The strategic positioning of climate negotiations
While the outcomes of the COP26 meet can be debated, it has brought the climate crisis back to the top of the global agenda
It is now three months since the Conference of the Parties (COP26) ended in Glasgow. While its outcomes can be debated, it has brought the climate crisis back to the top of the global agenda after the hiatus of the Donald Trump era.
Further, the negotiations now target large developing countries, unlike in the past when it was the developed world vs developing countries. This reflects the shifts in global power play, but shines a red light on countries such as India as the Chinese play both sides.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Glasgow and strongly underscored India’s commitment to climate action through a huge ramping up of renewables and becoming net-zero (greenhouse gas emissions) by 2070. His statesmanship was widely applauded, but as the COP26 came to its concluding moments, India was blamed for pushing “phase down” rather than accepting a “phase out” of coal power in the Glasgow Pact. This happened even though “phase down” is the exact expression on coal power action by China in the United States-China statement issued at Glasgow just days before COP26 ended. Not many are aware, but the US consumes at least double the coal energy per capita compared to India, and China, at least five times.
Such C-2 (Climate-2) diplomatic duplicity was also seen a few weeks later when the climate crisis was sought to be brought on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. While Russia and India voted against the resolution, the Chinese abstained and by non-use of their veto, in effect, gave it a go-ahead. With their own interests safeguarded as the Russians were clear on vetoing the resolution, the Chinese played up to smaller developing countries and the developed world. The situation for the US was not dissimilar.
Curtailing the use of coal was a major focus at COP26 and this was largely initiated. Net-zero by 2050 by all countries was another major push. Most countries, at least in principle, declared net-zero goals, albeit with differing timelines. This stratagem undercut the real imperative of a global net-zero goal by 2050, which science was demanding. Following the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities would have required the developed world to reach net-zero long before 2050. As things stand, they have got a pass.
More than a decade ago, in 2009 in Copenhagen, the developed world pledged $100 billion a year for climate action in developing countries. Fulfilling this pledge was supposed to be a major bait from the developed world to push developing countries to commit to mitigation. However, not unexpectedly, nothing happened at Glasgow and future action on climate finance remains unclear.
Additionally, methane emissions are sought to be brought into the climate crisis focus. Decades ago, outstanding work by Indian scientists had seen the algorithm for calculating methane emissions from paddy cultivation corrected significantly downward. This can’t be undone but livestock numbers are bound to add to pressures.
COP27 is in Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt and while that conference will focus on implementation and resilience, COP28 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2023 is likely to see another Glasgow-like effort to pitch large developing countries on mitigation. Reasons include the Joe Biden-John Kerry imperative for success on the climate crisis, their major international agenda, ahead of the 2024 presidential election. And, oil-producing UAE may countenance coal cut down in barter to keep the hydrocarbons pipeline open.
For India, the pressures will be further multiplied by the fact that in 2023 it will host the G20 Summit, which would be expected to provide a template for global climate action. The push may also include contributing to the global climate finance pool, baited by China which will happily play this game and, in any case, at its economic level, must contribute hugely. The Paris Agreement (2016) specifically states “other parties are encouraged to provide or continue to provide such support voluntarily”.
Glasgow was the first time that the external affairs minister was present at a COP meeting. While the minister of environment rightly leads the Indian delegation at COPs, India’s engagement in the global climate talks at this stage also requires a strategic and holistic economy-wide handling. Several years ago, a high-level Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change was constituted. It now needs major energising for huge domestic action, no matter whether we include the Glasgow declarations in our international commitments or, using the policy space available, treat them purely as internal targets, and guidance on global negotiations.
To buttress action at the global level, it appears useful to keep Brazil, South Africa, India and China (BASIC) in play but also develop coalitions with non-G7 countries in the G20 and other large developing countries. Further, the pace of global climate talks requires focused attention which could, perhaps, be addressed by appointing a special envoy for this.
This would, of course, have to be someone well-tuned to the nuances of global governance. This is the template followed by many of the major stakeholders; indeed, it won’t be out of place to suggest that the US-China deal happened because of the decades of climate negotiations’ experience of both Kerry (US) and Xie Zhenhua (China). The Egyptians have understood these strategic imperatives. The president of COP27 will be their foreign minister.
Manjeev Singh Puri is former ambassador, lead negotiator at UNFCCC, and distinguished fellow, TERI
The views expressed are personal