Climate ambition

The approaching meeting of the United Nations’ Conference of Parties on Climate Change, which will be its 26th and so is generally abbreviated COP26, has been prefaced with considerable global pressure on India to take on greater climate ambition. Since the Paris Accords were signed in 2015, it has become clear that even if all the carbon emission commitments in the Accord are met, the goal of keeping the world’s average temperature from rising less than 1.5 degrees Celsius — or even 2 degrees — would likely still be out of reach. These are the bars set by scientists in.....
The approaching meeting of the United Nations’ Conference of Parties on Climate Change, which will be its 26th and so is generally abbreviated COP26, has been prefaced with considerable global pressure on India to take on greater climate ambition. Since the Paris Accords were signed in 2015, it has become clear that even if all the carbon emission commitments in the Accord are met, the goal of keeping the world’s average temperature from rising less than 1.5 degrees Celsius — or even 2 degrees — would likely still be out of reach. These are the bars set by scientists in the comprehensive assessment reports released periodically by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which argue that if they are exceeded then catastrophic consequences of climate change will be impossible to avoid. Given that India is now among the world’s largest emitters of carbon, it is not in itself surprising that there is pressure to take on additional responsibilities.

Indian officials would be right to ensure that all options for greater action from India are on the table, and subject to negotiations. The question, however, is whether committing to a “net zero” date, a time at which carbon emissions and carbon capture in the economy would balance each other out, is the best possible option. Several large emitters have committed to net zero dates, including the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. Yet the latter has set a date so far in the future, 2060, that it is arguably meaningless in terms of current policy. Chinese President Xi Jinping made his “net zero” announcement in September last year to the UN General Assembly, but in the first half of 2021 the country nevertheless announced plans to build 43 new coal-fired power plants, according to various news reports. 

 
If the goal is to minimise the amount of carbon emitted in total, and thus to reduce the pressure on climate systems, then it is not a date for carbon neutrality that matters so much as the trajectory: How soon countries reach there, and how aggressive are the stances they take in the coming decade. From this point of view, many of the net zero commitments that have been made are disappointing. India should insist on more time-bound ambition from larger, richer emitters —including China. In the past, India has made the error of standing at such negotiations with China, although the latter’s per capita income is five times higher than India’s and its per capita greenhouse gas emissions were always several times higher than India’s. According to the latest estimates from the Rhodium Group, China’s per capita emissions are now comparable to those of the rich countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at around 10 tonnes per capita, while India’s continue to be a fraction of that number. More than that, China has used a carbon-intensive path to growth, one that the OECD countries have taken before it — and in the process has closed that path off for countries like India. Thus, it must be counted as one of the countries with historic responsibility, not a developing country. 

Indian negotiators must ensure that the country’s commitment to greener development is reflected in its positions at COP26, and should not allow the dogmas or concerns of the past to hold them back from reaching a new agreement. But it should be one that prioritises immediate action by those with historic responsibility, not constructed around targets far in the future.


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