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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The Glasgow summit on climate change: What has it achieved?
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The Glasgow summit on climate change: What has it achieved?

A promising start on emissions reduction, but big emitters must do more and India needs to work out a detailed plan of action

Photo: AFPPremium
Photo: AFP

CoP-26 was widely hyped as the last chance to save the planet. It began with a bang, but has ended on a more modest note. But was it just “blah blah" and “corporate greenwashing", as some climate activists termed it, or did it make some progress even if much less than was needed? We attempt to provide our assessment in two articles. Today’s article focuses on what has been achieved in agreements on action to contain emissions, which we consider a definite move forward. Tomorrow’s will assess what has been agreed in assuring financial assistance to developing countries to make an energy transition, where progress has frankly been very disappointing.

New global and country targets: CoP-26 had to deal with the disturbing prospect that the world was set to reach nearly +3° Celsius by the end of the century, well above the 2015 Paris Agreement target of “well below 2°C" and ideally 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Scientific evidence was mounting that even 2°C would have dangerous effects on tropical and low-lying areas. The Glasgow Climate Pact has rightly targeted global warming not to exceed +1.5°C and also got about 140 countries to announce target dates for bringing emissions down to net zero. This is a significant achievement, considering that in Paris in 2015, while all developing countries agreed to take steps to limit carbon emissions, they did not agree to reduce emissions, but only to reduce the “emissions-intensity" of GDP.

Inequitable emissions
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Inequitable emissions

Glasgow has brought both developed and developing countries on board, offering to reduce emissions to net zero. Most have adopted 2050 as their net-zero date, a few are aiming at 2045 or earlier, while others such as China, Russia and Indonesia have indicated 2060. India has joined the consensus, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi having announced a net-zero target of 2070. This was a departure from our past position where we never accepted the need to reduce emissions, and the new stand has been widely appreciated.

The new targets come with two important qualifications. First, they are voluntary with no mechanism for enforcement or penalties for non-compliance, and many are also conditional on availability of adequate financial support. Second, many countries have yet to provide details on specific actions to be taken which would determine the actual trajectory to net zero. Since it’s the shape of the trajectory that determines the total emissions for each country, this introduces some uncertainty about what will be achieved.

An early assessment by Climate Action Tracker (CAT) suggests that the targets declared could, if fully achieved, limit global warming to around +1.8°C. However, it also warns that the targets for 2030 are insufficiently ambitious. Unless significantly tightened, we are more likely to end up seeing global temperatures rise by 2.1–2.4°C.

The Glasgow Pact has therefore urged countries to consider strengthening their 2030 targets by CoP-27 to be held in Egypt in 2022. We find that it is the major emitters that will have to bear the bulk of the burden of tightening. China intends to hit peak emissions only by 2030, before going down to net zero in 2060. This means it would take up 54% of the global carbon budget (i.e. the total carbon space available for the world if global warming is to be limited to 1.5° C), whereas its population share is only 18.7%. The US, with 4.2% of the world’s people, would take up 14.2% of that budget . Europe, with 6.8%, would take up 9.5%. Together, these countries, which account for about 30% of the world’s population, would take up 78% of the carbon budget. This problem reflects the fact that focusing on net-zero dates does not ensure a fair apportioning of the available carbon space if the initial position in terms of emissions varies so greatly.

Climate justice requires a recalibration that could be as indicated by the dashed lines in the above chart. China, instead of increasing emissions up to 2030, as currently declared, may need to keep them at their current level for a few years and then go down to net zero by 2050. The US should achieve a sharper reduction in emissions by 2030, and also advance its net-zero date to 2040. Europe as a whole should follow the German/Swedish example and aim at net-zero by 2045. With this recalibration, the carbon emissions of this group would fall to 32% of the carbon budget, much closer to their population share. India’s 2070 target would take up 18.1% of the carbon space, which is a little higher than our population share of 17.7%. We should be willing to consider a modification in our trajectory as part of an agreed global package, in which other countries also take appropriate action.

Phasing out coal: Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels and an early phasing out of coal is clearly desirable. European countries, which have graduated out of coal (though remaining highly reliant on oil and gas), pushed hard for its phase out. Developing countries, which are heavily dependent on coal, resisted this. The Glasgow text solves the problem through a compromise suggested by India, and refers only to a “phase-down" of coal-based power.

India has not made any commitments on this issue for good reasons. Our near-term target is to expand India’s capacity of non-fossil-fuel-based electricity from 155GW at present to 500GW by 2030, almost all of which depends on expansion in solar and wind generation from 100GW to 450GW. If these targets are achieved, it is estimated that the share of coal-based electricity would fall from 72% at present to a little over 50% in 2030. However, since our total power demand is likely to double over this period, the absolute level of coal-based generation will still be 30% higher than today’s. This rules out a phase-out of coal-based electricity this decade.

In the longer run, however, our target of net zero will require phasing down coal-based power from the next decade onwards. We must start work on a detailed plan for this transition. We could consider announcing that no new coal-based plants will be built after those currently under construction or planning are completed. We could also consider a policy of accelerated retirement of older, inefficient and polluting plants, provided suitable financing can be obtained.

Electric vehicles: Reaching net-zero by 2070 also requires phasing out petrol and diesel in transport and shifting to EVs that use electricity from renewables or hydrogen, when that becomes possible. EVs currently account for less than 2% of vehicle sales in India. There is talk of 30% of new passenger cars and 70% of new commercial vehicles being electric by 2030. This would need to go further up . The target share of EVs in total sales should be derived working backward from the date we want the country’s entire fleet to become emissions-free. If this is to be achieved by 2050, we should consider announcing that no sale of petrol/diesel/gas vehicles will be allowed after 2035. This would give the automotive sector about 15 years to restructure its production. It would also allow time for the older polluting fleet to be retired before 2050.

India’s ambitious targets on expanding renewable capacity require policy action aimed at resolving problems such as stabilizing intermittent supply from renewables, building transmission infrastructure, creating efficient electricity markets and fixing the financial weakness of our discoms. These actions are not specified in the Nationally Determined Contributions to be submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but they will have to be built into our domestic policy agenda in the years ahead.

A potentially important development emerging out of CoP-26 but outside the CoP process is the Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda endorsed by 42 countries, including India. This is a cooperative effort to accelerate the development and deployment of clean technologies and sustainable solutions in areas such as clean power, road transport, steel and hydrogen. It is difficult to predict how effective such cooperation will be, but something along these lines is definitely needed so we can keep track of what is working elsewhere in the world.

Montek S. Ahluwalia & Utkarsh Patel are, respectively, former deputy chairman, Planning Commission and currently distinguished fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP); and associate fellow, sustainability & climate change, at CSEP.

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Updated: 14 Nov 2021, 10:51 PM IST
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