Fulfilling its COP26 pledge: Can India become carbon-neutral by 2070?

Becoming carbon-neutral by 2070 will not only help the world but will also make India a new industrial power, writes Anil K. Rajvanshi for South Aisa Monitor

Anil K. Rajvanshi Nov 17, 2021
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a bold statement at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow (Photo: PIB)

On November 1, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a very bold statement in COP26 meeting in Glasgow , pledging that by 2070 India will become a carbon-neutral nation. If followed to its logical end, it can create a very advanced Indian industrial society and a livable planet.

The statement reminded me of the pledge President John F Kennedy made to Americans in 1962 that before the decade is out, the U.S. will send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. 

Kennedy and Modi 

The difference in these two statements was that except for Kennedy who was shot dead in 1963, most people who listened to him that day were still alive in 1969 when man landed on the moon. On the other hand, all the leaders who spoke in COP26 will be dead by 2070. Thus, unless they all set in motion a concerted effort and produce a doable road map, all these talks will remain empty promises. 

The audacious goal Kennedy gave in 1962 had no precedence. Yet the US set in motion the creation of a huge industry and manpower base to take up the challenge. Most people who worked on this goal were driven by patriotism, pride and a desire to conquer space. I had the privilege of knowing one of them (my Ph.D Professor Erich Farber). The scientific and academic community rose to the challenge. 

I feel this is the type of programme needed in India together with the missionary zeal of scientists, bureaucrats and decision-makers to convert Modi’s statement into reality. It requires a tremendous effort on the part of the present Indian leadership to inspire Indians to do it. Whether they can do it only time will tell. 

However, there are some possible solutions that the government might find worth considering:

(a) Reducing per capita energy consumption
 
No amount of renewable energy technologies and systems will help the world or India if we continue on the present path of consuming greedily huge quantities of resources and energy which fuel the consumptive and wasteful lifestyle. There is a tremendous chasm between the rich and the poor in the country. The wealth of India’s richest 1 percent is more than 4 times that of 70 percent of its population!  The rich need to learn to live sustainably and not in ever-increasing luxury and consumption.

It is possible to live in an emotionally satisfying and sustainable manner with much less energy than the Americans and Europeans consume. It is a doable goal. Once we reduce our energy consumption, the carbon footprint will automatically reduce. 

(b) Extensive efforts needed in R&D 

India has a woefully inadequate R&D budget.  It is ~ 0.7 percent of GDP whereas countries with equivalent and even smaller economics spend 1-4 percent of GDP. At the same time, the quality of engineering education in India is poor. So we produce engineers and technicians who are only proficient in passing exams. 

India needs to set in motion a massive programme of not only improving engineering education but also in creating an eco-system for creating great teachers. The quality of teachers in most engineering colleges and institutes is presently inferior. 

(c) Biomass energy for electricity production 

To become truly carbon-neutral, it is necessary that whatever carbon dioxide we generate should be fixed continuously. This can happen when we produce electricity and energy from biomass since it recycles carbon dioxide. At our Institute, NARI, we have done work on Subabul (Leucaena leucocephala) which produces fodder (its leaves are excellent fodder); fuel (wood from its stem) and fertilizer (its roots fix nitrogen in soil).  Similar multipurpose trees should form the backbone of biomass energy production strategies.

Biomass should be complemented by carbon-neutral sources like nuclear, wind, solar. The main thing is that a mix of energy alternatives will be needed. No single source will be sufficient.            
             
Way forward 

Fifty years is a long time to plan. Though so many things are unknown, yet nothing is impossible. Indians do wonderfully well when we go to the US and Europe.  We are competent enough to work towards carbon-neutral India, provided there is a sense of purpose that is inspired by the existing leadership. A lot of carbon dioxide mitigation technologies exist presently but once the programme progresses and accelerates, a large number of out-of-box solutions will be developed. 

The biggest challenge for India is how to make the rich and the neo-rich reduce their consumptive lifestyle. Once a person is used to the opulent lifestyle it becomes difficult for them to give it up. We cannot wait for another Mahatma Gandhi to be born. What is needed is that all like-minded people should use social media extensively to shame the opulent. 

Becoming carbon-neutral by 2070 will not only help the world but will also make India a new industrial power because developing renewable energy technologies on that scale can only be done by an advanced industrial society.  

One of the things India needs to do is not to ape the Chinese or the American model which is based on excessive greed but to develop technologies and systems keeping our own ethos in mind. Our mantra of development should be: Use of high and efficient technology guided by the wisdom of spirituality.  

(The writer, an IIT and US-trained engineer and renewable energy expert, is Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at anilrajvanshi50@gmail.com)