India’s COP26 pledges are commendable, but will they be feasible in the long run?
This article is part of the series Comprehensive Energy Monitor : India and the World
A joint statement issued by Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) countries in September 2021, stated that all member states intend to update or communicate ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement before the 26th Conference of Parties, or COP26. But statements by the concerned ministers from the Indian government that followed this news reiterated historical responsibility of the western nations over climate change and repeated the issue of inadequate financial assistance from rich countries leading most observers to believe that India is not likely to make any significant change from its traditional position. The day before the speech of the Indian Prime Minister (PM) at COP26, there was news that India is likely to link any new pledges on decarbonising India’s economy to its membership in the nuclear suppliers’ group (NSG). The argument that linked NSG membership to climate action was that nuclear power, a low carbon alternative energy source could potentially replace coal as baseload power and that India would need to be a member of the exclusive NSG group to access nuclear fuel, capital, and technology. But news on the English language Chinese media did not offer any hope on NSG membership. In the end, the Indian PM surprised observers within and outside India with the following ambitious and what at this point appear to be unconditional pledges on India’s decarbonisation during his speech at COP26:
Many environmentalists hailed these five pledges (“Panchamrit”) as it is expected to put India on a firm path towards decarbonisation. For commercial entities betting on green investments to pay-off handsomely, the announcements offer the comfort of certainty that government policy will protect their returns. The validity of these expectations will only be revealed in the long term but the immediate concern from a more objective point of view is the interpretation of the somewhat ambiguous pledges. The assumption at this point is that these are aspirational, non-binding pledges and the official statement on the revised NDCs will clarify some questions that the pledges raise.
The day before the speech of the Indian Prime Minister (PM) at COP26, there was news that India is likely to link any new pledges on decarbonising India’s economy to its membership in the nuclear suppliers’ group (NSG).
The idea of “net zero” was promoted in a 2018 special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which demanded that countries bring greenhouse gas emissions to “net-zero” by 2050 to keep global warming to within 1.5 °C of pre-industrial levels. Though net-zero was the universal language for policymakers’ intent on sealing a deal at COP26, net zero is also seen as the means to perpetuate a belief in technological salvation to diminish the sense of urgency over climate calamity. As the concept of “net zero” has built-in ambiguities, it was the safest promise a country or company could make.
India committing to “net-zero” at COP26 was unavoidable from a geo-political perspective but the offer of far more radical pledges with no “quid pro quo” is puzzling. The quick answer is probably that it is in India’s interest to protect itself against the impact of climate change by limiting carbon emissions deeply and quickly. But climate change is a global commons problem and unless all large polluting nations reciprocate with radical pledges to limit carbon emissions, the climate will change for the worse. Ideally, India’s pledges should have been hedged with the condition that other large polluters achieve net zero before 2050 and make the necessary funds available to India.
If India’s current industrial policy that is oriented towards increasing domestic manufacturing succeeds, meeting this goal will also become somewhat difficult. Manufacturing is energy intensive and consequently also carbon intensive.
But there is another contradiction that adds to the ambiguity. India was not part of the non-binding agreement signed to phase out coal by 2030 for rich countries and 2040 for poor countries at COP26. Other large coal using nations including China, USA and Australia were also not part of the signatories. Britain, the host of COP26 wants to consign coal to history based on its own history. But Britain switched from coal to gas in the 1980s partly to spite coal unions and partly to embrace cheap new offshore natural gas. A complete switch from coal to natural gas will pose serious economic challenges to India as imported natural gas is the most expensive fuel (for power generation) at the margin. Imported gas will also mean geo-political and external trade related risks to India’s energy security.
Coal is narrowly seen as the main adjustment variable between the ‘business as usual’ and the ‘low carbon’ energy paths for India. But millions of people awaiting better quality of life through large scale industrialisation that offers well paid and secure jobs are the main adjustment variable between the two paths. If large scale industrialisation takes off in India, quality of life will improve for millions of households, but it will add to the volume of carbon content in India’s energy basket barring a miracle in clean energy technologies. India’s COP26 pledges are ambitious and ambiguous, and hopefully also aspirational (non-binding), in which case one could say there is nothing wrong in aiming high.
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