Weaving sustainability into India’s climate action

Sustainable development goals offer a framework for policy coordination to unify policies addressing air quality, clean energy and climate mitigation toward improving program efficacy and maximizing co-benefits.

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Climate change policies of nations must prioritize measures that balance their core development objectives while contributing to achieving the Paris Agreement climate targets of limiting global mean temperature increases to within 2°C and 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. For example, India has proposed an ambitious eight-point action plan including clean energy production, industrial energy efficiency, waste to energy conversion and sustainable transport.  The traditional approach has been for climate policies to target greenhouse gas emissions, largely based on “low-carbon pathways,” supported by simultaneous “co-benefits” beyond climate change such as energy security, air quality and health benefits.

Concurrently, policies implementing the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are often in clear alignment with the national core development agenda and therefore more feasible politically.  As an example, India has committed to national policies and programs toward improving access to clean and modern forms of residential energy, reducing the health burden of air pollution and improving the livability of cities, among others. This raises an important question: “Which, if any, of the policies addressing SDGs, concurrently yield climate co-benefits and to what extent?”

Numerous studies establish that addressing the emissions of short lived climate forcers (wSLCFs), especially methane and particulate black carbon (BC), is integral to emission pathways meeting especially the desirable 1.5°C temperature target. Therefore we further take a holistic view, including SLCFs, not limited to greenhouse gases alone. Toward enabling policy coordination in India, we assess climate co-benefits of policies addressing SDGs, specifically air quality and residential clean energy access, to identify which of these might yield significant climate co-benefits and, therefore, be candidates to integrate into the country’s climate action plan.

Early action on wSLCFs has the promise to mitigate rising regional temperature trajectories, especially in view of the recent increases in heat wave occurrences in India, therefore, we developed emissions scenarios from 2015 to 2030 under two levels of achievement of SDG policy targets related to residential clean energy and air quality. We then estimated emission reduction potential in 2030, between the policy and a baseline scenario, employing relevant climate change metrics to estimate the magnitude of climate co-benefits. The emissions reductions of SLCFs in CO2-e are directly comparable to those in CO2 from these policies. This analysis is in fact part of a network project which aims to establish an SLCF emission baseline for India (Figure 1; https://doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-19-0030.1).

Figure 1. Field surveys of activity information to establish an SLCF emission baseline for India - a) residential biomass cooking, b) brick kilns, c) agricultural residue burning and d) transport sector, under an ongoing project (https://doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-19-0030.1)

We find that residential clean energy programs, specifically the adoption of liquefied petroleum gas cookstoves and household electrification, deliver very significant reductions in emissions of wSLCFs and related CO2-e, however, with negligible direct CO2 emissions reductions. Only specific air quality programs yield reductions in emissions of wSLCFs. For example, emissions control standards related to SO2 in electricity generation, lead to reduction in sulphate particles, which are cooling agents, therefore leading to an unmasking of warming, with in fact a negative climate co-benefit. However, emission standards in sectors like fired brick production, promoting low-emission zigzag-fired brick kilns, and curbs on agricultural residue burning yield significant reductions in emissions of wSLCFs, especially BC, and related CO2-e.

We find that SDG policies related to residential clean energy, while only key air quality policies in the brick and agriculture sectors, clearly yield climate co-benefits primarily through emission reductions of wSLCFs. Moreover, these measures have linkages to SDGs related to ameliorating human health, improving food security, eradicating poverty and upgrading infrastructure/retrofitting industries. Integrating these interventions into national climate policies can bring them under a more stringent oversee. This additional push will ensure a greater chance for these policies to tackle their own targets and simultaneously contribute to climate action, providing a win-win opportunity which does not undermine but in fact enhances the original sustainability goals.

Kushal Tibrewal

Senior Research Fellow, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay

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