While the annual gatherings of the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) are dominated by the presence of government delegations and climate activists, there’s a sharp rise in participation by Indian business delegations in recent years, according to analysts and long-time participants at these conferences.
While the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the umbrella body under which the COPs are held, maintains statistics on participation by different interest groups and their national affiliations, it doesn’t, however, specifically break them down by businesses or environmental organisations. About 33,000 delegates have registered for COP27, making it likely the second-largest in COP history. India’s delegation size, which represents government representatives, is 70.
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Mahendra Singhi, the managing director and CEO, Dalmia Cement, told The Hindu that there were “12-15 businesses” at the ongoing COP and this was a steady increase from previous COPs. “The opportunity to learn, be part of panels, and present the steps we’ve taken as a country, industry and company to adapt to newer practices to nearly 40,000 participants [who attend the two weeks of the conference] is very valuable,” he said, in a phone conversation from Sharm el-Sheikh. “Going ahead, we are in talks with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to increase Indian participation.”
The 21st COP in Paris in 2015, which resulted in the Paris Agreement, was a turning point that piqued participation, say experts. The Paris Agreement saw all countries unilaterally accept that the globe couldn’t be allowed to warm beyond 2 degrees Centigrade by the end of the century, and as far as possible, this ought to be limited to 1.5 degrees Centigrade. This made it imperative that India too, which as the third largest net emitter, large and growing country, and still majorly reliant on coal for energy, to commit more substantially to a future hinged on renewable energy. This was underlined most vividly in November 2021, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made the commitment that India would be “net zero” or carbon neutral by 2070 — a long way off but still a concrete deadline.
“Net zero is a big shift but even a few years before that, government policy has been visibly changing its stance from the traditional position [of not being significantly responsible for historical CO2 levels], such as promoting solar energy. Private sector can see this very visibly, they have their money on the table. Till 2015, they felt they could ignore it but now the global rhetoric is changing and now they see they have to adapt,” Vaibhav Chaturvedi, who has attended multiple COP conferences and leads climate and energy policy at the public policy think tank Council for Energy, Environment and Water, said.
Policies in Europe, such as plans to no longer manufacture fossil fuel cars or a carbon border adjustment tax (whereby duties will be imposed on imported goods based on the carbon expended in producing them) were indicators of a changing market and could hit Indian exporters. Domestically, too, apart from committing to produce half its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, India had also introduced a carbon market, where major polluters will voluntarily cut down or purchase carbon credits to meet certain pollution-reduction targets. “Many business persons come to COP and many are chief sustainability officers who are coming to observe, understand international business practice, and the positions of their own governments. While businesses do influence policy via lobbying — and this isn’t unique to India —there’s no actual lobbying at COP,” Mr. Chaturvedi added.
“There are three groups of businesspersons who visit COP: those in the renewable energy business; industrialists very dependent on the fossil fuel, such as steel and cement manufacturing; and those interested in the ‘optics’, such as conglomerates who not only want to be seen as committed to clean energy but are also eyeing potential agreements with international companies to snag new technologies,” Sambitosh Mohapatra, also a participant in several COPs who leads the environment and sustainability practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers India, said.
Within India, too, domestic policy measures such a mandatory requirement by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) that the top 1,000 listed companies declare initiatives they have taken to improve the environment and corporate governance, acted as a nudge to other companies to acquaint themselves with international practice. “Increasingly, when I engage with corporates, I sense that many of them feel their brand value and reputation may be impacted if they aren’t compliant, or licence to operate in certain countries, and their ability to raise money could suffer,” Mr. Mohapatra said. “There are increasingly demands from senior citizens to banks or fund managers to invest only in environmentally responsible companies.”
Brajesh Singh, president of Arthur D. Little, a consultancy, said that along with companies, even individual states were sending delegations to the COP. Uttar Pradesh has sent a delegation to Egypt this year to showcase its green initiatives.