Cop26 climate agreement: India ends up looking like villain of summit despite legitimate concerns over coal
Two weeks of dealings at the crucial Cop26 summit ended with a dramatic last moment objection from India to water down the language on coal, exposing the country to a storm of criticism.
However, there is more to that objection than just India’s heavy dependency on coal.
The Glasgow deal that was finalised on Saturday after negotiations between 197 parties was termed both an “important step” and a “compromise” by the United Nations. Though the deal mentioned curbing coal for the first time at Cop, it did very little on ensuring climate finance from developed countries.
All the attention at the end was centred around the language on coal. India asked “phasing out” of coal to be replaced by “phasing down.” Other countries, including Switzerland, objected to this demand. But India found a backer in China who also demanded that the language of the final text be changed to “phase down” as it had agreed to in a joint statement with the US earlier this week.
The dramatic series of events at the plenary hall left India looking like the villain of the piece as it appeared to be blocking the first-ever mention of reducing coal — the dirtiest of all fossil fuels responsible for a majority of greenhouse gas emissions — at the crucial climate deal to weaken it.
But India had some legitimate concerns about global equity that the Glasgow pact failed to address. Experts pointed out that the deal put more pressure on developing countries such as India and China, and left out loopholes for developed countries for coal usage.
“The problem is not India; the problem is the US and rich countries refusing to couch fossil fuel phaseout in the context of global equity,” Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns for Action Aid USA, wrote on Twitter as he explained the flaws of the pact.
The deal that called for phasing out of “unabated coal power” left two aspects unaddressed — the pressure on developing countries like India which lagged in the adoption of carbon capture and storage in coal-fired power plants, and left out other fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas that developed countries like the US relied upon.
The text also called for “inefficient” subsidies to the fossil industries to be curbed but not subsidies in their entirety as has been the demand.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) acts as a bridging technology for coal-fired power plants to extract CO2, but experts are divided on its efficiency. Developed countries lead in the adoption of CCS, but while coal continues to be the mainstay of India’s power mix, it does not have any commercial CCS projects at a large scale. By calling for only unabated coal power, the deal left an option for plants with CCS technology to continue as usual while piling on pressure on developing nations.
India has maintained it wanted equitable phasing down of all fossil fuels but the text did not directly mention curbing natural gas and oil. Countries like the US managed to move away from coal because they had access to natural gas. While India does not have enough natural gas, it has the fifth-largest coal reserve which it would want to use for its growing energy needs. This has been a major sticking point throughout the summit.
“How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies when developing counties have still to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication?” India’s environment minister Bhupendra Yadav said at the summit.
While India took the lead in objecting to the matter on the last day, it wasn’t the first time the more lenient “phase down” was used during Cop26. In a bilateral deal between the US and China, the two biggest carbon emitters had already agreed to the phrase and it was extended by China as a demand towards the end.
“You have to phase down coal before you can — quote — end coal,” John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said at a press conference after the final text had been adopted, bringing the three of the world’s biggest carbon emitters in consensus. Yet India has received by far the most heat for its apparently dramatic final amendment, which its negotiator was required to read out in the last plenary.
While the issues the country raised are legitimate, India, which announced ambitious climate action targets at the beginning of the 12-day summit including a much awaited net-zero goal, missed a great opportunity by coming out more aggressively on coal than on the issue of loss and damage where it could have added more power to the voices of many smaller developing and under-developed countries.
Before leaving for the summit Mr Yadav also told reporters India’s agenda will be “climate justice”. India had from the beginning held on to the demand of increased climate finance, which prime minister Narendra Modi also asked for in his speech announcing the country’s revised targets and net-zero goal. It also continuously demanded rich nations take responsibility for their historic emissions.
But the summit failed to create a dedicated loss and damage fund for vulnerable countries where it is becoming increasingly difficult to live due to the climate crisis, after resistance from the United States, the European Union and some other rich nations.
Mr Yadav in his scathing criticism of the deal also demanded that developing nations had the right to use the remainder of the “carbon budget” — which means the threshold of carbon the countries in total can emit to keep warming below 1.5 degree Celsius.
Despite their “net zero” emissions targets, China, US and the European Union will take up 90 per cent of the remaining carbon space to limit warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050, according to an analysis by the Indian think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) released on Sunday.
The Indian government said that its own development, bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, must remain a priority, and so a stronger consensus on fossils and carbon emissions remains a hurdle to be overcome at the next Cop.
Had India’s last day objection come in support of vulnerable nations instead of for coal, it could have had a different impact.