Combating climate change

By signing the order to rejoin the Paris accord on climate change soon after taking over, the new US President, Joe Biden, has reaffirmed his resolve to carry out the climate action plan he had outlined during his election campaign. The three key planks of his programme include expediting the pace of reduction in the carbon footprint of the US economy, reassuming leadership of the international combat against global warming, and spurring (read pressuring) developing countries to contribute more to the climate change mitigation effort. On the domestic front, Mr Biden proposes to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector by 2035 and achieve total carbon neutrality by 2050, simultaneously with the European Union.

This agenda, prima facie, is well-intentioned as it aims broadly at getting over the inertia in the climate change mitigation drive, which had set in after the US withdrawal from the Paris deal. But what the developing countries, and, more particularly, India, need to be wary of is the agenda to change the goal post as well as the yardstick for measuring progress on this field. The practice of pledging emission cuts in the shorter run would give way to committing a time frame for achieving carbon neutrality (zero emission level). This would suit the developed countries more than the developing ones because they can afford to retire their fossil fuel-based power plants — something which poorer countries can ill-afford to do in the near future.

Fortunately, New Delhi seems to have seen through this ploy and is ready to make pre-emptive moves to thwart it. An indication to this effect was available last week when Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar announced at a meeting organised by a media house that India would moot the concept of reserving a carbon space for developing nations in future negotiations on global warming. Significantly, it would also press for tougher short-term climate targets for the developed countries because of the ecological degradation caused by them through industrialisation. A protected carbon space would give the developing nations some breathing time to phase out fossil fuels even while keeping the rise in global mean temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius. India, being one of the few countries which are on track to meet some, if not all, of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the climate change mitigation effort, has the moral authority to speak on behalf of the developing nations. India has already curtailed the emissions intensity of its gross domestic product by 25 per cent, bringing the target of 33-35 per cent reduction by 2030 over 2005 levels well within reach. Its other major commitment of raising the share of non-fossil power to 40 per cent of electricity output might also be achieved or missed only marginally.

In contrast, most of the developed nations have failed to meet their NDC targets. The rich countries have reneged also on their commitments made at Copenhagen in 2009 regarding the transfer of patent-expired technology and financial aid worth $100 billion per year to help poor nations switch over to clean energy. Actual cumulated funding so far does not add up to even $40 billion. India would, therefore, be well-advised to raise these issues forcefully at the forthcoming 26th climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow in November, when fresh climate-related goals are scheduled to be discussed.


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