Ahead of COP 26: Need to Restore the Salience of Climate Justice
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

Ahead of the climate change COP 26 meeting in Glasgow in November 2021, some difficult questions have emerged. Is the international community serious about tackling climate change?

The chair designate of COP26, Alok Sharma, a British MP, in his letter to the UNFCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) parties, listed the key issues before the COP26 as “keeping 1.5°C alive” and taking forward the “climate financing” by “meeting the $100bn goal”. [1]

It may be recalled that the Paris climate change agreement of 2015 had bound the signatory countries (the entire world!) to work towards limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. It also talked about “global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and achieving “a climate neutral world by mid-century.” [2] There is a real risk that these agreed goals will be missed unless some drastic action is taken now. The responsibility lies with those countries that are primarily responsible for historic emissions.

What has been the record since the countries signed the Paris Agreement? A recent UNEP report finds that “despite increased climate ambitions and net-zero commitments, governments still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.” [3]

The International Panel of Climate change (IPCC) reports and various other scientific assessments are pointing to a bleak future ahead as climate change takes hold on the planet. By most accounts, the world will miss the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming and is headed for 2 degrees warming by mid century. There are extreme scenarios which warn of crossing 5 degrees Celsius by 2100 if fossil fuel consumption continues to increase at the present rate.

The enhanced frequency of extreme climatic events has taken everyone by surprise. Every day one hears of devastating hurricanes, melting ice sheets, forest fires, eroding coasts, furious floods, and other natural phenomena that disrupt that wreak large scale destruction. They seem to be linked to climate change, at least in public perception. Even the most developed countries with resources are helpless against the fury of nature. The economic cost of hurricanes, floods, sea-level rise runs into trillions of dollars. Human costs can not even be counted. The human cost is intangible.

There is a great deal of concern about climate change but not enough consensus on how to deal with it.

The Paris Climate change agreement of 2015 exhorted the countries to come up with the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)put out by various countries donot go far enough to contain global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The popular refrain in recent times has been to persuade the countries to decarbonise their economies and make a transition to net zero emissions by 2050. This will require massive efforts to decarbonise the economy by shifting away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy.

The burden of decarbonisation is disproportionate. The developing countries who contribute relatively less to emissions as a percentage of total emissions are being asked to bear the burden of decarbonisation in the same way as the developed countries who have historically been the main emitters of CO2 because of early industrialisation.

Kyoto Protocol (agreed in 1997; it came into force in 2005) had envisaged a reduction of emissions by industrialised nations by 5 percent below the 1990 level by 2012. The Doha Amendment to Kyoto Protocol (which unfortunately never came into force) envisaged a second reduction period ending in 2020 by which the emissions levels should have come by 20 per cent below the 1990 levels. Instead, what do we have? The global emissions went up to 36 billion tonnes by 2018 as compared to the 22 billion tonnes level in 1990! The US, China and EU account for two-thirds of annual emissions.

In the initial days of the climate change debate, the principles of polluter pay, historical responsibility and differential treatment were common. The idea was that the main responsibility for the reduction of the emissions was to be borne by the developed countries who had taken advantage of cheap fuels to fuel their growth and occupied most of the available carbon space.

But no one talks about climate justice anymore. In that sense Paris agreement was regressive. This is unfortunate.

In the COP26 many solutions will be talked about. Countries will be exhorted to cut their emissions and introduce new technologies like electric vehicles and carbon sequestration. But no one will talk about the need for curbing rampant materialism which is at the root of climate change. No one will say that poor people have a right to decent living which will be denied if they are denied access to affordable energy. Removing poverty is the best way to reduce pollution. Pious promises will be made. But if the past is any guide, these promises are worth little.

The promise of making USD100 billion available annually for helping the developing countries remains on paper. There is no help on the technology front either.

Purely economic and technological solutions may not work because the developing countries cannot afford the costs of energy transition.

Moreover, the top polluters like the US, EU and China are not doing enough to contain the emissions. They should fast track decarbonisation and allow the lesser polluters more time to decarbonise. That will be fair and just.


India has been coming under pressure to declare a net-zero emission date as soon as possible. Net-zero emissions by 2050 will be detrimental to India’s growth and development. Some people argue that India should achieve the target of net zero by 2070. The government has not yet declared its intentions, and rightly so. India cannot compromise its growth. That does not mean that India is not concerned about climate change.

For a country like India with a population of 1.4 billion, and a high dependence on fossil fuels and coal, the consequences for rapid, unplanned decarbonization will be very serious. The shift to cleaner energy, though underway, is not going to be easy. The clean technologies which the west talks about are also going to be expensive. India will have to rely upon the west for these technologies. One kind of dependence will be replaced by another kind.

India has a good record of tackling emissions. Our annual per capita emission at 1.8 tonnesis lower than the world average of 4.4 tonnes and below that of the US 15.2 tonnes, China 7.4 tonnes, Japan 8.7 tonnes, Korea 15.2 tonnes and EU 6.4 tonnes.[4] While we have an ambitious target of generating 450 GW of energy by clean sources by 2030, the share of clean and renewables is still below 10 per cent. India also has high taxes on coal and petroleum consumption. It has spearheaded an international solar alliance also.

Way Forward

Yes, the world needs to tackle climate change urgently. But it has to be done in a fair and just manner. How?

  • The metric for climate action should be per capita emission and not total emission.
  • At the COP26 meeting, the principle of climate justice, historic responsibility, differential treatment should be reemphasised explicitly,
  • The obligations about climate finance and clean technologies should be fulfilled.
  • Nuclear energy, which is the cleanest form of energy, should be endorsed explicitly at COP 26.
  • The developed, industrialised countries should take far more ambitious, binding targets on net zero.
  • The developing countries should be helped to take adaptability measures. Their growth ambitions should be taken on board.
  • India should not come under pressure from the west to declare a net-zero target date at this stage. However, it should continue to develop its renewable energy sector. It should step up the nuclear energy programme as well.

[1] https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/210921_Pre-COP_letter_CPD_final.pdf
[2] https://unfccc.int/news/governments-fossil-fuel-production-plans-dangerously-out-of-sync-with-paris-limits
[3] https://unfccc.int/news/governments-fossil-fuel-production-plans-dangerously-out-of-sync-with-paris-limits
[4] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: https://twitter.com/cop26/status/1227946220213211136

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