Our future is at stake in Glasgow
The world must recognise climate justice, call out advanced economies and China, frontload emissions reduction targets to 2030, phase out coal
When leaders meet in the United Kingdom (UK) for the 26th conference of parties (COP) to discuss the climate crisis, they do so knowing that this time and there is no going back on the need for urgent and drastic action to combat the crisis. We no longer need science to forecast the possibility of the impacts of a changing climate. We see it in our world – extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity and devastating life and economy. So, what is the agenda for COP26?
First and foremost, climate negotiations must recognise the imperative of climate justice. This is not a moral issue alone. The reasons are inconvenient, yet simple; Carbon dioxide (CO2) has a long residence time in the atmosphere and, so, what is emitted in the past has accumulated and will force temperatures to rise. Then, CO2 is linked to the way the world runs its economy — fossil fuels (coal or gas) are still determinants of growth. And most important is the fact that millions of people are still waiting to get the advantages of economic progress, which means access to affordable energy. This, at a time, when the world has literally run out of carbon space to accommodate its need for development.
So, what will this part of the emerging world do? Their growth — use of fossil fuels — will add to the jeopardy that awaits us. The question then is how can this growth be reinvented so that it is low-carbon, yet affordable? It is not enough to berate and bully the emerging world countries (including India) to action. This needs supportive policies and real transfer of global finance to enable the transformation.
For far too long, the world has worked overtime to erase or dilute climate equity in negotiations. This is why the 2015 Paris Agreement was lauded — it got rid of the very concept of historical emissions, and consigned climate justice to a postscript. It even removed the idea that loss and damage that countries would suffer because of the climate crisis would have to be “compensated”. Worse, it created a weak and meaningless framework of climate action that would depend on what a country could do; not what it was expected to do based on its contribution to the stock of emissions or fair share.
It should not surprise us, then, that the sum of the nationally determined contributions (NDC) — United Nations jargon for national reduction targets — takes the world towards a minimum of 3°C temperature rise or more. This is why future actions must accept the reality of climate equity and the need to address it.
Second, COP26 must not dilly and dally around empty promises of net-zero targets for 2050. It must discuss how countries will frontload emission reductions for 2030. The fact is that the “old” industrialised countries and the new entrant, China, have appropriated 73% of the carbon space till 2019, and even with the reduction targets they have given, these countries will still occupy 70% of the budget by 2030.
China alone will take up 33% of the available carbon budget between 2020 and 2030. It has not set emission reduction targets as yet; and while it has made grand promises of its move to renewable energy, the fact is China’s non-fossil fuel energy generation in 2019 was lower than India’s. It is time China was de-hyphenated from the Group of 77 and also from India. COP26 needs to have the spunk to call this out.
Third, COP26 must recognise the need for transformational action – this is the order of our times, not diversionary and pusillanimous efforts. This is where the issue of coal must be discussed. The fact is coal use for generation of energy has been the biggest contributor to emissions in the past; today it adds 40% of the CO2 emissions and will do so in the future as well.
The agenda has to be to phase out coal in the already industrialised world and then China — and let’s be clear this is not happening yet. And simultaneously to work on not building new coal plants in countries such as India or the continent of Africa. These countries need scaled up and affordable access to energy sources. But talk is cheap and real transformation needs hard financial transfers so that countries can build energy systems that can provide affordable power to the poorest in the world.
India’s coal question is also critical for domestic reasons so that we can meet the twin objectives of clean air and energy access. This needs us to phase out old and highly inefficient thermal power plants, and to ensure that all the current plants are retrofitted with state-of-the-art technologies to control pollution. The fact is our energy problem is not only coal but our broken distribution system. Today, we use the cheapest and dirtiest raw material for energy generation, but when it is supplied, it becomes one the most expensive in the world. It is also unreliable, and this is also why industry burns coal in small and inefficient boilers and adds to horrendous and toxic local air pollution. This is what must be fixed so that India can be electrified and that this “electricity” is clean — good for combating the climate crisis and local air pollution and provision of energy access to the poorest.
Climate crisis is the biggest existential threat that faces our world. This is what is at stake at COP26. Nothing less.
Sunita Narain is director general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal