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2 November 2021

Is Allegra Stratton right to be positive about India’s 2070 net zero target?

Narendra Modi's pledge may fall short of that favoured by the UN, but experts say India deserves praise as a developing country.

By Philippa Nuttall

The UK’s Cop26 spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, told Newsnight on 1 November that the pledge made earlier that day by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, for his country to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 was “positive” and “more than we thought” the world’s third largest carbon-emitter would commit to. Is she right?

ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, wasn’t impressed by the pledge. He tweeted to remind the world that India is the third biggest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the US: “This is 20 years after the 2050 target favoured by the UN (and UK and most of the West). And is 10 years after China. Not great start to #COP26”.

However, the New Statesman spoke to climate scientists and energy experts who say Peston is wrong and Stratton is correct.

Let’s consider how countries arrive at their net zero targets.

“Targets are informed by science, but are ultimately political,” says Joeri Rogelj, director of research at London’s Grantham Institute and a lead author of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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“For net zero targets, the science is clear at the global level,” he told the New Statesman in Glasgow. “We need to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally to halt warming.” However, translating the science to the level of a single country “is not simply science anymore, but also techno-economics, and politics”. And individual countries “do not need to reach net zero at the same time”. How fast they can get their will depend on what is “technically and economically possible” for them.

We should also not forget that India is still developing. Until now, many poorer countries have insisted on the right and need to continue to develop, even if this means more fossil fuels and more emissions. And, while India may be the third biggest emitter, its emissions per capita of around 1.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide, remain low compared to the global average of 4.79 tonnes, and the 15.52 tonnes per capita pumped out by Americans. (Emissions in the UK stand at around 5.55 tonnes a head.)

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“No one could imagine India setting a net zero emissions target a few short years ago,” Lauri Myllyvirta, from the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, wrote on Twitter. “No one. It does represent a big shift. Plus, to call for a 2050 target for India unless rich countries have faster timelines is just outlandish.”

Bob Watson, a leading environmental scientist and a previous chairman of the IPCC, says that if nothing else, we should admire India’s honesty. “At least they are not pretending to do more – many other countries might promise more, but will they deliver?” he asks.

For all countries, the crux of the matter is whether they can make real progress in the next two weeks in Glasgow, in setting out how they will move towards these targets and translate them into near-term plans. 

“For now these are ambitions, but without follow-up over the coming years they will remain empty words,” warns Rogelj.

[See also: Can we trust world leaders’ pledge to end deforestation?]

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