Ahead Of COP26, India Faces Flak But Refuses To Be On Backfoot

In its report to the UN, India makes it clear that its responsibility towards mitigation of green-house gases emissions is low, "by any equitable measure of responsibility".

Ahead Of COP26, India Faces Flak But Refuses To Be On Backfoot

Going into COP 26, the biggest flashpoint will be coal. (Representational)

New Delhi:

In a few days the mega climate conference at Glasgow will begin and it's not an exaggeration to say that the future of life on the planet is at stake. There won't be any superheroes to save the world, but hardnosed negotiations and diplomacy with no guarantee of an agreement.

To an outsider these COPs (or Conference of Parties at the United Nation's climate change platform) tend to be insanely complex. But sifting away the layers of complexities, just where does India stand? Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending a G20 meeting on climate change ahead of the conference and the conference itself.

Historically, India has had a morally strong argument but here on it runs the risk of being on the wrong side of history. A key document for Delhi's strategy is India's biennial self-assessment report card submitted to the UN earlier this year, but since then the ground has shifted tremendously and the country has slipped in some climate ratings.

In its report to the UN, India makes it clear that its responsibility towards mitigation of green-house gases emissions is low, "by any equitable measure of responsibility". It says that between 1850 and 2017, India has only contributed about 4 per cent to global cumulative emissions. In fact, in recent decades, Delhi's assertion is that India has consumed far less than its fair share of the global carbon budget, while rich countries have consumed much more.

Between 1990 and 2017, India's green-house gases emitted were 51 GtCO2eq or gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent whereas its share based on the principle of per capita should have been 188 GtCO2eq. This large difference is India's carbon budget which it wants to use in the coming decades despite SOS calls on all countries to roll back emissions starting now.

Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav on Monday said that historical responsibility, equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in accordance with respective capabilities are "paramount" in any collective global action. Simply put, the rich countries which contributed more to global warming over the last 150 years or so must stump up the money to help developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change and adopt renewable energy and other green technologies.

The thing is, however, the goal posts have changed after the report of the inter-governmental panel of scientists on climate change or IPCC last August. The UN chief calls it a "code red" for humanity to start cutting emissions as soon as possible. The report says global warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees celsius over the pre-industrial average. We are currently at about 1.1 degrees, anything warmer than 1.5 will lead to even more intense fallouts like frequent heat-waves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, changing rainfall patterns, more unusual and intense cyclones and even extinction of species.

Flashpoint: Coal

Going into COP 26 (the 26th such conference) the biggest flashpoint will be coal. The goal of the conference is to end coal power by 2030 for developed countries and 2040 for developing countries like India. And no new coal power plants anywhere. But India is unapologetic about not just using coal but also burning more of it.

It is set to commission over 36 GW or gigawatts of new thermal capacity by 2024, and more are in the works. In this, India has an ally in China, the world's biggest emitter of green-house gases, which has planned much more new coal capacity.

Coal dominates India's energy sector, it has 54 per cent of the power generation capacity, according to a government dashboard, and the energy sector is 75 per cent of the country's green-house gas emissions. The impact on human health is devastating - coal combustion has been linked to almost 100,000 deaths.

New Delhi says coal will continue to play a critical and integral role. It says in its report that, "Unlike those countries who are pro-active in planning for phase-out of coal, only to replace them by oil and gas, India is transparent in its need for coal for its energy security, lacking any major domestic oil and gas resources. India will however use coal responsibly as testified by the number of clean coal initiatives that are being undertaken."

Scientists and activists point out there is no such thing as "clean coal."

Flashpoint: Net Zero

Another flashpoint is the race to net-zero. Simply put, the amount of green-house gases emitted is equal to the amount removed. India is one of the very few G20 countries which has not set a net-zero target. In contrast, COP 26 stated goal is to reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century. Many nations have set a 2050 deadline for themselves, China has set 2060. Net-zero targets are more of a bargaining chip, an indicator of a country's willingness right now to step-up emission cuts in the decades ahead - the details of how this will be done and audited are largely left for a future date. 

$100 Billion A Year: Broken Promises

Another contentious part of the conference along the developed-developing nations fault line is the failure of rich nations to deliver on the agreement of $100 billion a year to create a green climate fund. This agreement is over ten years old, and instead of hundreds of billions of dollars there's barely $10 billion committed. Delhi's criticism is blunt, calling this "tardy" in implementation and noting that the target year has been pushed back from 2020 to 2025. India has got only $177 from the fund.

Not Alone

However, India is not alone. The pledges by countries to cut emissions made during and after the Paris conference in 2015 put global warming at 2.4 degrees, way more than the 1.5 degree-target set by scientists. Nations have been called upon to step-up their commitments. Among the G20 countries, China, India, Indonesia and Argentina look set to increase their emissions according to a study out this month. This is a political call by these governments to balance energy needs on one hand and, on the other, the suffering of citizens already facing the brunt of climate change through record rain, heatwaves, cyclones and so on.

Rankings & Ratings: Where India Has Slipped

In its report to the UN, Delhi noted how two international trackers had recognised India's performance in their rating assessments. But since then India has slipped in both. Its ranking in the Climate Change Performance Index has slipped to number 10 this year, down from number 9 a year ago. The CCPI compares the performance of 57 countries which account for 90 per cent of the GHG emissions; incidentally the US remains at last position.

India's rating on the widely accepted Climate Action Tracker has dropped from a "2 degrees C compatible" plan of action just a year ago to a "highly insufficient" rating, which is like several other major nations like Canada and Australia. It is not clear if the government has accepted the new, lower rating.

To be sure, India committed to cutting emissions intensity of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 33 to 35 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels. It is notably creating 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030 and schemes like afforestation and use of LED bulbs.

Officials say India is "over-achieving" its pre-2020 commitment, as mentioned in its 2021 report to the UN. As per this, India's emission intensity of gross domestic product has reduced by 24 per cent between 2005 and 2016 and that it is "on track" to meet its voluntary declaration to cut emissions. To meet its renewable energy and sustainability targets, India needs a staggering $4.5 trillion within the next ten years.

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