indians.

“Thus, no transition away from coal is happening in the foreseeable future in India,” Joshi said.

India’s environment ministry gave the go-ahead for coal mine clearances to increase output to 50 percent, as an unprecedented heatwave engulfed the world’s second-most populated nation in April.

The memo added companies were not required to carry out a “revised environmental impact assessment report for additional capacity and public consultation”.

It was also announced 100 coal mines previously shut down for financial reasons were to restart operations, aiming to produce up to 100 million tonnes over the next three years.

Laborers load coal onto trucks for transportation near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. A 2021 Indian government study found that Jharkhand state -- among the poorest in India and the state with the nation’s largest coal reserves -- is also the most vulnerable Indian state to climate change. Efforts to fight climate change are being held back in part because coal, the biggest single source of climate-changing gases, provides cheap electricity and supports millions of jobs. It's one of the dilemmas facing world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland this week in an attempt to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
Labourers load coal onto trucks for transportation in Jharkhand state [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

State-run Coal India announced the building of a new mine in the state of Odisha, set to be one of the biggest in the country.

As a result of such decisions, climate analysts have questioned whether the Modi government was serious about achieving its renewable energy targets.

Nandini Das, a climate and energy economist at Climate Analytics, told Al Jazeera “at this moment India’s policy direction related to mitigation is a bit confusing.”

“On the one hand government is doing really good in the expansion of renewable energy through various policy pushes, but the government is still continuing its support for coal. As it is already evident that increasing reliance on fossil fuels is not compatible with 1.5C pathways, also leading to a risk of a stranded asset.”

At last year’s COP26, India and China were instrumental in toning down language that called to “phase out” the use of coal.

The change called on parties to accelerate “efforts to phase down unabated coal use” rather than “phase out” coal power – a move criticised by several countries who said they were deeply disappointed by the watering down of the terms.

Forestation drive

In its 2015 NDCs, India committed to expanding its carbon sink to absorb 2.5 billion tonnes to three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through forest expansion by 2030.

According to the 2021 Forest Survey Report published in January, total forest and tree cover in India was about 24 percent of the geographical area of the country. In two years from 2019, the total increase in forest cover was 1,500 square kilometres (579 sq miles), while tree cover growth grew to more than 700 sq km (270 sq m).

A local resident tills a plot of land for transplatation of paddy seedlings inside Aarey forest which they call "Mumbai's Amazon", in Mumbai on July 24, 2022.
A resident tills a plot of land for rice seedlings inside Aarey forest – also known as ‘Mumbai’s Amazon’ [File: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP]

Souparna Lahiri, a climate policy adviser at Global Forest Coalition, said the government’s numbers were “absolutely misleading” as they included trees and plantations outside the legally protected forest area.

In the same report, critics noted about 1,600 sq km of natural forests had disappeared during this period. In the northeast of the country, eight states had lost forest cover by 1,020 sq km. The states account for more than 23 percent of India’s total forest cover.

Lahiri said the development of large infrastructure projects – such as hydropower plants, roadways, and mining – were a big reason for the loss of forests and trees.

Earlier this month, ecologists and activists raised the alarm over permission given by the government for a mega development project on the Great Nicobar island in the Bay of Bengal, which will result in the clearing of 850,000 trees.

Critics say the project, which will include building an airport and power plant – also threatens the biodiversity on the island, as well as the livelihoods of Indigenous tribes in the area.

Infrastructure development

Other concerns climate activists have raised are the slew of developmental projects – such as the construction of hydroelectrical dams – in Himalayan states fragile to climate change such as Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir.

In February 2021, at least 200 people were killed in flash floods in Uttrakhand. In 2013, flash floods killed 5,700 people there.

While linking last year’s flooding to rising temperatures in the region, climate experts also pointed out failures in decision-making by national and international agencies that exasperated the disaster.

A general view shows the remains of a dam along a river in Tapovan of Chamoli district on February 8, 2021 damaged after a flash flood thought to have been caused when a glacier broke off
A view of a dam along a river in Tapovan in India’s Chamoli district after flash floods [File: Sajjad Hussain/AFP]

Environmentalist Himanshu Thakkar – a coordinator with South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People – told Al Jazeera that dams are not only economically unviable – with solar and wind alternatives being nearly twice as cheap – but they also aggravate global warming.

“It is not true that dams are climate-friendly, firstly because it also destroys forests … a major source of carbon sinks,” he said. “They also destroy the adaptation capacity of the local communities to cope with the changing climate.”

Thakkar added building dams was also responsible for creating reservoirs that emit the greenhouse gas methane from rotting vegetation. Methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

‘Walks the talk’

Al Jazeera contacted the government for comment on scepticism over its climate pledges but did not immediately receive a response.

In a national report released on Monday, the government said it will prioritise a phased transition to clean energy and lower household consumption to achieve net zero emissions by 2070.

“This is an important milestone,” said India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav at a COP27 event marking the report’s launch. “Once again India has demonstrated that it walks the talk on climate change.”

Anmol Ohri, an activist with the non-profit Climate Front India, told Al Jazeera in all Himalayan states in India infrastructure development is being pushed by the government without any environmental checks and balances.

“Development is normal but the climate crisis has already become so huge that we are at a point of no return. We have to adapt to the changes and cannot stop them,” said Ohri, who is based in the southern part of Jammu in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Thakkar said while much of the blame for the climate emergency lies with developed nations, as one of climate change’s “worst victims” India “for its own sake” needed to do better.

“We need to assess what is going to be the climate change impact or climate change footprint of any development intervention, and how this infrastructure is going to perform in the changing climate,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera