Why India should embrace Net Zero

In August last year, Coal India put out an eye-popping statement. Quote-tweeting India’s Union minister for coal, it said: “CIL is poised to become a “Net Zero Energy Maharatna PSU”.”

The accompanying video had more details. Coal India would produce 3,000 MW of solar power by 2023-24, it said, enough to cover all of its energy needs. It would no longer need polluting thermal power for its operations. “Coal India Limited… Going Green”, the video said at the end.

Tiny as they were, the tweet and the video posed large questions. The state-owned miner is the world’s largest producer of coal. It has a mandate to grow even bigger and produce no less than 1 billion tonnes of coal by 2024. Can such a firm switch to clean energy for its operations and claim Net Zero status? Who is responsible for emissions from all the coal it has unearthed?

At the same time, is it realistic to expect Coal India to sequester all those emissions? Apart from other greenhouse gases, one billion tonnes of coal will produce over 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Carbon capture technologies are too expensive, and running at too small a scale to be useful. More traditional responses such as tree-planting pale before Coal India’s scale as well. In 2019, the total carbon stock in India’s forests stood at 7.12 billion tonnes. Can Coal India–or even India–add 28% to India’s forests each year? Who will pay? Where will the land come from?

Inadvertently, the tweet reiterated larger truths. The scale of our emissions is mind-boggling. Our mitigatory options are modest. Denial and subterfuge is how policymakers respond to the climate crisis.

In this welter of suboptimality, we now have ‘net zero’.

Is it more subterfuge? Or is it a way out?

That is the first part of my essay, written trying to think through Net Zero. Part two likens Net Zero to green creative destruction, and gets into more detail. Read that here.

Energy is a major determinant of global geopolitics.

We saw that with western interference in the Middle-East. We saw that again in the global reorderings that followed the rise of shale energy in the United States. Now, net zero offers a similar reset.

We do not know what form it will take. Might carbon taxes on borders split the world into two trading blocs–one subscribing to net zero but not the other? Will companies push green products to the first world and brown goods elsewhere? Will OPEC countries quietly remake themselves or, seeking to sell oil/gas a bit longer, will they try to enter downstream markets in the third world? 

At its core, net zero is green creative destruction, according to Tim Sahay, a policy manager at the US-based Green New Deal Network. For the world to decarbonise, old 19th century business models have to disappear. This point was recently made by economist Adam Tooze. “Together, Europe and the United States inaugurated the mass manufacture of cars in the early 20th century. They should now work together to end global trade in internal combustion engines.”

Hardwired into that process of destruction is the prospect of something new. The old world of fossil fuels has spawned oligarchs, inequality and sweeping environmental loss. In India too, the fossil fuel-based energy complex dictates policy, levels forests, and throttles cleaner alternatives. 

One way out is to reprise what China did in the nineties–dipping into its own resources to become a superpower in solar and renewables–and what the US is trying to do now with its green new deal.

2 responses to “Why India should embrace Net Zero”

  1. […] the run-up to COP26, chatter about Net Zero has peaked. So has talk about decarbonisation. We know the energy transition will reshape the world. Some countries and companies will fashion fresh competitive advantages for themselves. Some will […]

  2. […] A period of green creative destruction, as @70sbachchan had told me for this two-part essay on why India should embrace net zero, and use the #EnergyTransition to build fresh competitive […]

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at despitethestate@protonmail.com.


…une plongée dans les failles béantes de la démocratie indienne, un compte rendu implacable du dysfonctionnement des Etats fédérés, minés par la corruption, le clientélisme, le culte de la personnalité des élus et le capitalisme de connivence. (…a dive into the gaping holes in Indian democracy, a relentless account of the dysfunction of the federated states, undermined by corruption, clientelism, the cult of the personality of elected officials and crony capitalism).” Le Monde

…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

…strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy.” Scroll.in

M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and pelf.Moneycontrol.com

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,” Booksfirst.in.

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society