COP26: Vague promises, missed opportunity

22 November 2021 |

COP26 concluded on 13 November, 2021 with bitter disappointment. The conference was expected to provide a firm roadmap for cutting carbon emissions after the tentative goals agreed in Paris in 2015. But there were no binding commitments on emissions or phasing out fossil fuels, nor any conclusion on global emission standards or any agreement on climate financing from the developed countries.

A deal on carbon trading is being touted as one of the few significant achievements. The new unified ‘rules-based’ global carbon market is meant to allow countries and companies to partially meet their climate targets by buying credits from other countries (arising from their larger than expected emission cuts or carbon sinks). However, it is a complicated deal and seems far from perfect. About 320 million credits, each equivalent to a tonne of CO2, issued since 2013 may still be traded – diluting effectiveness of the initiative. India could be a major beneficiary because of its large accumulated stock of credits but the scheme implementation and enforcement framework is still far from clear.

As a growing economy with rising emissions and heavy dependence on coal, India was under heavy pressure to make concessions at the conference. The Prime Minister made five promises:

  1. Expand total non-fossil fuel based energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030
  2. Meet 50% of energy requirement from renewable sources by 2030 (previous target 40%)
  3. Reduce total carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes from now until 2030
  4. Reduce the economy’s emissions intensity by at least 45% by 2030 over 2005 levels (previous target 33-35%)
  5. Achieve net-zero emissions status by 2070

While many stakeholders have at least publicly lauded these statements, we find the vagueness and non-effectiveness of these promises disconcerting. Reference to ‘energy’ in the first two promises is a definite mis-statement – the reference ought to have been to ‘power’ instead. More significantly, India is set to undershoot the 2022 renewable power capacity target of 175 GW by a significant margin. Before coming up with ever more ambitious goals, there should have been a clear assessment of various issues plaguing the sector and a comprehensive plan for addressing those. In absence of such methodical planning, the promises appear hollow.

The deadline of 2070 for reducing net emissions to zero is worthless and insincere. Fifty years is simply too long a period to have any material benefit when the environmental need is so dire. GHG emissions must fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 for global warming to be contained within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In contrast, UNFCC predicts emissions to rise by 14% in the business-as-usual trajectory. The available emissions allowance to stay within 1.5°C temperature rise of 400 billion tonnes is being eroded by more than 10% every year.

It is often argued that alongside other developing countries with a relatively small quantum of historic emissions, India has a right to keep burning fossil fuels for its economic growth. But the situation is grim. Rather than delaying its net zero commitment to 2070, it would have been preferable if India had adopted a target of say, 2050, contingent on the developed countries fast tracking their commitments to 2035, and definitive financial support.

India has lost a valuable opportunity to take a leadership role in climate negotiations and prepare its businesses and citizens for a low carbon economy.

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