The boat of humankind hasn’t been sailing on smooth waters. Ever since Homo sapiens arrived on the planet nearly 300,000 years ago, we had to fight evolutionary competition and natural calamities to overcome challenges. However, the precarious situation of climatic change and deterioration is one like never before.
In the second half of 20th century when individuals and organisations alike, started to realise the consequences of our actions, a lot of damage was already done, and hence actions needed to be immediate and impactful. Since 1992, when the United Nations recognised climate change as a serious issue, negotiations among countries have produced notable accords, the most prominent ones being the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and Paris the Agreement (2015). However, global leaders have struggled to maintain momentum and failed to slow down the rise in global temperature, hindering progress towards a sustainable planet.
History of environmental pacts
As we look back on the historical journey of environmental agreements, a significant breakthrough was achieved in 1997 at the Conference of the Parties 3 (COP3) held in Japan.¹ The Conference adopted the Kyoto Protocol, where the parties recognised the need for action. The announcement was like a breath of fresh air to humanity. The legally-binding treaty required developed countries to reduce their emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels, and established a system to monitor the progress. It is the world’s only legally-binding treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions. However, due to the absence of many major emitters, it covered only about 18% of global emissions.2
The protocol did not require the developing nations, including high carbon emitters China and India, to take any action. It only came into force in February 2005, after being ratified by enough countries to account for at least 55% of global emissions. Notably, it did not include the United States, the world’s leading carbon emitter. Hence, we can conclude that while there was willingness to act, the buzz around the room echoed the sentiment “Why should I be the first?”
The successor to the Kyoto Protocol was supposed to be finalised at COP15 in Copenhagen, but was met with unexpected disappointment as the parties only came up with a non-binding document that was “taken note of”, but not adopted for concrete action. As with all human endeavours, procrastination and national interests first clearly dominated the space, and globalisation was only a trade-related term, rather than a medium for mutual growth.
Moving on to December 2015, the world achieved what experts call the most significant global climate agreement in history, the Paris Agreement. Unlike previous accords, it requires nearly all countries – both developed and developing – to set emission-reduction goals. However, countries have the freedom to choose their own targets, and there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure they meet them. Under the agreement, countries are expected to submit targets known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5, compared to pre-industrial levels. It finally feels like our Eureka moment! The global community seems to be on the same page when it comes to addressing the environmental issues faced by our planet.
India’s path to carbon neutrality
Let’s turn our attention to present day India. Where does our country stand amidst all these developments?
Although India is the only G-20 country on track to meet its Paris Climate Agreement goals, there is still considerable discussion and speculation regarding India’s future commitments, and plans. India has pledged to achieve net zero by 2070. In comparison, China, one of the world’s leading economies, has set the target for carbon neutrality by 2060, while the US and EU aim to reach net zero by 2050.
However, we need to tackle the elephant in the room first. Is it in India’s medium and long-term interests to become a carbon neutral economy by gradually moving towards decarbonisation of all the sectors?
The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ as we take a closer look at the economies around the world. As history suggests, looking back at the Industrial Revolution, first movers get a huge boost in terms of social, economic and geo-strategic gains, and India should be aiming to take advantage of the opportunities opened by the dawning Sustainable economy. The Global Commission on Adaptation, whose primary aim is to promote newer technologies and better planning to become more resilient to climate-related threats, avers that investments in sustainable solutions consistently will deliver higher returns and create more jobs than traditional investments.
Things look positive, and India has started on the front foot. By 2030, the plans are to build non-fossil energy capacity to 500GW; meet 50% of energy requirements from renewable energy sources; reduce total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes; and, reduce carbon intensity to less than 45%, far exceeding its Paris targets.3
What the future holds
The process to achieve carbon neutrality requires integration and interconnectedness across people, geographies, and multiple sectors of the economy. A combination of long-term policies, binding norms, and implementation strategies that aim towards sustainable development are fundamental, if India is to strike the delicate balance between economic growth and environmental preservation for its future generations. Therefore, it is important that we realise that we are far from the finish line, and that we are running a long and toiling marathon.
As things stand, many alarm bells need to be rung. Currently, there is no legislation that binds people to focus on carbon footprint reduction and address climate change, although a variety of environmental laws focus on pollution control, environment restoration, and waste management. Hence, for starts, India should proactively seek Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in green technologies, and in low-carbon and climate-resilient platforms. This will enable us to initiate carbon reduction. Finally, it is imperative to include the voice of the socio-economically underprivileged and climate-vulnerable groups throughout this journey. Their involvement would be critical to the success of India’s “green” transition, and inclusivity4.
The implementation of current and future technologies may take time, but each must be evaluated and assimilated, based on its social relevance, economic viability, and the nation’s capability to solve critical problems. A decarbonised economy will also be knowledge-based, lead India to a knowledge-driven future. Finally, as citizens of a country with rich culture, heritage, and history, we must be willing to contribute our economic and social power to drive and influence this change.
After all, this is the legacy we will leave for our children!
1 United Nations Climate Change, Conference of the Parties (COP), UNCC,
2 European Commission, Kyoto 1st commitment period (2008–12), Climate Action, https://climate.ec.europa.eu/eu-action/climate-strategies-targets/progress-made-cutting-emissions/kyoto-1st-commitment-period-2008-12_en
3India business law journal (20 Jan, 2022), India’s path to carbon neutrality,
4The Daily Pioneer (11 May, 2021), India’s path to carbon neutrality, Sanjay Gupta,