Ambitious Target

Aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050

Across the globe, countries have set net-zero-carbon emission targets to be achieved by mid-century. To analyse the necessary transformations required in India to achieve a net-zero-emission energy system by 2050, Shell and the TERI have released a report titled “India: Transforming to a Net-Zero Emissions Energy System”. The report also predicts what India’s energy system would be like in 2050. The aim is to evaluate India’s current options and challenges across each of the energy sectors. It also assesses whether adequate solutions exist to fully decarbonise the sectors and examines India’s capability to move to such a scenario by 2050.

The report acknowledges that the target is ambitious, but states that all social, infrastructural and behavioural barriers can be overcome if the required technologies are available. A second scenario highlights the barriers that might emerge. Another noteworthy point is that the analysis does not take into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The net-zero-emission scenario discusses in detail the transformation needed in three parts – acceleration of mass deployment of clean technologies and energies; support of energy efficient and low-carbon choices; and removal of unavoidable emissions. It also highlights the key barriers to the transition and prescribes the policies that will be needed to achieve the target.

Renewable Watch provides a brief summary of the report, with a detailed focus on the acceleration of clean technologies…


Globally, the transition from agriculture-based to technology-based economies has typically seen energy growth by a factor of 10 or more. At present, about 100 gigajoules (GJ) per capita per year of primary energy is needed to lead quality life in the modern world. However, the consumption in India in 2019 was only 25 GJ per capita.

In India, fossil fuel-led industrialisation has contributed to rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. India is now the planet’s third-largest emitter of CO2, behind only China and the US. In 2015, the country’s per capita CO2 emissions at 1.8 tonnes were around a ninth of those in the US and a third of the global average of 4.8 tonnes.

The Indian government has set ambitious goals to manage emissions. In its first Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, the country pledged a 33-35 per cent reduction in emission intensity by 2030 from the 2005 levels. It also aims at 40 per cent of its installed electricity capacity to be renewable and nuclear based by 2030. It plans to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes (bt) of CO2 through forest and tree cover by 2030.

India is indeed making headway towards achieving these NDCs. Still, absolute emissions continue to rise and the current development trajectory could see greenhouse gas emissions more than double by 2050, according to TERI’s baseline case. Therefore, the report highlights the need for a more focused policy intervention towards much lower and ultimately net-zero emissions.

Transformation required in the energy sector

The number of motor vehicles in India on a per capita basis is around a tenth of that in many European countries. In view of this, the report states that India’s transition trajectory will be quite different from that of other countries as a substantial portion of the carbon emitting infrastructure is yet to be built or deployed. Thus, India needs to rapidly adopt a range of new energy and mobility technologies before it commits to a high-emitting energy system.

The country is already adopting new technologies. The report mentions that the LED lighting market has grown in line with electricity access in India. A trend of first-time LED use is being observed in low-income households as electricity becomes available, which helps manage the issues of electricity access and emissions.

While this is a positive development, there are challenges in other sectors. Currently about 3 bt of steel is being used in the country, in buildings, cars, appliances, pipelines and industrial plants. In a developed India, the number is likely to increase to around 15 bt. While each country has built its steel infrastructure with coal as the energy source, if India does the same that could add another 24 bt of CO2 to the atmosphere globally (based on production emissions of about 2 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of iron).

Acceleration of clean technologies

According to the report, in the agricultural sector, a complete phase-out of diesel pumps is needed to support the transition to net-zero emissions by 2050. These pumps need to be replaced with solar and electric pumps. Further, electric tractors could be used for decarbonising the land preparation activity. Electric tractors are gaining popularity in India, but are mostly low-powered models that are currently best suited to battery technology. By mid-century, at least 30 per cent of agricultural tilling should be done by electric tractors and the remaining by tractors running on biofuel-blended diesel.

In the transport sector, all two- and three-wheeler vehicles should be completely electric by 2030 and the sale of larger passenger vehicles should be restricted to electric only by 2030. In addition, bus fleets should be largely electric by 2050, but with support from bio-CNG for the fleet running long distance routes. Many heavy commercial vehicles should also be electrified. For such vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells could be a viable solution. Further, railways (both passenger and freight) should be completely electrified to support the transition to net-zero emissions.

In the commercial sector, cooking in hotels and restaurants is the major source of direct emissions. This sector should make a complete transition to electric cooking by 2050. For the residential sector in urban and rural areas, cooking fuels have shifted to liquefied petroleum gas and piped natural gas, but the net-zero emissions scenario requires a complete shift to electric cooking in both urban and rural areas.

In the net-zero-emission scenario, the use of liquid biofuel will peak around 2040, reaching a level close to that of petroleum in transport during 2005-10. The use of biofuel will decline across India as 2050 approaches with the shift to electricity and hydrogen in transport.

Overall, in the net-zero-emission scenario, nearly 90 per cent of the generation mix will come from renewables by 2050, but this depends on regional grid connectivity and the development and deployment of grid-scale electricity storage for managing solar intermittency. In 30 years, the power system will grow by a factor of more than four, a huge jump considering a similar growth was witnessed over the past 20 years, although from a much smaller base.

Emerging hydrogen economy

The report highlights that some industrial processes and various forms of heavy transport need very high temperatures or high energy density fuels, which cannot be delivered by electricity technologies in the near term. To this end, hydrogen emerges as a solution in the net-zero-emission scenario. The hydrogen economy begins to operate in the early 2030s. Therefore, businesses will need to take their investment decisions in this space before the mid-2020s to allow sufficient time for planning, development and construction of facilities operating with hydrogen in the 2030s. Meanwhile, hydrogen in the transport sector will be scaled up between 2040 and 2045, although the first trucks may appear only in the mid-2030s. By 2050, around 3 million hydrogen-fuelled trucks will be on the road and the use of hydrogen as a final energy carrier will surpass that of natural gas.

Key barriers and outlook

The report highlights the key barriers in electrification, the bioenergy sector and hydrogen sectors, which are expected to slow down the pace of transition towards a net-zero-emission scenario. In the agricultural sector, the replacement of large diesel tractors will be limited due to the high cost and weight of the battery. In the residential sector, households still prefer flame cooking instead of electric cooking. Meanwhile, the market share of electric vehicles is limited due to high costs and lack of mass production. In addition, storage technologies have not gained enough traction. In the bioenergy sector, logistics remains a key challenge. In the hydrogen space, the commercial use of green hydrogen is yet to be witnessed in India.

In sum, the transition to net-zero emissions by 2050 is a definite possibility for India provided urgent measures are taken to overcome the critical barriers slowing progress.


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