What is the difference between absolute carbon emissions and emission %intensity?

Absolute emissions, as the name suggests, is the total amount of carbon released during a polluting activity, say the generation of electricity in a power plant. Emission intensity, on the other hand, is the carbon emitted per unit of energy produced during the activity.

To understand the difference, let's return to the example of the power plant. Let's say the plant emits 100 units of carbon on a particular day. That would be its absolute emissions for the day. For calculating the plant's emission intensity, one would also need to look at how much electricity was generated. So, if 100 units were generated, the intensity would be one unit of carbon for every unit of electricity. If, on the other hand, 200 units were generated, the intensity would be only 0.5. In other words, emission intensity is the rate of carbon emissions during the activity.

For a given intensity, the power plant would emit more carbon if its capacity is increased. But, at the same time, if the generation process is made more efficient, the plant's energy intensity can be reduced. On a national scale, emission intensity is often defined as the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP.

Why has India pledged to reduce its emission intensity but not its total emissions?

India is at a stage of development where its economy needs to grow significantly if all citizens are to get a decent standard of life. Taking on absolute emission targets would make economic growth, of the scale we are talking about, prohibitively expensive even if it were theoretically possible. Also, India has always maintained that the advanced economies, which are historically responsible for the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, should shoulder the maximum burden of limiting or lowering GHG levels.

By pledging to reduce its emission intensity by 33%-35% from the 2005 levels by 2030, India would still have to make significant changes in the way energy is produced in the country. But it would leave room for India's total emissions to grow.

Where does India stand in terms of carbon emissions?

In absolute terms, India has emerged as the third largest emitter of carbon after China and the US. That's quite natural given that we are home to the second largest population in the world. But in terms of carbon emissions per person, India remains way behind the developed world and even China. India's current per capita emission is 2.44 metric tonnes, well below US's 19.86 metric tonnes, China's 8.13 metric tonnes and the EU's 8.77 metric tonnes. Environment minister Prakash Javadekar has said that even in 2030, India's per capita emission is likely to be far lower than the developed world average.

Why has India announced an emission intensity target?

All countries participating in the Climate Summit in Paris this December are required to submit a target for their emissions in 2030 to the United Nations, under what's being called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). What Javadekar did on Friday was announce India's INDC.

Source: October 3, 2015, The Times of India