COP26 was a missed opportunity for climate stabilisation. There was global expectation that the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) would be revised. Three things critical for COP26 to succeed were raising ambition, enhancing NDCs and improving the net-zero goal.
The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 and I would have treated COP26 as an opportunity for action by setting ambitious NDCs. What countries pledged in 2015 are no longer relevant because we have now started moving towards the 1.5 degree climate stabilisation goal as opposed to the two-degree goal that had been agreed earlier. Research shows that the plans countries have laid out for reducing NDCs still add up to a terrifying 2.4oC of temperature rise by the end of the century. Given the climate emergency, we must reduce emissions. Otherwise, the future is extremely dark. COP 26 unfortunately set a long-term goal of net-zero. It would take another 40-50 years for some countries to get there. But the immediate requirement was to have ambitious NDCs and goals for 2030, which were given the short shrift.
The other worrying factor is the lack of clear commitment in terms of finance. Africa was willing to dig in its heels and not let this issue go away but everyone realised that in the interest of balance, we need to let all stakeholders go forward. Developed nations have admitted failing on the climate finance front, saying they were not able to provide enough and meet their goal of $100 billion by 2020. They have started a process at COP26 and one doesn’t know if we will see the light at the end of the tunnel in 2025, which is the year by which we are supposed to agree to a new commitment. Lastly, I felt disappointed about technology. If we really want transformative climate action in the short-term, we must promote transformative technologies, create necessary platforms, finance the deployment of technologies that are available and support their development.
On India’s commitments at COP26
They are a mixed bag. Some elements of the five major announcements made by the Prime Minister at Glasgow are easily achievable. For example, the reduction of 1,000 million tonnes of carbon emission by 2030. That’s achievable because of a number of specific, dedicated programmes. He mentioned LEDs, electrification of the Indian Railways, focussed programmes for energy-saving, efficiency and transition. But that doesn’t mean that our total emissions will be less than now. It only means that we will be increasingly reducing the proportion of energy and emissions. Today, our emissions are in the range of 2,800 million tonnes, including the carbon sinks. Our energy consumption is growing, so we are going to land up in the range of 4,000 million tonnes. But in the BAU (business as usual) scenario, this would have been higher.
The second easy part is reducing the emissions intensity, currently at 35 per cent. The PM has raised the bar to 45 per cent by 2030, which is doable. But I do see a problem. While it may be easy to achieve our target by 2030, continuing this emissions intensity reduction beyond that could be difficult because currently we are riding the crest of energy efficiency. Very soon, we will hit a wall if we don’t reduce emission intensity in the industry and transport sectors, both of which are extremely carbon-intensive. For example, the steel, cement, pharmaceutical and chemical industry are heat-intensive. If we don’t introduce new technologies and switch over to other sources of energy, it would be problematic.
The PM also said that India would push its renewable energy capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030. And that is linked to his other announcement that India will meet 50 per cent of its energy requirement through renewable energy by the same time period. Currently, we have reached 105 gigawatts of renewable capacity, including hydro and solar, but generating 500 gigawatts by 2030 is almost a five-time jump in about nine years. That requires a huge investment, a large institutional change in our energy production and consumption system. We have to include States as they will be a part of the changes that will take place in the energy pricing and distribution policy. Distribution companies will have to be overhauled and financial instruments will have to be mobilised. So that is really challenging but once we are able to set up a 500-gigawatt capacity, I think 50 per cent of generation is doable. The peak demand today is in the range of 180-200 gigawatts, so if you have 500 gigawatts of capacity set up by 2030, it’s possible to beat even 50 per cent of generation. The net-zero goal of 2070 is long-term and it is difficult to assess its implication.
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On whether the net-zero announcement for 2070 was about capitulating to international demand or national interest
Any long-term goal has two aspects. One is its feasibility and the other is consistency with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the parent treaty of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Now, none of these two require developing countries to have a net-zero goal, which is meant for developed countries. That is a legal position. But as a progressive country, India has also set ambitious goals in the right spirit. I would compliment the PM for putting his best foot forward. The more difficult part is feasibility and fixing a strategy. Unfortunately, none of the developed countries have actually laid out their emissions trajectory for a net zero goal. So, India alone cannot be faulted. As per legal obligations, developed countries were to bring their emissions down to zero by 2030. Instead of that, they have put out a goal for 2050 but without a strategy. Most worrying.
On India, China and some other countries changing the language from “phasing” coal to “phasing-down” coal
I look at coal as one of the elements of fossil fuels, so singling out coal for advanced phase-out was rather unexpected. The G20 had not been able to reach an agreement on this, so it was unfair of developed countries to push for a coal phase-out and project coal as the only bad boy in the game. India did well to fight for a phase-down rather than a phase-out, because coal today is almost 60 per cent of its energy production.
On whether the undifferentiated time frames being imposed on developing countries created friction in dialogues
International treaties will only succeed if there is trust between the parties. International cooperation is built on support to developing countries in terms of technology and finance. Ambitions can be raised if there is a certain degree of assured, predictable climate finance available from developed countries. And it is a legal obligation in the UNFCCC, where 38 industrialised countries have to provide climate finance from both public and private sources.