The 27th annual UN climate conference (COP27) will start in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, amid concerns that geopolitics have distracted leading stakeholders since last November’s purposeful Glasgow summit.
The Ukraine war has impelled most countries that matter to practically go back on their emission reduction commitments. The Glasgow understanding was climate funds from the rich world would finally start flowing — here and now. A phasing out – rather, “phasing down” – of the use of coal in a time-bound manner was agreed on. Many nations, including India, even scaled up their climate action plans in the summit.
However, expectations from the upcoming meet are very muted. Some European Union states are already increasing the use of coal to generate electricity amid reduced gas supplies from Russia. Not much has been heard from the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero either, though it had promised to incentivise real-economy firms to cut emissions.
As a result, the climate goals, however modest they had already been relative to the enormous task at hand, are threatening to go further beyond reach, if not wither away.
On its part, India is likely to continue to put pressure on the rich world to honor its 2009 promise to give $100 billion/year in funding by 2020 to the developing countries to help them implement climate plans (the deadline has lately been shifted to 2023 citing the geopolitical situation). Government functionaries here argue that since the costs have flared up, the funding commitments ought to be raised further. But for the moment at least, that seems wishful thinking.
Though it is presumed that exigencies are forcing their hands, the rich nations, the biggest historical contributors to emissions, had even previously been wary about the funding commitments global climate action imposed on them. Note that at just $11.3 billion, Green Climate Fund commitments so far have been a far cry from what have been pledged, forget the much larger requirements estimated.
Of course, the global climate action, despite its grave inadequacies, have yielded decent dividends. Thanks to the multilaterally coordinated efforts of the past two decades, the rise in global green house gas emissions was curbed at 1% in the decade to 2019, from 2.6% in the previous ten years. Yet, the global temperatures have risen faster than ever before in the last decade, because accumulated emissions have reached a threshold for the rate of warming to intensify.
The goal of containing the rise in global temperatures by the turn of the current century by 2 degree Celsius from the pre-industrial times was itself insufficient, according to climate experts. So, if the plans to take concerted remedial action by all nations are impeded any further, the prospects of the planet and its inhabitants would be grim.
Unfortunately, even as things have come to such a pass, most governments have shifted their short-to-medium-term priorities to mitigating the fiscal and economic costs of high energy prices caused by the current geopolitical imbroglio. With a recession knocking at their doors, the developed countries have an immediate alibi.
Global coal consumption rebounded last year with a 6% year-on-year increase and is set to rise marginally further in 2022, taking it back to the level reached nearly a decade ago. India, which witnessed a 178% rise in emissions in the three decades to 2020, is formulating its energy policies in keeping with the projection that its coal consumption will rise 40% in the next one decade. The projection takes into consideration an ambitious plan to increase non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 giga watt (GW) by 2030, from little under 165 GW now, and the fact that the load curve doesn’t allow full absorption of renewable energy generation.
New Delhi has recently been vocal about new investments in coal mining and projects to gasify the “dirty fuel”. While commercial coal mining by the private sector is finally gaining momentum, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman unveiled auction of 141 more mines as late as on Thursday.
Availability of funds are critical to developing nations sticking to their emission reduction targets and switching expediently to more benign forms of energy. So it is legitimate for New Delhi to insist that any scaling up of its climate action will be contingent on credible signs the funding commitments by the developed countries materialise.
While many countries amplified their climate goals in the Glasgow summit, the Sharm el-Sheikh meet is unlikely to see further meaningful action in the same direction. In Glasgow, Prime minister Narendra Modi set a target to cut India’s carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2070, against China’s carbon neutrality plan for 2060, and the US-EU pledges to achieve this target a decade earlier. He also set country-specific targets for 2030, in sync with this overarching commitment, including a cut in projected carbon emission by 1 billion tonnes and 45% reduction in carbon intensity of the gross domestic product (GDP). Chances are that these pledges will be reiterated in Sharm el-Sheikh, but they may ring somewhat hollow in the absence of availability of commensurate funds.
According to a recent McKinsey report, India’s annual net greenhouse gas emissions will grow to 11.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2070, from 2.9GtCO2e in 2019, if emission reduction continues at the historical rate. But, if the country adopts a defined “accelerated’ pathway, the emissions could reduce to 0.4 GtCO2e by 2050, the consultancy firm said, adding that such pathway requires funding to the tune of a staggering $12.1 trillion. That estimate includes the falling cost of renewable energy, electric vehicles, storage etc., but also is contingent on large swathes of land to be made available for the effort to fructify.
In the short term, the country would also do well to stick to the time-lines for retiring the old “unabated” coal-fired power plants and creation of flue gas desulphurisation facilities to calibrate thermal stations’ toxicity.