Should India set a higher bar to address climate change?

Updated - December 16, 2023 12:29 pm IST

Published - December 15, 2023 02:36 am IST

A woman works at a coal depot in Ahmedabad.

A woman works at a coal depot in Ahmedabad. | Photo Credit: AP

In a historic first, all 198 signatories to the 28th United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COP28) adopted to “transition away” from “all fossil fuels” as opposed to only coal, as was agreed upon at COP26, in Glasgow. India had played a pivotal role in Glasgow in modifying the language from “phasing out” coal to “phasing it down”. Unsurprisingly, it supported the incumbent COP President Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber of the UAE when he proposed to “transition away” from oil and gas, as opposed to “phasing out”, as demanded by several developed countries and small island nations. As the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, albeit with a drastically smaller per capita emission rate, should India set a higher bar to mitigate and adapt to climate change? Karthik Ganesan and Harjeet Singh discuss the question in a conversation moderated by Kunal Shankar. Edited excerpts:

What are your thoughts on the UAE Consensus adopted at COP28?

Harjeet Singh: This COP has been different for many reasons. [It was held] in a petrostate and headed by an oil company chief. But the outcomes have been unprecedented and historic. The Loss and Damage Fund (LDF) has been operationalised, which was a hard-won victory. The text (UAE Consensus) is historic because for the first time it talks about ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels’ in energy systems in a ‘just, orderly and equitable manner’. Of course, as civil society, our demand was a fossil fuel phase out, which is not the case. There is a lot of a mention of so-called zero to low emission technologies such as renewables. That is fine, but nuclear abatement, removal technologies, carbon capture and utilisation storage, and low carbon hydrogen production are massive loopholes, which are going to provide cover to the fossil fuel industry to prolong its business.

Karthik, do you view the COP28 outcome as being reasonable? What do you think is the role of developing countries in this regard?

Karthik Ganesan: Just to clarify, it is actually the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies, but really, it’s transitioning away from fossil fuels in the energy system and phasing down the unabated use of coal. It’s a maze of words. What is clear is that subsidies for fossil fuels must go, but the reality is that if you don’t have alternatives to fossil fuels, you have to keep subsidising them because a large part of the population still relies on subsidies to consume energy. So, without the active phase out of these commodities, phasing out subsidies alone is very unlikely.

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Having said that, is this a desirable outcome? No. It is pretty weak in terms of ambition. Developing countries will keep bringing back to the table the problem of financing and that will be the reason for a lack of action on their part. This is where it becomes dicey. For, developing countries, including India, will face the impacts of climate change that will have costs on the economy. India is a net importer of a lot of fossil fuels. It imports 80% of all its petroleum demand, nearly 50% or more of its gas demand, and a sizeable amount of its coal demand. Given this, it is in India’s interests to see how it can bring together industry leaders and the financing ecosystem to channel resources to hasten the transition domestically and create jobs and industrial value add within the economy. It’s happening in some way through the PLI (performance-linked incentive) scheme which speaks specifically to solar and battery technology. But it’s not happening at a scale at which India needs it — primarily because the dependence on the current energy ecosystem is significant for revenues. India needs to be clear that the impacts of climate change are going to be far more than what we have to gain by continuing our sustenance on fossil fuels.

Harjeet, the LDF has only raised about $700 million when we require trillions to address climate impacts. Developing countries still do not seem to have the know-how to effectively de-carbonise several of their sectors. How could they then be expected to raise their ambition?

Harjeet Singh: We are not happy with the overall outcome, but there are several references now to 1.5°C in the energy section, which is what we were pushing for. Talking about deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, 1.5°C is fundamental for India but more importantly, for other vulnerable countries in the Pacific. And that also connects to your point on the LDF. More fossil fuels and emissions equal more loss and damage. What we got at COP28 was a compromise after 30 years. Yes, $700 million is not enough, but we see this as a major victory for climate justice movements and for vulnerable countries.

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If you look at technology transfer and development that the Technology Executive Committee has been doing, they have decided to establish a technology implementation programme and that has to be supported by the financial mechanism. This has been extremely slow for developing countries for the transition towards renewable energy. It is absolutely critical that there are no trade barriers. It looks like as a package developing countries really insisted upon it and there’s going to be some movement going forward.

India is in a Catch-22 situation on fossil fuels. While accepting the common but differentiated responsibility argument, is there anything that India could do more to address climate impacts?

Karthik Ganesan: It comes down to what we consider as our economic paradigm for growth. Unfortunately, we are still wedded to the notion of GDP. Coal, for instance, has environmental consequences and is valued around ₹1,50,000 crore in output today. The solar PV sector is valued at ₹7,000 crore and growing within the domestic economy. So, coal is about 20 times the size of the solar economy as far as domestic value is concerned. The bottom line is that we need to run the economy and the problem is that this seems to be the narrow focus. One can say that for a developing economy, livelihoods must come before the environment. This is the trade-off that is always discussed, but it shouldn’t be a binary. For instance, our air quality standards are significantly more lax than what the World Health Organization puts out. Unless we start thinking about what is it that we are getting from economic growth and how it speaks to equity of outcomes for different parts of the population, we will continue to prioritise what works for the majority. This may not even be a numerical majority. It may be a majority in the way that they control some of the decisions that are being made. Each of these stakeholders is ultimately trying make India’s GDP grow. The government and stakeholders must come together and think of the metric through which we should assess whether this next step that we’re taking for economic growth also speaks to our long-term environmental interests.

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Harjeet Singh: I would argue that environment has to be at the centre of our growth paradigm. The discourse on de-growth has begun. Of course, rich countries have to do more. I’m not trying to apply that to developing countries where millions still don’t have access to adequate electricity or other energy sources. But India must have its own developmental paradigm and not blindly follow the same model that has brought destruction.

Some might say that India will soon be a $3 trillion economy and so it must contribute towards loss and damage.

Karthik Ganesan: This is the dichotomy that India has always faced. It is a regional power and an emerging economy. Smaller developing countries look up to India’s leadership. For that reason, I think India must ensure that it is able to transfer a lot of its learnings to other economies. Now, whether that should spillover into the economic realm and its ability to contribute to the LDF for poorer economies... I think India does contribute in its own way. India has assisted Sri Lanka, East Africa. It wields enormous soft power in the region. For instance, an IIT-Madras campus was inaugurated in Zanzibar recently. India has a responsibility, and it will contribute towards soft power. But when it comes to monetary contribution (to the LDF), there are corners of India which aren’t seeing the kind of financial assistance they need. So, the imperative is for charity to begin at home.

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Harjeet Singh: In the last two years, India’s engagement in the development of the LDF has increased. The National Disaster Management Authority has a role to play in the adaptation and the loss and damage negotiations. There was a natural tendency to think that India is going to be drawing money from the LDF. The expectations of Pacific nations and other vulnerable countries has been that India will be contributing. India being a large country must engage with the process and India did, in making sure that this fund is robust. But India has a lot to contribute and not just in monetary terms. It must be part of the Santiago network. India must also learn a lot. There are countries like Bangladesh who have done a lot more on disaster management.

India needs to be clear that the impacts of climate change are going to be far more than what we have to gain by continuing our sustenance on fossil fuels.

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Karthik Ganesan is Director, Research Coordination, Council on Energy, Environment and Water; Harjeet Singh is Head of Global Political Strategy at Climate Action Network International

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