by Thea Walmsley
The Removing Carbon Around the World series from Carbon180 is designed to give a high-level landscape of a country’s carbon context, readiness for implementing carbon removal technologies, current carbon removal projects, and main actors and is intended as a jumping-off point for more in-depth research. Read about South Korea in our last post.
As India’s population and economy expand, finding pathways to mitigate climate change and curb emissions sustainably is becoming a larger discussion in the government.
Carbon removal is one pathway being explored to accomplish this. For a newly industrialized nation like India, most technical pathways — such as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) — pose too high an up-front cost, although they are still being explored through research and development.
The most promising carbon removal pathways in India will be land-based, namely reforestation, agricultural carbon sequestration, and soil carbon storage. These pathways are a “win-win” for the country — they offer a way to revitalize the agricultural sector (a significant goal of the government) while mitigating some of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
What is the carbon context in India?
India’s carbon emissions have grown steadily over the last 20 years to 4.47% of the global total, making the country the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) after China and the US. (Emissions per capita are lower, at about one-quarter of the global average.)
CO₂ accounts for 60% of the country’s total GHG emissions, primarily from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas in the energy sector. The power sector is significant in India’s total emissions, accounting for 38% of the country’s total. The fuel mix is still dominated by coal-fired generation (75% in 2014), leading to a more emissions-intensive electricity supply. Coal is expected to remain a mainstay in their power generation for the near future.
India’s “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) to the Paris Agreement hinges on reforestation efforts. It has promised to create an additional cumulative carbon sink of 2.5–3 GtCO2e through added forest cover by 2030. It has also pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of the country’s GDP by 33–35% below 2005 levels and to increase the country’s non-fossil-based energy resources to 40% of installed electric power capacity, also by 2030.
This contribution is consistent with the 2009 Copenhagen agreement to cap global temperature rise to 2°C, but not with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit. That said, population growth will be a complicating factor in these efforts. India’s population is projected to overtake China as the largest country by 2028, the number rising to approximately 1.5 billion by 2030. Even though GHG emissions per capita are lower than the global average, India’s role in collective carbon reduction will be comparatively huge.
Challenges to India’s low-carbon growth
India is uniquely situated in the global context for carbon mitigation: they face disproportionate risks from climate change with comparatively fewer resources for carbon mitigation efforts compared to wealthier countries. Even though its per capita emissions are lower (about a quarter of the global average), the country remains partially responsible for the global impacts of climate change as one of the top emitters.
This poses some unique challenges to their carbon mitigation goals (compared to a more industrialized country like South Korea). Roughly two-thirds of India’s population remains in rural areas with no access to electricity, with 70% relying on wood-burning stoves for heat (which increase carbon emissions), and a significant percentage are living below the poverty line.
There is an ongoing debate about whether a low-carbon development path is compatible with India’s poverty eradication goals or its interest in expanding access to energy services, given the lesser power output and additional costs associated with implementation. There is also relatively little in terms of a policy framework or other readiness measures for carbon removal, such as accurate geological storage data (this has already halted some plans for CCS power plants).
However, this early stage opens up opportunities for India to leap-frog on green energy technologies, potentially positioning them to be a leader in the sector as they can “skip” the reliance on carbon-intensive technologies that other industrialized nations have developed. This path could also secure other benefits for India, such as greater energy security and job creation within the country, rather than relying on imported energy resources.
What does carbon removal look like in India today?
Land use, agriculture and reforestation
Despite these challenges, India has the potential to mitigate a significant amount of carbon using more bottom-up pathways, with especially promising opportunities in agriculture and forestry.
Seventy percent of India’s population is employed in agriculture, and almost half of the country’s land is dedicated to crop cultivation. With the effects of climate change (in the form of droughts, floods, and erratic temperatures) intensifying, the viability of the sector and the livelihoods of millions of citizens are increasingly at risk.
Soil carbon sequestration is one area just taking off in India with huge potential for growth. Following the Green Revolution, soil degradation has become a major problem for farmers’ crop yields, largely due to long-term use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds. Efforts to promote agroforestry programs (some of which are covered under the country’s NDC), soil carbon sequestration, and land-use practices like low-till farming, intercropping and the removal of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals have the potential to sequester much more carbon than current land-use practices. Some innovative programs in voluntary carbon offsets are being explored, too, which allow farmers to “sell” unused carbon units and reap financial rewards if they adopt low-carbon farming methods.
Forestry is another key area. Currently, about a quarter of India’s land is covered with forests. With its NDC, the country has committed to capturing 2.5 to 3 billion tons of carbon through new tree and forest cover by 2030. The lower up-front costs and simultaneous gains in climate resilience and revitalizing the agricultural sector make this the most likely path forward for India.
Technical carbon removal pathways
At present, most technical pathways remain in a research and development stage, but a few projects are worth noting.
Earlier this year, two of India’s largest state-owned oil and gas companies, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL), announced a pilot CCUS project in Gujarat that would pipe CO₂ captured from IOCL’s Koyali Refinery into aging oil fields to extract more oil. Known as enhanced oil recovery, or EOR, this process would reduce the carbon footprint of India’s oil production.
Another notable project belongs to the National Aluminum Company, which plans to set up a carbon capture unit at its coal-fired plant in Angul, Orissa. The CO₂ produced from the thermal power plant will be introduced to shallow ponds to boost algae growth. The harvested algae may then be used to make biofuel, poultry and cattle feed and in aquaculture and pharmaceutical products — a promising example of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
India has two CCS facilities at this point, both stemming from the work of carbon removal startup Carbon Clean Solutions (more on them in a moment). The first is a pilot and demonstration CCS facility which was designed to test their proprietary solvent on a chemical plant. The other facility, opened in 2016 in Chennai, is an operational carbon capture and utilization facility that is capable of capturing 60,000 tons of CO₂ per annum from the flue gas of a coal-fired power plant. The purified CO₂ is utilized as a feedstock for soda ash production.
Who is leading carbon removal efforts in India?
Carbon Clean Solutions is one notable startup in the carbon removal space in India. The company uses a carbon capture and utilization solution, which uses a patented molecule that captures carbon dioxide from power plant emissions and uses it to make other useful products like baking soda. The technology can be retrofitted into existing plants, making it more cost-effective.
They are currently generating electricity on a commercial basis, without subsidies, while capturing some 97% of their carbon emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE/NETL) just granted Carbon Clean Solutions 2.9 million US dollars to help bring the technology to commercialization. This could be a significant step towards bringing the solution to India on a larger scale.
Certain major heavy industry players such as Tata Heavy Industries and Rourkela Steel Plant are exploring carbon removal as well. Tata is engaging in research and development into retrofitting options to their existing heavy industry plants, but have decided against implementation at this point due to high up-front costs.
Rourkela has started a pilot project to work on carbon sequestration through afforestation by assessing the carbon mitigation potential of different plant species. Their forest division is also undertaking significant reforestation efforts through Artificial Regeneration, Assisted Natural Regeneration, and Avenue Plantation programs.
India’s future is natural pathways — for now
Faced with developmental, economic, and legislative challenges, India’s road to carbon removal technologies like carbon capture is still in the planning stages. A rapidly growing economy comes with higher electricity consumption, and fossil fuels are expected to remain the primary source of this energy in the coming decades. As long as technological carbon removal’s up-front costs and the demand for cheap(er) electricity remain high, implementation will be sluggish. Leap-frogging is one potential tactic for skirting this challenge, but it will require international knowledge-sharing and support to turn it into a reality.
Natural and land-based carbon removal is another story. Reforestation is currently India’s most cost-effective mitigation measure per ton of carbon, making it the likeliest route for India to pursue. At the same time, low-carbon farming is a win-win prospect for an agricultural sector in dire need of revitalization, delivering a chance both to reduce emissions and to increase the sustainability and resilience of the food system in the face of climate change.