Even if you’re choking in New Delhi’s smog as you read this, there’s a silver lining to the Glasgow COP26 climate summit which ended over the weekend.
India’s unassailable position as a world leader in climate negotiations was reaffirmed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a simple but skilful speech in the Scottish city earlier this month. He announced an ambitious target of “net zero” emissions by 2070. The operative word is “by”. It implies, tantalisingly, that India may reach that target even earlier, if the world’s largest polluters, the industrialised countries, whose own development targets were long achieved, immediately come good on climate finance for clean technology, with no strings attached.
(After the 2015 Paris Accord, the industrialised countries had committed to climate finance of $100 billion by 2020 to help poorer countries meet their development targets and carbon commitments simultaneously. That didn’t happen, and America under former President Donald Trump even left the Paris Accord. A recent UN report says at least 5-10 times more is needed now to prevent further devastation.)
In Glasgow, India also added members and clout to its brilliant idea of an International Solar Alliance: the United States, too, will now join the global solar grid initiative.
Finally, and just so that Mr Modi’s message was not lost in deliberate obfuscation over climate finance, India’s negotiators additionally made it clear that the country’s “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs, or individual country goals) will be set only when that long-awaited climate finance is released. Till then, it remains the sovereign right of not only India, but all countries of the “South” that lined up behind India in agreement, to continue industrial development.
However, nobody was surprised to see the Glasgow summit, like dozens of high-level negotiations earlier, still end as a damp squib. After going into overtime, tweaking and arguing over the wording and details, the Glasgow Climate Pact released at the summit’s end contained little.
Countries are “requested” to ‘revisit and strengthen’ their commitments by next year.
By carefully inserting adjectives like “unabated” and “inefficient” to the categories of coal power and subsidies that will be phased out, power from coal will remain in place.
Despite their ongoing trade and military wrangling, the United States and China -- the two largest polluters -- did come together in a bilateral climate alliance in Glasgow. But its contents are undefined, indicating the surprise, though welcome, pact may be more of a political move to cool bilateral tempers, rather than a serious attempt to heal the planet.
While a Glasgow Dialogue was announced to start discussions on climate funding, and offer technical assistance to the “South” to combat climate change (at an undefined point in future), there’s just no unanimous commitment by the “North” to set up an unconditional climate finance fund for developing countries.
So why does the world bother to congregate at all, burning millions of gallons of aviation fuel to jet to exotic locales, to “discuss and deliberate” climate change over lavish banquets in tony hotels and then fail to act?
Those booking -- unsustainable -- airline tickets and hotels, buses and taxis to such summits, include tens of thousands of eco-warriors: climate change activists who often exude an impractical, romanticised notion of the world and raise the hackles of both the radical provocateurs as well as serious scientists.
Irate negotiators, already caught in the scrum of clashing demands, often exclaim that compromise is alien to activists, and that nothing less than an absolutist position would satisfy them.
Still, it begs the question: if a World Earth Day or a national thali-banging day can be coordinated real-time, why not a Global Net Zero Day, at least as a token gesture to demonstrate commitment?
Technically impossible, says electrical engineer Sesh Commuri of the University of Nevada. “Systems nowadays are interconnected and they have large inertia. You can’t just take things off grid and get them back up at a moment’s notice, even as a token gesture. Imagine not having water, power, transport, telephones and other things for 24 hours, and then trying to get them back running in sync again? Think of how many people on life-support in hospitals would die, if we switched everything off!” he adds.
Though activist-baiters note that the “Woke” would lose their illusions in a flash if global servers, and with them all communications, shut down for even an hour, Mr Commuri warns that the climate crisis is real and present, and even the most annoying pigtailed activist must be engaged with, not shooed away.
“It’s hard to satisfy protesters because nobody listened to them in the past. That’s why they are not willing to listen now, they only want action. You can’t throw a bone at them and hope they’ll disappear. Sit down. Talk to them. Tell them what can be done realistically. Their asking for ‘net zero’ emissions by 2030 instead of 2050 is a reasonable goal -- you only need the will,” the engineer says.
India spearheading the demand for climate finance is laudable. But money always comes with riders. Right now, there is plenty of simmering strategic tension in India’s immediate neighbourhood, including along India’s nearly 3,500-km border with China.
New Delhi has forged several alliances with rich countries, many of whom have expanded their military presence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s ruthless trade policies that stretch all the way to Africa and Europe. Then there’s its aggressive expansionism in the China seas, where unease is growing, especially over Taiwan.
Given the common denominator that is China, surely climate finance, too, if offered, will come with conditions that force India out of its established position of multilateral neutrality, especially in its immediate neighbourhood?
“There are no free lunches so yes, there will be demands,” says Vishnu Prakash, India’s former envoy to Canada and South Korea. “India can no longer have the comfort of ‘neutrality’, we have to make choices. That’s the reason why India has been slow and cautious in calibrating its position within the Quad.”
However, Mr Prakash says reciprocal demands won’t be linked to climate finance. “There won’t be that quid pro quo,” he says. “India has demonstrated ample commitment and capability. We thought up the Solar Alliance. Our cooking gas scheme is a success. Our CNG use has been lauded. Our railways will be carbon-neutral in less than a decade. We have a firm pulpit to stand on, we’re no longer at the receiving end. We’re now walking the talk. We’re telling rich countries to deliver, or see their own quality of life deteriorate along with ours. They’ll kick and scream, but will they do it? Of course.”