This year the Group of Twenty meeting and COP26, the annual climate summit under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), postponed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, were co-hosted Italy and the United Kingdom in Rome and Glasgow respectively. The latter, the Conference of the Parties (COP), opened on Sunday and will continue till November 12.
With the global focus on climate change, the Glasgow COP26 clearly overshadowed the G-20 summit, although 80 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions emanate from its members. But the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin was a setback. Neither could participate because remote conferencing was not available. At the G-20 summit, Russia, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, etc resisted any new emission curbing goals. Despite that, British PM Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Boden tried to extract caps on the use of coal and methane emissions, but only a compromise emerged. The communique reflects the softened stand on “Net Zero” emissions by 2050 as well as the “phasing out of investments in new unabated coal power generation capacity” as soon as possible, but not by 2030, as the UK and some others had wanted.
But the United States, the European Union and China renounced the overseas funding of coal-related projects. However, while China withdrew support to coal-fired power plants along its Belt and Road network, it announced domestic coal production increase by 220 million tonnes. This reflected its dilemma in both addressing global warming while facing power shortages domestically as its economy picked up and shortages loomed due to barred coal imports from Australia. India cannot also easily wean itself off coal-fed power generation. The Economist magazine noted that India has 700,000 jobs linked to coal and half its railway budget comes from hauling it. Similarly, Russia’s coal exports to China constitute 15 per cent of its total exports. Indonesia and Australia are also similarly dependent on coal exports. Thus, a bloc of coal and fossil fuel dependent nations have moderated the more radical solutions sought by some developed nations.
Climate evangelism is led by the nations of the European Union. They have announced “Net Zero” emissions by 2050. China has pegged to achieve that by 2060 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 2070 as India’s target year for the same. If total CO2 emissions are taken, then India’s 2.2 giga-tonnes appears significant compared to China’s 9.3 and America’s 4.8. But on a per capita basis, India is dwarfed as its 1.58 tonnes is low compared to America’s 15.5, or Canada’s 15.32, Australia’s 15.83, etc. It can also be argued that the EU’s current carbon emissions may be eight per cent of the world’s total, but since the industrial age in mid nineteenth century they are amongst the highest. A serious dilution has occurred of the basic mantra under UNFCCC that there should be common but differentiated responsibility, conditioned by respective capabilities. Starting with Copenhagen in 2009 and Paris in 2015, this principle has been whittled away, mainly due to the rapid economic rise of China and India. Thus, the carve-out was slowly reserved for island nations, threatened by rising oceans, and the least developed nations, while pressure was built on big emitters among the developing nations to take more responsibility.
This deal to have developing country big emitters share responsibility, while they still struggled with issues of poverty and development, depended on the developed nations coughing up finance and sharing technology. At Copenhagen, the developed nations pledged to deliver $100 billion annually by 2020 to enable adaptation and mitigation — the two key words. Now Germany and Canada jointly produced a delivery plan, on the eve of COP26, at the request of host UK, that the funds would not be available till 2023.
The save-the-world crusade faced two setbacks after the 2015 Paris Agreement. One, the election of climate-sceptic and science rejecting Donald Trump as US President in November 2016. He withdrew the US from that agreement and espoused pro-fossil fuel policies in America, ignoring evidence of global warming. By comparison, China began appearing a more climate responsible nation, even though its damming of rivers and exploitation of the Tibetan plateau remained troublesome.
Two, the Covid-19 pandemic, that literally shut down most advanced economies. Consequently, global emissions were down last year. But the world’s focus is back on it due to many events this year of fires, floods and droughts. Even India saw a delayed retreat of the monsoon, leading to sudden and heavy rain causing chaos and flooding.
Climate change has seeped into the politics of many nations, especially in the EU. The “green” parties, once on the fringe, are now mainstream. The Pew Research Centre finds high public concern on this subject. Awareness in France and Mexico is 80 per cent and even in the US it is 60 per cent, a rise of nearly 20 per cent. Green parties today hold 10 per cent of seats in most EU nations. In the last German election, they got 15 per cent of the vote. That is why the EU has declared itself a “carbon- neutral” continent by 2050. It is also planning to levy a “carbon tax” on imports from nations lagging in moving towards the same objective.
Therefore, India can’t be seen as dragging its feet, despite the developed nations shifting the goalposts from traditional the UNFCCC formulation of “historical polluters pay”. India in the past tried various arguments like poverty itself being a polluter and thus needs to wait till India alleviates it, as Europe did in the last century. Prime Minister Narendra Modi correctly accepted conformity with the global consensus by pegging India’s carbon neutrality by 2070, while ratcheting up renewable energy by 2030. But that alone will not be enough as solar and other means of renewable energy have a problem of intermittent supply, which require storage. Technology has still to catch up with this dilemma.
But there’s no ignoring UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ warning in his opening speech at COP26 that the world was “careening towards a climate catastrophe”. Coal is one part of India’s problem. The other is greenhouse gases, produced by animals and agricultural activities. One study indicates that India can reduce by 18 per cent its annual gas emissions by three measures: efficient use of fertiliser, zero-tillage and water management in rice cultivation. The agitating farmers can be brought on board by a clever tweaking of their demands into climate-friendly practices, using a carrot and stick approach. But it requires the same statesmanship at home that India displayed abroad.