CoP 26 – A lot of hype, little achieved

November 18, 2021 6:00 AM

Developed nations didn’t assume any significant responsibility on climate action, specifically on funding and creating carbon space for developed nations.

CoP 26, carbon emissions, fossil fuels, climate change, global warming, CO2 emissionsThe biggest failure was the absence of commitments from developed nations on substantive reduction of emissions in this decade.

By Deepak Gupta & Kolluru Krishan

COP 26 has come and gone. Media around the world is already full of assessments and judgements on its achievements or lack of them. Either pronouncement depends on where you view CoP 26 from. It would be fair to say that CoP26 is not a failure, but fell short of the hope and hype generated in the run up to it. Activists and island nations are outraged at lack of ambition and commitment. Without getting into the nitty-gritties, we attempt a broad analysis here.

India held centrestage in the first week, assuming a kind of climate leadership. Apart from the Net Zero (NZ) goal of 2070, its specific 2030 targets for renewable energy (RE) capacity as well as emission-reduction—aligned well with current schemes for low-carbon, inclusive and sustainable growth—got global appreciation. However, as we noted in our recent article in this newspaper, there will be serious challenges. India must continue to link NDCs with concessional finance and technology-transfer required to scale up RE generation as well as substantially raise local manufacturing capacities in solar ingots/wafers; batteries, electrolysers, etc. The West must invest in this.

The brouhaha over India’s last-minute insistence on replacing “phasing out” with “phasing down” in the pact’s text, in the context of coal, is misplaced. “Phasing down” was used in the US-China bilateral (during the CoP26 meet); note, the 2015-20 per capita coal emissions for US and China, respectively, stand at 3.2 and 2.8 metric tons against India’s 0.7. Each has cumulative CO2 emissions of 180 billion tons, 4.5 times that of India. China’s current coal capacity is several times India’s, and it is building many more plants, including overseas. It is the US and China who need to “phase out”. Perhaps India should have let China move the phasing-down amendment. China can’t fire from India’s shoulder.

India not signing the Global Methane Pledge or the Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use should be viewed against the backdrop of its 70 million rural households (many of which depend on dairy activity for income) and 80-million strong tribal population, with dependence on forest resources and land. Pledges at CoP meetings need to factor in all implications, including socio-economic ones and those on local traditions.

The end of the fossil-fuel era is reflected in the agreement. However, the emphasis was on coal, which is required by developing countries, and there was inadequate focus on oil and gas, the largest primary energy sources in developed nations. Here, “inefficient”’ was added to reduction of fossil-fuel subsidies; it created some noise, but no uproar.

Limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C by 2100 has been now accepted as a necessary target, but, even with the new pledges, the temperature-rise forecast is 2.4°C. Hence, revised NDCs have been sought from all nations in 2022. Will this continue to be an exercise in arithmetic, rather than any genuine climate action?

The biggest failure was the absence of commitments from developed nations on substantive reduction of emissions in this decade. Only this will provide developing nations the future carbon space to meet their development imperatives, and align emission pathways with climate justice. This is of paramount importance for the LDCs in Africa and Oceania, but their voice has not been heard. India should assume a leadership role and form a coalition of developing nations whose per capita emissions are below the global average.

There was acknowledgement of the need for development finance as well as low-cost debt funds, but, expectedly, nothing concrete emerged. As per an OECD-UNEP-World Bank 2018 report, $6.9 trillion/year is required to meet development goals while staying compatible with the Paris Agreement. During the first week of COP26, the Global Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) said signatories overseeing about $130 trillion would set clear targets and timelines for greening their investments. Yet, the developed nations quibbled over $100 billion per year, commitment to which was reiterated six years ago. This was a big let-down, but quite in character for developed economies that make pledges but fail to adhere to them, and further weakens trust in their promises. Adaptation to climate change remains a woefully neglected area, in stark contrast to funds allocated to mitigation, in spite of climate-linked disasters occurring with increasing frequency.

Net Zero by 2050 gained salience and India’s target of 2070 was greatly welcomed. However, it is important to recognise that NZ has to be a global target. This was not made clear. Also, that will require developed nations and China (accounting for about 80% of the cumulative CO2 emissions) adopting a much faster trajectory for reduction by 2050. Furthermore, tangible pathways with pragmatic time-frames need to be established for deep decarbonisation, by articulating finance and technology needs as also analysing consequential factors. Rapid scale-up of RE generation capacity, energy storage, green hydrogen and green materials will create huge demand for raw materials, which will require significant investments in extraction as well as manufacturing industries. This could result in a short-term inflationary trend, which needs to be budgeted.

The China factor is intriguing. Their president did not attend; it doesn’t appear to have made any new commitments. It was not really highlighted that China’s share of cumulative CO2 emissions has risen from 6.80% in 1997 to 14.24% in 2020, and it accounts for 28% of annual total now, possibly more than all developing countries combined! China can no longer plead any development-imperative; indeed, it is aiming for global economic leadership. But it continued to associate itself with developing countries. Instead, amazingly, the Western media keeps referring to India as the third-largest emitter and clubs it with China, when India’s current share is about 6%. India must be de-hyphenated from China and this requires focused messaging.

The writing is on the wall. UNFCCC has unequivocally stated the need to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, requiring deep de-carbonisation by all nations, not just the developed economies. At the same time, developing economies must not be constrained from fulfilling their development agenda, albeit with low-carbon pathways, which necessitates financial and technological assistance. Developed economies, out of their own self-interest, need to provide such assistance, while simultaneously vacating carbon space, to allow sustainable socio-economic growth and industrialisation within developing economies. Learning from the pandemic, nations must realise that they cannot ignore nor insulate themselves from the impact of climate change, as it permeates geographical boundaries. Meanwhile, with enablers enshrined in the Paris Agreement, or even without them, we need to act, as per our national interest and NDCs, driven by our industry’s proven capabilities in project execution as well as in mobilising finance and technology. That, for us, is perhaps the subliminal message and takeaway from COP26.

Gupta is former secretary, MNRE, and former chairperson, UPSC, and Krishan is chairman, CVC India Infrastructure

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