The concept of ‘net zero’ itself is meaningless because it kicks the can of climate action down the road and gives global climate activists something to chew on while the richer nations, who have stronger economies and more resources at disposal, find a way to evade their financial commitments towards helping the poorer nations
It’s not always that one agrees with Greta Thunberg. Speaking on the ongoing COP26, the climate activist on Friday called the UN Summit a “failure” and castigated the richest nations in the world with familiar acerbity. “The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.” Hard to disagree.
The Glasgow summit so far has been an unsurprising display of pious humbug and clever cooking of books by the richest and most industrialised nations that are eager to escape responsibilities and blame for their failed promises on emissions and funds, while finding newer ways to shift the burden of their inaction on poorer nations — all the while managing to sound morally superior.
And amid constant shifting of targets and moral grandstanding, India has emerged as a world leader on climate action. Despite severe handicaps on resources and its position on the lower rungs of the global human development ladder — a situation that means India cannot pull people out of poverty or ensure moderate prosperity for billions without access to abundant energy in the decades ahead — the prime minister delivered a speech that reflected India’s determination to act decisively to mitigate the climate crisis.
India’s task is doubly difficult because it must balance its fast-growing development needs with an even faster-depleting global carbon budget (blame it on rich nations that carbon-guzzled their way to prosperity leaving emerging economies little leeway for their own rise) while finding a way to honour its climate commitments.
Narendra Modi’s announcements in Glasgow must be seen in this context. India’s ambition and vision were in sharp contrast with the fecklessness and timidity from the richer nations who were busy inventing new strategies to shift the discourse.
India’s pledge of ‘net zero’ (the point at which anthropogenic carbon emissions of a country is balanced by removing the equivalent amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) from the atmosphere so that the net emission is ‘zero’) has garnered the most headlines. Yet, Modi’s five-point agenda (that he called “panch-amrit” or five elixirs) contains pledges that are more audacious in scope. Particularly, the goal to reduce India’s total projected emission by one billion tonne between now and 2030. By some estimates, that would represent a reduction of “2.5 to 3 per cent in its absolute emissions in the next nine years.”
India also committed to taking its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030, meet 50 per cent of its energy needs from renewable energy by 2030, reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by less than 45 per cent by 2030 and achieve the target of ‘net zero’ by 2070.
From a country that is on track to achieve its targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the only major economy to do so according to the UN Environment Program’s Emission Gap report, India’s pledges are to be taken seriously. India still meets 70 percent of its power sector needs through coal which turns out to around 11.6 percent of the global coal consumption announced by Modi from the Glasgow forum — most of which are to be met by 2030 — would require deep structural reforms across sectors and matching political will.
It was curious to see, however, some headlines in the western press that described India’s pledge as “opening play” that has “disappointed activists and experts in Glasgow”. This is hypocrisy of the highest order, because the concept of ‘net zero’ itself is a ploy to shift the narrative away from the failure of the West that is singularly responsible for pumping inordinate amount of carbon in the atmosphere and now wants poorer countries to pick up the tab for their recklessness.
As Rathin Roy, managing director of London-based ODI think tank, points out, “there is a global tribe of climate warriors who have incessantly demanded a zero emissions date from India, without taking into account either India’s development needs or their own historical footprint.” /
India has consistently pointed out that ‘net zero’ isn’t a magic pill. The more important factor is the pathway to reduce emissions to keep global warming under 1.5 °C that determines how much carbon countries put in the atmosphere before reaching ‘net zero’.
The concept of ‘net zero’ itself is meaningless because it kicks the can of climate action down the road and gives global climate activists something to chew on while the richer nations, who have stronger economies and more resources at disposal, find a way to evade their financial commitments towards helping the poorer nations transition to a greener economy.
In effect, ‘net zero’ is a double subterfuge. It shifts the focus from historical emission that determines the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities (the idea that historically most polluting nations must do the most to offset global warming) to future emission cuts, thereby diffusing the responsibility of arresting global warming equally among all nations.
This is patently unfair and morally repugnant because the emerging economies are well behind the development curve, but their poor are being made to pay for the profligacy of the rich West. Second, ‘net zero’ is predicated on future technologies that are uncertain and even unproven, hence these announcements are little more than chicanery of the highest order.
As Tejal Kanitkar, associate professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, points out in Indian Express, “in accordance with the best available science as compiled by the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these (rich) countries must be asked to declare how much of the remaining carbon budget they plan to consume before they reach net-zero. The answer to this question is critical in determining where the world is headed.”
Instead of shouldering their burden, historically biggest polluting nations such as the US have tried their best to shake off commitments during climate negotiations.
Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, who represented India at the landmark United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, writes of American perfidy in India in the Warming World.
During the negotiations that started in February 1991 and went on till May 1992, while developing nations “pressed for an agreement based on equity, reflecting the fact that anthropogenic climate change was the result of cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) originating mainly in the developed countries”, developed nations like the US “refused to recognize the link altogether, maintaining that countries should contribute to an international effort ‘in accordance with the means at their disposal and their capabilities’ (United States of America 1991), ignoring the question of responsibility for causing climate change.”
The other big question is of finance. During his speech at COP26, prime minister Modi voiced the frustration of the G77 nations of developing world when he said, “today, it is necessary that as we track the progress made in climate mitigation, we should also track climate finance. The proper justice would be that the countries which do not live up to their promises made on climate finance, pressure should be put on them.”
India’s frustration stems from the fact that while the developed West puts pressure on countries such as India to make ‘net zero’ commitments, they conveniently forget that transitioning to greener economy fueled by renewable and cleaner energy — and that too within an expedited timeline — calls for enormous amounts of funds.
What kind of funds are we talking about? Hindustan Times quotes International Energy Agency’s latest report to observe that “global clean energy investment needs to more than triple by 2030, with a surge in annual investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure to nearly $4 trillion by 2030.”
At the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, an agreement for a modest goal was arrived at by which the developed nations would disburse climate finance of $100 billion per year to developing nations starting from 2020 for five years. This wasn’t a “handout”, as Molwyn Joseph, minister of the environment for Antigua and Barbuda, told Financial Times. The $100bn target is “compensation for damages, as a result of the profligacy of these developed countries… Those that emit this carbon, that is causing climate events, should pay.”
The donor nations have failed to honour even this modest commitment. Developing nations are now being told that the $100 billion climate aid that was promised in 2009 won’t be coming before 2023, and even that deadline isn’t sacrosanct.
As professor Sreeran Chaulia writes in Livemint, “more than $750 billion per annum is owed by the Global North to poorer countries for quicker transitions to clean energy-based development… and public-cum-private climate finance from North to South has never exceeded $75 billion in any year between 2013 and 2019.”
And Financial Times quotes OECD figures to report that climate finance reached “just $79.6bn in 2019”, while Oxfam calculations indicate that even that figure “is about one-fifth of the OECD ‘climate finance’ numbers, once loans are taken out.”
So which donor nations have failed their financial commitments? India’s former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal informs us “the UK’s additional finance since 2009 is only $6.1 billion, while that of the US fell by $2.4 billion over the 2009-2018 period.”
US, which withdrew from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and walked out of Paris Agreement in 2015, has made “the least progress towards committing its fair share of climate finance… based on gross national income, cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and population,” finds Financial Times.
ODI points out that the US provides less funding than France, Germany, Japan or the United Kingdom – though its economy is larger than all of them combined. Even more damningly, “of the 23 developed countries responsible for providing international climate finance, only three countries — Germany, Norway and Sweden have been paying their fair share of the annual $100 billion goal. All other countries are falling short,” finds the London-based think tank.
As far as historical responsibility is concerned, since the dawn of the industrial revolution (taking 1850 as the base year) countries have pumped around 2,500bn tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) into the atmosphere — leaving less than 500 GtCO2 of carbon budget to keep global temperature below 1.5 °C. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief, “the US has released more than 509GtCO2 since 1850 and is responsible for the largest share of historical emissions”, which amounts to around 20% of the global total. According to CB data, “China is a relatively distant second, with 11 percent, followed by Russia (7 percent), Brazil (5 percent) and Indonesia (4 percent). Large post-colonial European nations, such as Germany and the UK, account for 4 percent and 3 percent of the global total, respectively, not including overseas emissions under colonial rule.”
While India is ranked third among countries with the biggest CO2 emissions, this calculation does not take into account India’s size of population and one of the world’s lowest level of energy consumption per capita. Home to 17 percent of global population, India’s share of carbon emission stands at 5 per cent of global total. Contrast that with the US which has 4.25 percent of global population and yet has a per capita CO2 emission of 15.2 tonnes as of 2018 World Bank data.
While the per capita footprint of Australia is 17 tonnes, Canada 15.9 tonnes and the global average stands at 4.8 tonnes, India in 2019 recorded a per capita footprint of a mere 1.92 tonnes, points out India Today.
But that still doesn’t capture the true gamut of pollution that developed countries have caused the planet. According to Carbon Brief data, while countries with big populations such as India, China, Brazil and Indonesia have made large cumulative contributions to global emissions, adjusted for population size their emission impact per person is much smaller. CB points out that “these four countries account for 42 percent of the world’s population, but just 23 percent of cumulative emissions 1850-2021. In contrast, the remainder of the top 10, namely US, Russia, Germany, the UK, Japan and Canada, account for 10% of the world’s population, but 39 percent of cumulative emissions.”
Combine this historical carbon footprint with the fact that developed nations are still failing miserably to meet their climate finance targets and flouting their emission targets. For instance, the UK has cut its climate aid by £100m and halved funding to countries most exposed to global warming. Germany, meanwhile, is firing up new coal plants and digging around and razing villages for more. This presents a truer picture of the gap between the developed world’s words and action, and their hypocritical fulminations on climate action.
Vijaya Ramachandran, director for energy and development at the Breakthrough Institute, writes in Foreign Policy that “rich countries are betting on achieving their climate ambitions without the need for harder-edged policies at home.” He says that “pursuing climate ambitions on the backs of the poorest people in the world is not just hypocritical—it is immoral, unjust, and green colonialism at its worst.”
In contrast, India, with its less than modest resources, India is making ambitious pledges, meeting its climate commitments and even bettering voluntary targets. For instance, India had already achieved 24 percent of emission intensity reduction of GDP by 2016 out of the planned 33 percent reduction target set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The 2070 deadline also gives India enough time to reorient its energy consumption from coal to renewables and the prime minister has already set smaller targets in the pathway.
Instead of grandstanding or sleight of hand, India’s climate commitments have been earnest and implementation sincere. It is not just the moral thing to do, but also the smartest way to ensure a moderately prosperous future for its citizens.