There is a strong belief in some quarters that the next climate conference, just days away in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt this year (COP27) may not discuss climate change mitigation largely on account of the ongoing energy stress in Europe. It is felt that the Russia-Ukraine crisis and resulting global energy supply shortages have dented everyone’s ability to reduce emissions. This may be a legitimate view but the discussion on coal in the United Nations General Assembly, in September, points to an opposite possibility. The President of Vanuatu, a small Pacific island, wanted the General Assembly to adopt a universal Non Proliferation Treaty to ban the use of fossil fuels across the world.
Usually, such a call by a nation whose contribution to the global energy supplies and emissions is negligible would have gone unnoticed. But Vanuatu represents a strong and vocal group of small island-developing states whose voice is heard with attention and empathy in the UN. More so, when it is a matter that will affect the global discourse on climate change.
The small island group has gone around seeking endorsements from various quarters — governments, the corporate world and civil society. Interestingly, the Mayor of Kolkata, capital of one of the largest coal producing States in India, has lent his voice of support.
A similar call on coal use
Vanuatu’s plea comes in the wake of a similar call for phaseout of coal which was made last year at the Glasgow climate conference. After strong protest by the Indian interlocutors, the language of the decision at Glasgow was toned down from phaseout to phase down of unabated coal power and inefficient fuel subsidies. When India argued that a phaseout was unfair to countries that were heavily dependent on coal power in the medium term, there was consternation among climate enthusiasts. Given this background, the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS) may be preparing the ground to make the fossil fuel elimination a part of national climate plans at COP27.
Some people ask why India, which agreed to the phasedown in Glasgow, would object to a non-proliferation treaty even when it offers a flexible timeline for a phasedown. The reason may have well to do with the fact that a call to end fossil fuels through a mandate in the UN has very different implications than when it is presented under the UN Climate Change Convention. A UN mandate of this nature is divorced from the legal responsibility of the polluting countries to reduce their emissions on the basis of responsibility, capability and national circumstances, as required by the Climate Change Convention. It also makes no provisions for technological and financial innovations that are necessary to ensure the transition.
A few months ago, a similar attempt had been made in the UN to treat the matter of climate change as that of global security and request the UN Security Council to resolve it. This was dropped because of the opposition of most of the global south, which saw in this an attempt to address climate change not through international cooperation and consensus but by imposing the wish of a select few on others.
Coal phasedown is not the only way to reduce global emissions. Coal is the mainstay of primary energy supply in many countries such as India and forms the basic and essential component of their energy system. On the other hand, a substantial share of rising global emissions is accounted for by the unsustainable levels of consumption of natural resources and lavish lifestyles led by the consumers in developed economies. Even in the developing economies, some sections of society are responsible for this lavish and irresponsible behaviour. A plan to drastically reduce coal fired power would in fact do very little to arrest the problem of climate change globally but may create insurmountable difficulties in securing the progress of developing economies towards key sustainable development goals. If the transition to a world of lower emissions has to be sustainable, it must also be just and equitable. It must ensure equal access to energy and secure energy supplies to all, not just to a few. While the developed economies have full access to alternative sources of energy, because of their strength in terms of technology and resources, the developing nations are handicapped. Therefore, a just transition needs to be built on the promise that green energy and a green future will be available to all. It is in this context that the call for Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE) issued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the UN Secretary-General, jointly in India recently, assumes importance. Consumers in countries that consume at an unsustainable pace and contribute to rising emissions have a much greater responsibility to clean up the planet and support the growth of green energy.
The world today is suffering from the adverse effects of climate change which have devastated homes and the livelihoods of large populations in various parts of the vulnerable world. Addressing these impacts and preparing the world for an uncertain future should be the priority. Unfortunately for the developing world, the coal question always takes away prime time in such conferences. It is high time that building climate-resilient infrastructure in the developing and growing countries is given as much importance as phasing down coal and investment in energy innovations and alternative technologies.
R.R. Rashmi is Distinguished Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi, and a former civil servant