Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. To tackle this challenge, a plan to keep the global temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels was adopted in December 2015 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris. This agreement was later referred to as the Paris Agreement.1
The Paris Agreement requires each party to establish a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and update it every five years. NDCs are climate action plans to reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts. NDCs for the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are usually enumerated either as emission targets or emission intensity targets. Emissions and emissions intensity are different measures of the amount of GHGs2 released into the atmosphere.
Emissions3 refers to the entire amount of GHGs emitted into the atmosphere by a certain country, region, entity, or activity over a specified period of time: for instance, the amount of CO2 released by a power plant in a year. Given that there are various kinds of GHGs, aggregate emissions are usually denominated in CO2 equivalent terms.
Emissions intensity4 measures the amount of GHGs released per unit of activity or output. This measure considers the scale of the activity or output. For instance, emissions intensity can be expressed as the amount of GHGs released per unit of electricity generated by a power plant or, in the case of the NDCs of some countries, including India, per unit of gross domestic product (GDP).
Emissions intensity is usually a good indicator of the level of carbon efficiency of the country, entity, or activity. However, it is important to note that improvements in intensity alone do not guarantee reductions in total emissions. Nonetheless, they do provide insights into the direction a country or an entity is headed towards in terms of emitting less for each unit of output. This information can be valuable for evaluating the investments required for decarbonisation. Additionally, comparing intensity-based metrics with economic growth enables us to determine whether entities are successfully decoupling from their economies, with the goal of achieving absolute decarbonisation.4
Both emissions targets and emissions intensity targets come with their pros and cons. Emissions targets can provide defined and measurable goals for reducing emissions. Emissions intensity targets can allow countries more flexibility in pursuing economic growth than emissions targets but may not necessarily lead to absolute emissions reductions.
For developed economies, emissions targets may be more appropriate because they already have the infrastructure and resources to reduce emissions. In contrast, developing and emerging economies may have different levels of infrastructure and resources, so emissions intensity targets are considered more suitable. This approach allows developing countries to strike a balance between decarbonisation and much-needed economic growth.
India has set emissions intensity targets as part of its NDCs because it is still a developing country with a large population that lacks basic services and infrastructure. This approach can help ensure that emissions reduction targets are both environmentally and economically sustainable and contribute to the global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change.