Sense on net zero: India will do well to keep the focus on historical responsibility

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August 20, 2021 5:15 AM

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol is an example of rich nations being unwilling to play by the rules.

It must push rich nations to get more ambitious with their net zero targets instead of badgering the developing world to shoulder some of their burden. It must push rich nations to get more ambitious with their net zero targets instead of badgering the developing world to shoulder some of their burden. (Representative image)

Against the backdrop of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounding a “code red” on climate change, India will come under intense pressure from the West at the climate summit in Glasgow in November—and, very likely, before it—to announce some form of a ‘net zero’ commitment. But, if the government is indeed set to rebuff any such demand, as The Times of India reports, and instead offer more climate action than committed, then that would be the right approach. ‘Net zero’ talk by developed countries projects them as climate-action frontliners.

But the fact is that foisting this as a common goal for all nations—with a ‘consensus’ deadline (2050, though China is targetting 2060)—obscures historical responsibility and forces poor nations to choose costlier paths to lift their many millions out of poverty. The West, at present, is the primary producer of technology that could aid green development. Thus, an India or a Bangladesh commiting to the net-zero goal will further enrich developed nations. Given the pipedream that green financing under the Green Climate Fund turned out to be—at least until the deadline for meeting the target set at Paris was moved to 2025, from 2020—‘net zero’ by 2050, fundamentally, is the West telling the rest to “forget historical responsibility”. India will do well to organise the developing world in rallying behind the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle. It must push rich nations to get more ambitious with their net zero targets instead of badgering the developing world to shoulder some of their burden.

To be sure, this is not to argue that India should not do more, nor is it to diminish the import of the pathways the US and the EU have outlined for their net zero commitments—indeed, the International Energy Agency’s roadmap to meaningful climate action indicates how drastic the action that is needed is. However, over the next 2-3 decades, India’s emissions are likely to grow the fastest globally, and no amount of absorption efforts will be enough. Removal technologies, again, will be either inadequate or prohibitively expensive. While meaningful action on the Paris Agreement commitments—India is set to not only redeem its commitments, but also overachieve these—is yet to begin globally, changing the goalposts weakens global climate negotiations.

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol is an example of rich nations being unwilling to play by the rules. Sure, some countries/blocs are enacting laws to enforce their commitments to carbon-neutrality. But some action also is, by design or default, geared to protect their own politico-economic interests; for instance, the carbon-border adjustment that the EU has proposed and the US, Canada and others are mulling over. For India, there are also clear challenges emerging from its federal structure; if the Centre were to commit to a net-zero target, how is the burden of action to be distributed among the states?

India, as some experts have pointed out, should resist getting hyphenated with China and the US, both of which have a larger historical and per capita emission record. There is no denying the need for urgent climate action, but there should be no yielding on ‘net zero’ if that comes with the same deadline applying to the US etc and India.

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