THE ANNUAL CONFERENCE of Parties, or COP, that takes stock of climate change, is a vast jamboree. Every year, a global chorus of activists, governments, big companies, and multilateral institutions gather at a designated country and try to make progress on what is now one of the most pressing problems faced by the world.
This year, that place is Dubai where the gathering has, so far, produced indifferent results. In many ways, this is but to be expected. Containing climate change to an acceptable level is the holy grail of collective action among 195 countries in the world. So far, there is no sign that a binding and effective agreement has been achieved under the 28 COP meetings, beginning with the one in Berlin in 1995. To that extent, the one in Dubai is no different. The anger of many activists for the event in Dubai is more or less political.
In his remarks at COP28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for greater progress in ensuring greater access to climate finance for developing countries along with ensuring that developed countries eliminate their carbon footprint by 2050. These are reasonable demands but it is an open question whether they will be met in a reasonable timeframe.
The key issues that prevent effective coordination are a complicated mix of politics, technology, and financial requirements needed to cool down the warming planet. Politically, climate change mitigation is not an independent goal in any country. If anything, it is often mixed badly with other goals, such as imposing as much burden of mitigating climate change on other countries while preserving choice and freedom for oneself. Dubai is no different. For example, in the draft agreement on tripling renewable energy between 2030 signed by 118 countries, India was conspicuous by its absence. This was not another example of Indian obduracy. The fact is that India is much ahead of many peer countries in taking effective steps on the climate change front.
At the COP in Glasgow in 2021, Modi outlined India’s plan which had five ingredients. These were: installing 500GW of non-fossil energy capacity by 2030; meeting 50 per cent of energy requirements from renewable sources by 2030; reduction of total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030; reducing the carbon intensity of the economy by 45 per cent by 2030, over 2005 levels; achieving the target of net zero emissions by 2070.
India is well on its way to meeting these targets. The fourth goal, to reduce the energy intensity of its economy by 45 per cent by 2030, is particularly challenging for a country at India’s developmental stage. Emissions intensity measures the amount of emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP). But instead of appreciating India’s position, it has been accused of using this “lax” metric instead of the more demanding reduction in absolute emissions. Here, India has been accused of building more coal-fired plants instead of phasing out coal. This is plain dissimulation by activists who often end up giving voice to countries that would like India to phase out coal without considering its impact on its economy. The most interesting part of this criticism is that it comes from countries that have achieved high levels of living standards and probably aren’t required to grow fast, unlike India which still has a substantial number of low-income people. This is where politics gets mixed with what are purely economic problems.
India can, of course, achieve a much faster rate of reduction in absolute emissions. But that requires large sums of investment in low-carbon technologies. The estimates vary but some go up to as high as $5 trillion a year until 2030. These sums are necessary if the goal of limiting global average temperature increase to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels is to be met. This goal was set at the COP21 in Paris in 2015. In fact, a more ambitious goal, of limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels was also set at Paris. If the progress since then is anything to go by, these goals are likely to be missed.
Politically, climate change mitigation is not an independent goal in any country. If anything, it is often mixed badly with other goals, such as imposing as much burden of mitigating climate change on other countries while preserving choice and freedom for oneself
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The sums necessary for these purposes are unlikely to be found in the global economic environment today. For one, the world is fragmenting into geopolitical and geo-economic blocs. This is certain to make the world poorer and it will be harder to even invest $500 billion a year, let alone the trillions of dollars needed for investing in low-carbon technologies. By the time the money is found, the damage to imperilled island nations and coastlines being eroded by rising sea waters would have been done.
In this political climate, India is doing much better as compared to its peers. Yet, that does not prevent it from being rapped for doing less. The country is criticised for being the third-largest carbon emitter, one that spewed more than 7 per cent of global greenhouse emissions last year. But it is also a fact that in per capita terms, India emits just one-sixth of what the US, the world’s richest economy, does. India’s mitigation efforts are not just a set of goals set out on paper but are being actively pursued. Since 2014, its installed solar power capacity has gone up by 30 times from 2.6GW to 70.1GW. Wind energy capacity has gone up twice from 21GW to nearly 44GW. All these figures are for 2022. But none of this cut ice in debates where India’s use of coal to generate energy is thrown in its face.
Much of this has been achieved by India on its own without external financial help. If anything, India may not get any such help given that it is the fifth-largest economy in the world. In per capita terms, of course, India remains a low-income country. But when it comes to climate financing or even climate mitigation, per capita figures are discounted almost totally.
What more can India do? For one, without coming under any kind of external pressure, it should consider installing more nuclear power plants. These are expensive but when they are compared to the cost of worsening climate change, they are worth the money. For another, India is blessed with abundant forest cover. But it may be a good idea to double down on reforestation efforts and use of wastelands for economic purposes instead of diverting precious forested land. This is a complicated issue as many of the deeply forested areas are also sources of precious minerals and resources like coal. Instead of getting into activist-driven, high-decibel debates, it may be a good idea to critically examine the diversion of such land in cost-benefit terms. If anything, by now the Net Present Value (NPV) for deep forests and other natural resources, including biodiversity, has gone up considerably in the past decades.
Against this background, Dubai 2023 is not very different from other COPs: incremental progress, acrimonious debates on climate financing, the breast-beating of island nations, and of course, a hawk-like watch over national interests are all to be seen there. The activist berating of the host country as being “inappropriate” as a venue to host the COP is, of course, as silly as it can get. The Emirate has done as much as any other country concerned with climate change can do to highlight the issue even as it makes a contribution in a positive direction.