India’s pledge to triple renewables by 2030 is more important than its goal of net-zero carbon emissions

November 3, 2021, 8:55 AM UTC

On Monday, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised the congregation of world leaders gathered at the COP26 summit on climate change and committed his country—the world’s third-largest polluter—to a target of net-zero emissions by 2070.

Only days earlier, India’s environment minister had rejected setting a net-zero target, saying such announcements were “not a solution in itself” and that “it is how much carbon you are going to put in the atmosphere before reaching net zero that is more important.”

In fact, Modi’s announcement—while a surprise—aligns with his minister’s sentiment.

India’s new 2070 deadline is 20 years beyond the mid-century mark by which time, scientists say, the world must achieve net-zero emissions to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Modi’s goal is 10 years beyond the 2060 deadline scientists accept as reasonable for developing economies, which is also the deadline China committed itself to last year.

But Modi’s 2070 net-zero target was last of five climate commitments he outlined Monday. The preceding four— which tackle increasing renewable energy and reducing carbon intensity all by 2030—are more immediate and quantifiable targets. And one—to make renewable energy 50% of the country’s energy mix by the end of the decade—could kick-start the end of India’s addiction to coal.

New renewables

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewable energy tech, such as wind and solar, contributes only 3% of India’s total energy mix today. The broader class of non–fossil fuels—including biomass, which is the burning of animal remains, agricultural produce, and wood—contributed around 25% of India’s total energy mix in 2020.

“To get renewable energy to 50% of India’s energy mix will be a major challenge,” says Aditya Lolla, senior analyst for Asia at energy think tank Ember, noting that Modi’s target of generating half of India’s power needs by way of renewables will require the country to install new capacity at twice its current rate of growth.

Modi’s 2030 plans, which target 500 gigawatts (GW) of renewable electricity by the end of the decade, will require the country to triple its current installed capacity of renewable tech, with solar power playing a major role in the country’s future electricity grid.

India is already the world’s fifth-largest solar power producer in terms of installed capacity, yet solar power generates only 4% of the country’s electricity needs. To meet Modi’s goals, India needs to install 240 GW of solar by 2030.

“That’s a massive increase,” Lolla says. According to energy consultants Mercom India, India installed just 4.6 GW of solar energy in the first half of this year. Building out new projects will require billions of dollars to finance.

The IEA estimates India will need to spend $1.4 trillion on “clean energy technologies” in order to put the country “on a sustainable path over the next 20 years.” Modi wants at least some of the funding India will need to develop those technologies to come from foreign countries.

Greenbacks

India’s historic contribution to global carbon emissions is considerably lower than that of Western nations, which industrialized earlier. The fact that postindustrial nations, like the U.S., are now pressuring developing economies like India to decarbonize at the same rate is a particular bugbear for Modi, who has repeatedly called for COP26 to recognize “climate justice” and compel rich countries to support the decarbonization of developing economies.

“It is India’s expectation that the world’s developed nations make $1 trillion available as climate finance as soon as possible,” Modi said Monday, picking a figure 10 times greater than the $100 billion in annual funding developed nations have already pledged—but failed to provide—for developing economies.

But capital is already pouring into India’s nascent solar market. In August, India’s minister for power said private and public funds have invested $70 billion in India’s renewable energy sector, and global investors continue to see promise in the industry.

“Foreign investors see India’s solar market as a high-growth area, and many are buying substantial stakes in local firms that know the market and operate successfully there,” Conway Irwin, climate and cleantech research director at analysts IHS Markit, said in an interview in July.

IHS Markit ranked India the third most attractive destination for international investment in solar energy last month, while Ernst & Young considers the subcontinent the primary destination for solar funding. That’s good news for Modi’s far-flung 2070 deadline because, as India’s solar sector shines bright, its polluting coal industry will start to fizzle.

Outshining coal

Currently, India plans to expand its domestic coal-fired power capacity in order to meet its growing demand for energy. But according to the New Delhi–based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a think tank, India will need to slash coal usage 99% by 2060 to get to Modi’s net-zero target by 2070.

“If India meets its renewable energy targets, it will come to a point quite quickly where the country doesn’t need to install any new coal-fired power,” Ember’s Lolla says.

According to Ember, India can meet its projected energy growth without installing any additional coal power if the country meets its renewable energy target and installs 500 GW of power from renewable sources by the end of the decade.

In fact, Ember says, if India meets its renewable goals by 2030, it will need less coal power at the end of the decade than it required at the start, meaning the country can start to wind down its existing fossil-fuel infrastructure.

“Blanket 2070 means nothing unless we talk about shutting down coal,” Lolla says. “That’s why I think the pledge for India to reach 50% renewables by 2030 is one thing from Modi’s speech that is really key.”

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