‘The way net zero target is being formulated is unfair’
With less than a month left until the Glasgow climate change conference (COP 26), there is debate on what India’s stand should be at the climate negotiations. Sunita Narain, an expert on climate negotiations who has been tracking the talks since 1992 and director general of Centre for Science and Environment, said developed countries are trying to dilute the principle of equity by pushing developing countries like India to announce a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Whereas the rich countries, with far greater historical responsibility, should deliver on a net zero target way earlier at least by 2030 allowing carbon space for poor countries to grow. India should speak up against this, she said in an interview to HT. Edited Excerpts:
What are your expectations from COP 26 in Glasgow?
My expectation is that COP 26 will be bold, courageous, and just. I am using those words very carefully because this COP is happening at a time when we know two things. One, we know the threat of climate change is real and we are seeing its impacts not only in the developing but also in the rich world. We know that we are only at the beginning of devastation. Currently, global temperature rise has only been around 1.09 degree C since 1870 onwards, but all indications are that temperatures will continue to rise. As will be the kind of devastation we are beginning to see from wildfires, cyclones to extreme rain events. Interdependence is critical. When the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992 and it was agreed that there would be a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) built into the convention, I don’t think countries of the north understood the importance of it. They did it because it was needed to bring the developing world on board. It was a concession that was made. Today when the world meets at Glasgow and what Covid-19 has sharpened further is that we live in an interdependent world. It requires cooperation from all. If the rich polluted in the past, the poor will pollute in future. There is only one fixed planetary space because climate change is about the amount of emissions we pump into the atmosphere. We are talking about a budget. When COP meets, it is important that we keep these two in mind. If it’s ambitious without being fair, it will not succeed and vice versa.
What will be the key issues at COP 26?
There are two levels of issues at COP now: those outside the COP and those inside the paperwork. Those outside shape public discourse. First is net zero. It’s not in the COP papers but it is an issue out there. CSE’s (Centre for Science and Environment) position has been that the way net zero target is being formulated is intrinsically unfair. Because the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is very clear. It says the world must reach net zero in 2050 and the world should cut emissions by half by 2030. This means the rich world cutting emissions to half by 2030 so that the world can be net zero by 2050. But by putting out this grand goal of net zero by 2050, the rich world is only appropriating more carbon space. It again smacks of efforts to erase, dilute the principle of climate justice and equity which we have seen during past COPs. Net zero is one in which there will be a lot of pressure on a country like India to give its commitment. My own view is that we should be very clear that net zero is very important. The world should move to net zero by 2050, which means the rich world should move to net zero in 2030 and then the entire world moves to net zero by 2050. The other formulation is what the Chinese have put out is you move to net zero in 2050 and we do it in 2060. In which case a country like India would move to net zero in 2070 and most of Africa would move in 2080. That would mean the world would be even more unsafe in terms of temperature rise and emissions. We need to put this on the table and explain to citizens the context of the north. In the negotiations, there is a divide between the north and the south. The way the global media reports, it is clear that it sticks to this divide. The voice of southern media needs to be loud and perspectives of our governments need to be understood.
Will there be pressure to phase out coal?
Coal is a very polluting substance. We need to do electrification of our economy from gas, renewable or cleaner coal power plants. We want to move coal from small boilers and industries. That’s our national perspective and should drive internal policy. As far as coal globally is concerned, let’s be very clear that we do want the northern countries to get out of fossil fuels. Now with winter approaching, we are beginning to see many of the coal plants coming back into operation because gas prices have gone up. They (developed countries) need to walk the talk. The rich need to close all their coal plants and then start talking to rest of the world. China has issued a grand statement saying they will not fund coal-based power plants in Africa but they have not talked about closing down their own. China is one country that will occupy 30% of the carbon budget between 2020 and 2030. Remember that we have a limited carbon budget now. China needs to be de-hyphenated from India. China cannot anymore be a member of the G 77 and take cover under the developing countries. There is no comparison of India and China and that should be recognised at the COP.
What will be the official issues at COP 26?
They will be looking at plans for 2030 and how countries will meet them. China has not given any targets. It has given an emissions intensity target. The US has given a 50% reduction and EU, UK etc have committed to reduce but they need to explain how they are actually going to do it. Or are they linking it to the next thing on the agenda which is the market-based mechanism. Given the fact that the Paris Agreement says that every country will have to take emission reduction targets, the fact is that a market-based mechanism of carbon credits cannot be based on poor countries selling off the cheapest option to the richest countries. If at all the market-based mechanism should be transformational. It should have the most expensive options in the emerging countries to be paid for through the market mechanism. But the developed world is still looking for a cheap option. That’s got to be contested. Finance will be a big issue. The $100 billion fund (developed countries promised to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 for developing countries) is not adding up and is imaginary which is why it needs to be discussed. If you look at NDCs of most countries in Africa, they are conditional to finance and technology transfer. Finance will be very critical. Loss and damage (compensation for disasters and loss) issue will also be important. There has been an effort in the past to dilute principles of liability and paying up for damage.
What should be India’s stand at COP 26?
India’s stand has to be twofold: very strong in terms of putting out the issues of equity and justice at the global level. By focusing on equitable allocation of available carbon space, India will be working towards an effective agreement. India is not being a denier or naysayer. In fact, it has been asking for equity. In the past, the entire effort from 1992 all the way up to Paris was to erase, negate and dilute the principle of equity. Finally, in Paris they (developed countries) managed to erase the concept of historical responsibility from the text. But it will not go away. There is a huge inequitable distribution of carbon space. India will collaborate if there is a principle of fairness. Second thing is to be a climate leader to say that we understand the impact of climate change and the need to build a resilient economy. However, for us, climate change action is about building a low carbon growth economy, which is good for us. The primary driver of a low carbon economy is our internal compulsions of pollution, circular economy, mobility and thermal comfort for all. We will continue to act because it is in our best interest.