A drone photo of steel manufacturer Tata Steel, including blast furnaces, around the IJmuiden site. Photo: AFP/Sem van der Wal

India’s government has a pointed response to growing international momentum toward decarbonization of the global heavy industry sector: It’s not our problem.

That’s the uncompromising message that RK Singh, India’s Minister of Power, communicated to foreign government representatives at the International Energy Agency’s COP26 Net Zero Summit on March 31.

Singh touted India’s progress at improving energy efficiency and developing renewable energy sources, but derided other countries’ carbon net-zero goals as a “pie in the sky.” Singh declared that developing countries would continue to require and produce massive amounts of high carbon-emitting steel and concrete and put the onus for decarbonization on developed countries by “removing more carbon to the atmosphere than they are adding.”

Singh is no climate change denier. He acknowledged its existential threat as a “disaster of global proportions.” But arguing against India’s role in an essential global effort to reduce carbon emissions, particularly those of heavy industry, significantly raises the risk and severity of the climate “disaster” he foresees.

And his advocation of still-experimental carbon capture technologies as a climate crisis solution is either rhetorical or outright disingenuous. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that carbon reductions are essential to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, and that failure to meet that target will greatly increase “climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth.”

India’s status as the world’s third-largest carbon emitter behind China and the United States makes Singh’s dismissal of his country’s industrial decarbonization obligations particularly incongruous.

Not least because his government’s US$1.5 trillion government infrastructure development program is expected help fuel a projected quadrupling of domestic steel demand over the next three decades. Steel production to meet that demand will likely more than triple India’s steel sector’s annual carbon emissions to 837 million tons in the same period.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Xinhua

Despite those sobering projections, even Indian environment ministry officials reject suggestions that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will adopt a national carbon net-zero target due to fears it “could derail our development plans.”

That perspective contradicts Modi’s own public embrace of industrial decarbonization as an economic engine. Modi announced the launch of a “National Hydrogen Energy Mission” in November 2020, a key component of his vision of transforming India into “a global manufacturing hub in the renewable energy sector.”

Modi is not alone in such optimism. The New Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute earlier this year concluded in January that there was “a feasible, cost-effective, step-wise pathway for Indian iron and steel that would allow the sector to contribute to a global effort to limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.”

Modi’s government can look for inspiration to a new international multistakeholder policy tool dedicated to accelerating and scaling up the decarbonization of heavy industry to align with a 1.5-degree Celsius global warming trajectory.

The Global Framework Principles for Decarbonizing Heavy Industry (“Framework Principles”) outline the role of government and private industry to ensure the successful decarbonization of heavy industries including steel, cement and chemicals through the allocation of public financing for emissions reduction plans.

The Framework Principles specify investment in low- and zero-carbon technologies as a top government and corporate priority to help phase out fossil fuel use in industrial processes.

Despite the Indian government’s confusing disconnect on industrial decarbonization, key domestic firms are unambiguously embracing the concept as an economic opportunity. The Framework Principles’ corporate endorsers include India’s Tata Steel, JSW Cement and JSW Energy.

Tata Steel’s decarbonization plans include a mix of new smelting technologies and green-hydrogen fuel systems. JSW Cement chief executive officer Nilesh Narwekar described his company’s resolve to decarbonize its operations as part of a post-pandemic opportunity “to reimagine business models and help support a green recovery.”

The chimney of an iron and steel rolling mill emits smoke in Domjur on the outskirts of Kolkata on December 3, 2009. Photo: AFP/Desha-Kalyan Chowdhury

While not yet a Framework Principles endorser, India’s JSW Steel has announced it will reduce its 2005-level carbon emissions by 40% by 2030.

India’s steelmakers need to move quickly. There are already promising start-up steel ventures in the United States and Europe that within the decade are promising carbon zero steel production technology and systems to supply the predicted massive “green steel” market of the near future.

They include Boston Metal, an electrolysis-based steel production start-up that has already received seed funding from BMW and H2 Green Steel in Sweden. These startups hold the promise of a looming revolution in carbon-neutral steel production that will condemn traditional heavily polluting steel production facilities to unwelcome and unprofitable “stranded assets” status.

Earlier this month in New Delhi, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry diplomatically declared that “India is getting the job done on climate, pushing the curve.”

He’s half-right. What’s needed is for the Indian government to match the recognition of the necessity of heavy industrial decarbonization already demonstrated by growing numbers of Indian corporations. And back that recognition with the requisite funding and policy and regulatory initiatives to make decarbonization a top national priority. Back to you, RK Singh.

Phelim Kine is senior director for Asia at the Washington-based environmental campaign organization Mighty Earth.