So CoP27 is all set to begin this weekend and the big news is that Rishi Sunak won’t be skipping it after all. This may help convince British voters that Britain’s voice still matters on the world stage but is unlikely to materially alter the outcomes of the world’s biggest climate jamboree. As Twitter user @DougieOcean pointed out, “COP27 already? It’s sort of like birthdays: they come faster and faster and mean less and less.”
That would have been an unfair assessment of CoP26, which saw some serious commitments to decarbonisation from the world’s biggest economies, notably India, but may well be true for the current edition, which is taking place in the backdrop of an unprecedented surge in energy prices which has seen the developed world rapidly drop any pretence of pro-planet greenness in favour of keeping themselves warm this coming winter and keeping their economic engines hot and running.
India is no exception. As I wrote last month, the world, including India, has taken a great leap backwards on the green energy front, plumping for cheap coal to meet the immediate needs. Not surprising. At ₹3 per kilowatt-hour, a thermal plant with a captive coal-mine comfortably outcompetes solar (with battery storage, required to give dependable grid output).
To be fair though, while economic compulsions may be keeping coal on the front burner so to speak, India is still on track on the renewable energy front. It’s ‘ panchamrit’ strategy, unveiled at CoP26, includes, apart from the big one of achieving net zero by 2070, creating 500 GW of non-fossil (not quite the same as renewable, since this includes nuclear power) power generation capacity by 2030, sourcing 50 per cent of its energy requirements from renewables by 2030, cutting carbon emissions by one billion tonnes per year by the same target year and reducing the carbon intensity of its GDP by 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.
The first two — getting to 500 GW or thereabouts of renewable capacity and meeting about half our energy needs from renewables — appear on track. India is adding new renewable capacity at a faster clip than any other major economy, including China. We are already meeting 25 per cent of energy requirements from renewables (including hydro).
Even the one billion tonnes carbon reduction may be not too out of reach, given the faster than expected shift to electric mobility that is taking place in India. Here the lead has been taken by two-wheelers in private transportations, while city bus networks have shaken off their inertia on electrification of their fleet, while the Railways are well advanced on electrification and diesel substitution, which is a good first step.
Different kettle of fish
But decarbonising the economy? That is a whole different kettle of fish. India is still doing better than most on this, but that’s not entirely because of the right reasons. As Annapurna Mitra, editor of a recent ORF monograph (’Reconciling India’s Climate and Industrial Targets: A Policy Roadmap’) pointed out: “One of the key, albeit unfortunate, reasons behind India’s climate success is the underperformance of its manufacturing sector. Since industries comprise approximately one-fourth of the economy’s total GHG emissions, sluggish growth in the industrial sector has led to moderate increase in industrial power demand and emission-intensity of GDP.”
If manufacturing rebounds, that will worsen the problem. India has plans to double steel production to about 300 million tonnes per year and ramp up cement production to meet the needs of its ambitious infrastructure development plans. Both are “hard to abate” sectors from a carbon point of view, as both rely on coal in the primary production process. And growing inequality is also driving more carbon-intense consumption. The air-conditioning sector is expected to sell nearly 10 million units this fiscal, compared to just six million two years ago. And while sluggish income and wage growth is squeezing two-wheeler and entry-level car sales, sales of large SUVs are ballooning.
There is, however, a much bigger problem, and one which, in all probability, is going to make all the posturing at CoP27 meaningless — money. In a jointly-authored article earlier this year, Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, and Amitabh Kant (then CEO of NITI Ayog) pointed out a key stumbling block: “To reach net zero emissions by 2070, the IEA estimates that $160 billion per year is needed, on average, across India’s energy economy between now and 2030. That’s three times today’s investment levels.”
That’s just in the energy sector. To meet the overall requirements of achieving net zero by 2070, McKinsey has estimated that India may need an estimated $7.2 trillion of green investments until 2050 to decarbonise in the Line-of-Sight scenario (using current and announced policies and current and foreseeable technology) and an additional $4.9 trillion for the accelerated scenario. This translates to about 3.5 per cent of India’s GDP through this period.
Another study by BNY Mellon Investment Management and Fathom Consulting show that a capital investment of around $100 trillion in lower-carbon infrastructure will be required for the world to comply with the Paris climate goal of limiting warming below 2.0 °C and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. While somewhat extreme, the report points out another significant stumbling block — about $20 trillion of this total would be for scrapping or retrofitting polluting assets well before their design life ends. This is something that governments will largely have to foot, since private enterprise will be unwilling to give up productive (but polluting) assets before extracting their return on investments.
India — and most of the developing world — is simply not in a position to come up with these sort of funds. The only realistic solution is for the developed world, which has outsourced a bulk of its polluting manufacturing to the global South, to cough up. And that is not happening. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pointed out in his foreword to the UN’s ‘Financing for Sustainable Development Report’, “Financing for sustainable development is at a crossroads. Either we close the yawning gap between political ambition and development financing, or we will fail to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the deadline of 2030.”
That’s why CoP27 is likely to be a bust.
The writer is a senior journalist