Yesterday (October 31) saw the start of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland (UK) — the 26th global jamboree of political leaders, negotiators, activists, observers, journalists, and protestors. As in the previous 25 editions, the attendance is likely to be around 30,000 over a two-week period.
What does it seek to achieve? If you distil all the climate jargon (such as ambition, ratchet mechanism, Paris Rulebook, and so on) you come up with two distillates — getting countries to promise more than they did in Paris in 2015, in terms of climate action; and framing the rules for trading in carbon (avoided emissions), which is said to be the ‘unfinished agenda’ of creating a rulebook to make the Paris Agreement work.
It was agreed in Paris that all countries would review their actions (global stock-take) and promise more work (ratchet mechanism) after five years, which should have been 2020, but things got stalled due to the pandemic. Essentially, each country would be expected to come up on stage (figuratively) and say what it would do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body tasked with generating data for climate policy, said that, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 50 per cent by 2030 and completely offset by absorbing back all the emitted carbon (‘net zero’) by 2050.
Neither of these is an easy commitment to make, certainly not for India, which is yet to announce its ‘net zero’ year. But at Glasgow, each country would be exhorting the others to do more.
India seems to be on track to meeting its three commitments (or nationally determined contributions). This means it will cut by 2030 the emission intensity of its GDP by 33-35 per cent of what it was in 2005; raise non-fossil-fuel-based power capacity to 40 per cent of total installed capacity; and create additional forests to suck up 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon.
Because India is on target, it seems to rest its case there — it is yet to announce its net-zero year or articulate offers for more climate action. RR Rashmi, a former climate negotiator for India, said in a recent webinar, “India is doing well enough, much better than what the other countries have, and it should demand similar contributions from other countries.”
There is little doubt that this stance will come under attack at the COP26. The recently released Production Gap Report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights the fact that India (among some other countries) has vowed to increase coal production substantially in the coming years, which flies in the face of India’s lofty commitments. India plans to augment its coal production from 730 million tonnes in 2019 to 1,140 million tonnes in 2024.
The COP26 is also expected to discuss climate finance, an area where action is palpably inadequate, both in terms of volume and quality, and where developed countries are indisputably at fault. Since the Paris Agreement, there is an unmet promise of providing (public and private) finance, $100 billion annually, to developing countries to undertake climate change fighting projects. Given that a far less amount is coming, most of what is given are loans, and the finance is often just dressed-up as green funding, developing countries are going to ask for more.
Finally, there is this ticklish issue of framing rules for global carbon markets, which was expected to happen at the COP25 (Madrid) but didn’t. If this gets done, it could be a good augury for India, as it would open a vast ‘compliance market’ as opposed to the ‘voluntary market’ of today.
The COP26 is happening against a backdrop of mounting evidence that the planet is on a trajectory to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, way above the barely adequate target of 2 degrees, leave alone the ‘ambition’ 1.5 degrees.
When the famous Paris Agreement concluded in December 2015, many (including this newspaper) pointed out that the agreement was shaky simply because there was no penalty for a breach, except global shame.
While everybody is busy blaming each other for deficiency in action, the world is juddering with rising fever.
COP26 is the first climate talks after the pandemic, after the US is formally back in, after the UK has formally left the EU, and in times of geo-politics that are changing in response to China. Not many have great expectations of it.