Carbon-neutral villages: pathway to India's net-zero target

Climate change is currently the most pressing issue for the planet. Global leaders will soon be discussing policies and new targets for lowering carbon emissions in the upcoming United Nations summit on climate change ‘COP26’, later this year in Glasgow. Last time it was after the Paris agreement that nations presented their target years for achieving ‘net-zero’ or carbon neutrality.


However, the internationally pledged targets and agreements should be approached bottom up to tackle climate change. The federal structure of nations should be the machinery for driving actions instead of the federal government. This idea may be alien to smaller nations but in a nation like India, where villages are the smallest unit of development and policy implementation, this model takes precedence over the approach of centralizing environmental action.

Chapter 3 of the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR6 WG1) mentions regional adaptation which aligns with the ideology of ‘think global, act locally’ discussed above. India is a large country with over 31 states and union territories, it needs to incorporate the smallest unit, i.e. the villages, and give them more responsibility in preparing action plans for climate change. The centre should decide on targets related to renewable energy, carbon intensity, and control mitigation strategies while states should prepare adaptation plans.

Without the presence of a translation mechanism from national target to state target, the fight against climate change will be futile. While policies and targets make it to news headlines, villages are raising the bar with their carbon-neutrality efforts. Consider the two examples given below:

  1. Bihar state model: CM Nitish Kumar announced the installation of 3,433 MW of renewable energy infrastructure by 2022, but on the ground, merely 194 MW of renewable capacity has been installed which is only half percent of the target. The state is yet to achieve 99.5% of this target in just a year. This announcement was made after Mr. Kumar attended a round table organized by UN Secretary-General in 2020.

This is exactly how plans made on a bigger level fail if they are not inclusive of the stakeholders at the ground level.

  1. Meenagadi’s ‘Carbon-neutral’ village model: Kerala presents an amazing example of how a participatory model at smaller levels can make a huge difference. Thanai, an NGO based out of Kerala claims that out of the total 14 districts, about 6 to 8 can plan their net-zero targets five to six years down the line. The NGO worked closely with Meenagadi, a village in the Wayanad district that is India’s first ‘carbon-neutral’ panchayat. This village started its carbon-neutrality journey in 2016 building an elaborate five-year plan to rebuild the forests and reduce emissions.

The plan was developed under guidance from the state’s finance minister Mr. Thomas Isaac who wanted to develop a carbon-neutrality blueprint for all of Kerala. The government’s Rs 10 crore fund was used to set up ‘treebanks’ that provide saplings to over 8,000 households. The state panchayat also incentivized nurturing these saplings by paying Rs. 1000 for the first year and Rs. 500 for every subsequent year.

Deforestation over the last three decades was reversed with the efforts of local citizens and panchayat. Financial challenges like falling prices of coffee and pepper were overcome with the ‘carbon-neutral’ tag on the products which fetched high prices and global recognition. This model underlines the role of citizens and their potential towards ‘net-zero’ goals if they are made to understand the issue and encouraged to work in a participatory model. Kerala model simply broke down the state and district plans further to the level of panchayats.

A carbon-positive village: Phayeng is a special village in Imphal West district with a population of 660 families. The forests on Phayeng’s hills were cut down by ancestors for timber. However, the villages realized that the place had started becoming warmer, they were facing water shortages and people were frequently falling ill. The 660 families rejuvenated these forests by traditional methods of idolizing trees and branding them ‘sacred’. The government funding of Rs. 10 crores was utilized for afforestation, creation of water bodies, the catchment of river Maklang, installing solar lights, setting up animal husbandry units, replacing firewood with cooking stoves, and developing an indigenous knowledge center in the village. Carbon-positive means that the village sequesters more carbon dioxide than it produces.

India’s several villages are showing how they plan to develop socially and economically while keeping within environmental limits. For this purpose, these villages are applying innovative financial models, planning, strong leadership, and cross-sectoral coordination mechanisms. Other regions can follow these examples to achieve a ‘net-zero’ future.

People must be included at the heart of climate neutrality initiatives, right from the vision setting up to policy framing and implementation. Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a Fellow at the Council of Energy, Environment, and Water talks about the ‘peaking year’ concept for developing and underdeveloped nations. This is basically the time between the year when a country will reach its maximum emissions stage and the target year for carbon neutrality.

India unlike its counterparts does not have the time to reach the peak and then control emissions. For this reason, its developmental and net-zero goals are being merged. The challenge for India is that the climate change problem doesn’t fit neatly into any sector. It is not clear whether it is a part of the environment (state subject) or energy (concurrent subject). Ajay Mathur, a former Indian climate negotiator and member of PM Modi’s council on climate change believes that India must walk the thin line of becoming more prosperous and developed without putting out enough carbon to break the world. Development is a priority for India, but its subnational regions are more than capable to mainstream climate action into their development efforts.

Written By:

Iqra Tofiq

Iqra is a writer with an aptitude for creating opinionated pieces on politics, climate, and society. She has a background in Geography and has previously worked as an SEO content writer and manager for an online media company.

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