COP26: A Step Forward or a COP-Out?

Many of those representing developing countries lamented the gap between what (richer) nations have promised to do to cut greenhouse gas emissions and help people adapt to climate change, and what is needed. 

Listen to this article:

The recently concluded COP26 in Glasgow had a mixed variety of expectations attached to it. Over anything else, this was one event, in times of waning multilateralism and rising multipolarity, begging for an inclusive climate action plan to bring the rich (higher emitting) nations together with the poorer (low emitters) ones in addressing the real issues around climate change

Clearly, the expectation from the two-week long negotiations was for the rich to do more for those most vulnerable from climate-change induced crises right now. That, unfortunately, didn’t happen. 

Expecting all to agree for a ‘net-zero’ emission-target goal seemed delusional and unpragmatic for many. Several countries however did pledge to ‘phase down’ the use of unabated coal, some-including India-agreed to reach net-zero emissions by mid and late 21st century, while most agreed to measures that will limit the global rise in temperatures to a best estimate of 2.4degrees Celsius (nowhere close to the 1.5degree goal).

In other key happenings, the two giant rival elephants: US and China, announced a joint agreement to do more to cut emissions this decade, and China, for the first time, agreed to develop a plan to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The announced pact came as a surprise to many-seeing the recent bilateral tensions between the two nations. Still, the agreement fell short on specifics and while China agreed to ‘phase down’ coal starting in 2026, it did not specify by how much or over what period of time. 

On deforestation, leaders of more than 100 countries, including China, Brazil, US, and Russia, vowed to end deforestation by 2030. The agreement covers about 85% of the world’s forest reserves, crucial to absorbing carbon dioxide and slowing the pace of global warming. The agreement, again, lacked the teeth here on specifics, as many advocacy groups highlighted, noting that similar efforts have been promised-and yet failed in the past. 

Similarly, more than 100 countries agreed to cut emissions of methane, to 30%, by the end of this decade. This pledge was part of a push by the Biden administration, which also announced that the Environmental Protection Agency would limit the methane coming from about one million oil and gas rigs positions across the US.

Missing ‘voices’

In a climate conference, otherwise marked by ‘bluster and artifice’, the least amount of attention went to attenuating the vulnerabilities of developing countries and their pressing needs for securing additional resources in a fair share of ‘climate finance’

Rich countries broke a 2009 promise to deliver $100 billion annually by 2020 in climate finance, making poor countries wary that promised cash will not arrive. They now expect to deliver the $100 billion by 2023.

This ‘kicking of can’ down the road, accompanied with a limited acknowledgment of the rich nations’ historical role in establishing a larger global carbon footprint (only 23 of the rich and developed countries, alone, are disproportionately responsible for half of all historical CO2 emissions), while neglecting the imminent threats of this for poorer nations with ‘vulnerable communities’ across the globe (who lack the political and economic resources in pressing for change), signal a massive failure for the COP26 deliberations.

Also read: COP26: Glasgow Pact Criticised for Keeping Mum on Who Should Pay and How Much

Such a ‘signal’ of gross neglect and an attitude of indifference remains determined by the asymmetric, ‘spatial politics of power’, which also ensures that the (future) responsibility of climate-action change remains-as before- in the hands of a few very powerful political actors, and if the agreed measures on the climate deal fail to actualize, the blame of such (in)action will adversely affect developing nations more, whose voices remained unheard-and-unaddressed. 

Many of those representing developing countries lamented the gap between what (richer) nations have promised to do to cut greenhouse gas emissions and help people adapt to climate change, and what is needed. 

“There is a huge disconnect between where we are, where we will be based on current projections and where we need to be in terms of what science is telling us,” remarked Saber Hossain Chowdhury, from Bangladesh – one of the nations that has suffered most from climate change.

In a similar vein, Kenya’s environment minister Keriako Tobiko noted that an average temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius would translate into 3 degrees in Africa, intensifying erratic patterns of rainfall and drought that are already punishing farmers. He said: “In Kenya and Africa, we cry, we bleed. We bleed when it rains, we cry when it doesn’t rain. So, for us… 1.5 degrees is not a statistic. It is a matter of life and death.”

It was also interesting to observe the different ‘faces of climate action’. There was a clear gender and generation gap throughout the conference this year too. Those with the power to make decisions about how much the world heats up in the coming decades remained mostly ‘old and male’. And those, angriest about the pace of climate action, remain ‘young and female’. 

Going forward it is crucial to see a shift in this skewed representation of gendered power-politics at play for sustained progress on climate action.

India at COP26

India’s insistence of using the phrase “phasing down” the use of unabated coal instead of “phasing out” was met with significant criticism from voices in Western media on ‘diluting important climate action standards’. It’s promise on ensuring ‘net zero emissions’ target of 2070 was also given flak considering several other-nations have decided on reaching net-zero by mid-21st-century. 

However, such criticisms are misplaced in both, logic and reason, on ensuring proportionate responsibility. More importantly, they fail to acknowledge India’s own developmental needs, or its historical footprint. 

As Rathin Roy of ODI recently argued

(India’s) per capita emissions today are only half the global average. It accounts for only 3% of cumulative emissions despite accounting for 17% of the world’s population. India’s new commitments further recognize that every unit of greenhouse gas counts, and has therefore included strong 2030 targets: for instance, half of India’s energy to come from renewables and the carbon intensity of GDP to fall by 45%. These are more ambitious commitments than more polluting nations, such as Australia, have pledged.

We also argued previously how India’s current energy plan is already witnessing a transition towards ‘natural gas’ which will help in reducing its dependence on fossil fuels and achieve a longer term goal of going ‘net zero’.

Why the short-term matters

India, this time, also committed to a few key short-term goals – something many advanced countries stayed away from. It promised cutting emissions intensity by 45% and replacing half the energy used to be from renewable sources, by 2030. 

Still, to achieve such ambitious short-term targets, adequate policies must be designed which must also be part of a ‘just and equitable transition’. 

More than seven lakh people are directly employed by India’s coal industry alone, and lakhs of others are indirectly dependent on fossil fuel-based industries, and if India needs to transition towards renewable energy, adequate re-skilling and alternate job opportunities must be made available for those employed-and those entering the workforce. Concerns of equity too loom large. 

Also, in times of an economic crisis and a sluggish post-COVID-19 economic recovery, the biggest challenge for India going forward – in adjusting its growth model – is for India’s agriculture sector. 

Watch: ‘My Freedom Is Bound To The State’: Disha Ravi On Not Attending COP26

Most Indians, especially in rural areas, are still dependent on it for their primary means of income, and the sector is most vulnerable to climate-induced-changes i.e. from the effects of unpredictable rainfall patterns, intense heatwaves, alongside existing farm distress (drawn from poor price-supported stabilisation and inadequate insurance mechanisms available to farmers). 

The concerns further extend to coastal groups: fisherfolk, people living in the mountains, flood-prone areas, which necessitate the need for undertaking urgent vulnerability-induced redressal measures in India’s short term planning strategy. Ensuring ‘climate-justice’ and addressing concerns of equity need to be consistent and consequentially sensitive with goals of ‘climate-action’.

In the context of limited public financial support, the role of India’s private (energy) sector would be key in driving its proposed green energy transition forward. Still, any big investment would require a coherent political environment and a regulatory channel to encourage newer private players to enter into the renewable energy market and keep it competitive. Else, much like the non-renewable energy market space, the growing green energy private market too, may risk becoming monopolised (or oligopolised) by big-private-capital to be operated as a cartel. 

Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of Economics and director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University.