The path to Maharashtra’s net zero commitment
Maharashtra must offer more clarity on its game plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions, which it has committed to deliver in 43 cities including Mumbai, by 2040. Also, xperts say it will take a more coordinated show of effort between multiple departments to inspire confidence
In September, Maharashtra announced its commitment toward achieving net zero carbon emissions in 43 cities, including Mumbai, by the year 2040. These cities, which are home to about 45% of the state’s population, are recognised under the Centre’s Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) scheme, and have signed memorandums of understanding (MoU) with the UNFCCC-backed Race to Zero campaign.
The campaign, started in June 2020 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) includes 733 cities globally that have pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner.
The campaign aims to “rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth.”
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report of 2018, in order to stave off the worst foreseeable impacts of climate change, “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.”
Maharashtra announced its net zero ambition before Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India’s plan to achieve this goal by 2070 at COP26 in Glasgow in November. Will Maharashtra be able to meet its target 30 years before the national deadline? Here’s what it would take.
What is net zero?
Simply put, net zero means balancing out the greenhouse gases emitted by coal-fired power plants, vehicles and other sources against the carbon taken out of the atmosphere such as through sequestration (capturing or storing carbon dioxide) by forests, for instance. In theory, net zero can be achieved by cutting emissions to meet the earth’s capacity to absorb carbon or finding ways to sequester enough of it. A state of net zero is also called carbon neutrality.
For example, a recent analysis by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) found that the city emitted 34.3 million tonnes of carbon through various sources, including power consumption, transportation and others in 2019. In contrast, Mumbai’s natural carbon sinks including mangroves, wetlands and urban greenery (outside of protected areas) are able to sequester only about 70,500 tonnes a year, which indicates a large shortfall in the city’s capacity to offset its own carbon footprint.
This measurement was done for the upcoming Mumbai Climate Action Plan (MCAP) that is being prepared in partnership with the global C40 Cities Climate Leadership group. C40 connects 97 of the world’s largest cities to collaborate, share knowledge and drive sustainable action on climate change. Member cities are encouraged to develop and implement action plans in line with goals of the Paris Agreement.
Mumbai entered the partnership last December. To develop the MCAP, BMC is currently using an Excel-based tool developed by the C40 group, called the City Inventory Reporting and Information System (CIRIS), to analyse emissions data sectorally across transport, waste, and others, and to compare them with global benchmarks. The plan was to be presented on the sidelines of COP26 in Glasgow last year, but will now be put through public consultation only in February 2022, according to an official in BMC’s environment department.
An exercise is currently underway, under the aegis of the state environment department, to map the carbon footprint of these 43 AMRUT cities. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board in October floated tenders to appoint a qualified agency to prepare a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventory for these cities, along the lines of a recently concluded exercise in Mumbai for the MCAP. These GHG inventories will then form the basis for city-specific action plans that will set out clear goals to reduce emissions from waste management, energy consumption and mobility.
What will it take for Mumbai to achieve net zero emissions? One, scale down its use of coal-fired power (it makes up 71% of the city’s annual carbon footprint). Two, green its transportation system by using electric vehicles, promoting non-motorised transport. Three, increase contribution of renewables to the current energy mix (it makes up only 5% as of now, according to BMC’s analysis). Four, increase the availability of green spaces that act as natural carbon sinks.
The way Maharashtra is going about this
First things first — can Mumbai become net zero if Pune doesn’t? The short answer is yes. Mumbai and Pune don’t share the same airshed so decarbonising transport in one location, or moving a power plant out of the other, benefits those living in the area. It is scientifically accurate to think of net zero in terms of units like cities, states, countries, continents, or homes, or even a single person. If you’re planting enough trees to offset your individual carbon footprint, you’d be living a net-zero lifestyle.
On September 1, in a presentation by officials of the environment department to the state cabinet, it was revealed that the state has paid at least ₹14,000 crore as direct compensation to those affected by extreme weather events since 2019. These include Cyclones Kyarr, Nisarga and Tauktae, last year’s floods in Vidarbha and this year’s Konkan floods. The compensation also includes payouts for damage to crops, property and even loss of life due to hail storms, unseasonal rainfall, extended monsoon rainfall, cyclone, heat waves, lightning and cold waves.
The same month, Maharashtra formed the country’s first ever state council on climate change. While announcing Maharashtra’s net zero commitments, environment minister Aaditya Thackeray said, “We cannot keep emitting carbon. We don’t have the luxury of time. Maharashtra will set an example of how subnational governments can act despite being a heavily industrialised state.”
On December 13, the state announced a new syllabus for classes 1-8 which focused on the climate crisis to be introduced in the next academic year in English and Marathi. Called, Majhi Vasundhara Abhiyan, it has been developed by the department of environment and climate change and Unicef, and will be taught next academic year onwards.
“The government certainly understands the science, and the urgency for action. There is significant value in that, even though the path ahead is extremely challenging,” said Aarti Khosla, director at Climate Trends, a Delhi-based climate communications organistation.
However, experts said the state must offer more clarity on its game plan.
“Maharashtra is yet to explain how this will be done. What measures will be taken? How will they be monitored and evaluated? What are the milestones to measure progress? What is going to happen in the next two years, five years, ten years... At the moment, we simply do not have the details,” said Dr Anjal Prakash, research director at the Indian School of Business (ISB).
The need for comprehensive policy
Power generation is the state’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – in 2019, 71% of Mumbai’s carbon emissions came from coal-fired power. It will take a paradigm shift in the energy sector within the next 30 years to achieve net zero.
The most significant barrier to the goal is Maharashtra’s energy mix which is heavily reliant on coal. As of June 2021, at least 58% of Maharashtra’s installed power generation capacity consisted of coal, while renewables made up 31.23%. The good news is that Maharashtra has seen a 67% increase in the installed capacity of renewables between 2016 and 2019 but electricity is not just a state subject.
“Maharashtra cannot independently decide to phase out all coal power plants on its land. The Centre also has a say, and in a sense the state cannot go truly net zero until there are some common targets,” Prakash, the lead author of the ongoing sixth assessment report of the IPCC, explained.
Experts asked if the state’s departments of power and mining know what the environment department has in mind to achieve net zero goals. With a large portion of the state’s energy dependent on fossil fuels, and with energy demands set to skyrocket over the next two decades, meeting the growing demand through renewables alone is a task that is easier said than done.
Vibhuti Garg, an economist at the US-headquartered Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, added that though Maharashtra’s commitment is a positive one, “it will take a more coordinated show of effort between multiple departments to inspire confidence. This includes not just the environment department or urban local bodies, but also things like the labour department, for example, since several communities are dependent on coal for employment and the transport department. It’s important to note that power, the biggest polluter, is a concurrent subject in India. Even so, what states choose to do at their own level will actually make more of a difference in the long run.”
“Until a proper energy policy has been approved by the Maharashtra cabinet, these net zero commitments will remain in the realm of intention, not action,” said Debi Goenka, executive trustee of Mumbai-based NGO Conservation Action Trust (CAT). He pointed out that Maharashtra does not have a cohesive plan for its energy sector, while its New Renewable Energy Policy sets out goals only till the year 2025. The policy doesn’t say anything about net zero emissions, either.
Full steam ahead?
A senior official in Maharashtra State Power Generation Company (Mahagenco), on condition of anonymity, said, “It has been over five years now that we have remained focused on our renewables portfolio. The New Renewable Energy Policy which was tabled this year includes 12,930 MW of solar power projects, 1,350 MW of co-generation, 2,500 MW of wind energy projects, 380 MW of small hydro and 200 MW of urban solid waste-based projects. As of now, our current renewable energy capacity is just under 1000 MW, so there is more than 100 % growth projected in next four years. Phasing out coal has to happen gradually.”
“You have to be careful about this,” said Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) a Delhi-based think tank, referring to the move to decarbonise polluting sectors.
“For example, you may decide to cut vehicular emissions by introducing more electric cars, but if there is no parallel policy to increase uptick of renewables, you are only putting more pressure on the existing grid, which is counterproductive,” he said.
“Given that coal is still such a huge part of the energy mix, you can’t arrive at net zero simply by planting trees,” Dahiya said.
Within the power sector, Mahagenco can make the decision to move away from coal power and in favour of renewables, while the state distributor can similarly decide to stop purchasing power from polluting thermal power operations, after making suitable upgrades to its infrastructure. Experts said the state’s hands are not entirely tied, and that it can achieve significant impact by implementing progressive policies at decarbonising, one by one, its energy, transport, industries and so on.
“But in Maharashtra we are seeing that the state is actually planning to expand its coal capacity at plants in Koradi and Bhusawal, for example. So there needs to be a very clear agenda to move away from coal, behind all the public statements,” said Dahiya.
Thackeray’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comments to this piece.