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Net-zero commitment has been made. It must now be met

Somit Dasgupta writes: India’s bold announcements at COP26 must be backed by concrete action

Written by Somit Dasgupta |
Updated: November 16, 2021 7:37:39 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the "Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment" event at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit (AP)

The draft text of the just concluded COP26 is certainly a disappointment. However, one did not really have high expectations after seeing the statement which was issued after the G20 summit in Rome. The text of the G20 summit did not go beyond making a few perfunctory statements related to the Paris agreement and the development assistance of $ 100 billion per year from 2020 for five years. Regarding the target set in Paris, the text just mentioned that one remained committed to the Paris Agreement goal to hold the global average temperature increase well below 2o centigrade and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5o centigrade above pre-industrial levels. The point is: Could it be anything different once it was already agreed to in Paris in 2015? Similarly, on the issue of concessional finance of $ 100 billion a year, all that was mentioned was that the G20 countries recall and reaffirm the commitment made.

As was expected, the draft text of the COP26 meeting has again shown that the developed world is not too keen to address the issue of concessional finance of $ 100 billion per year which was to be made available by 2020. It also seems to be silent on the issue of the developed world reaching net-zero well before 2050 considering that their carbon emissions peaked long back. The text also mentions that fossil-fuel subsidies will be “phased out” though it seems that it has now been agreed to replace “phase out” by “phase down”, apparently at India’s insistence. A major gain, however, as far as India is concerned is that old carbon credits earned after 2013 under the Kyoto Protocol can be traded at least till 2025.

One needs to be practical on how to deal with this climate crisis. Instead of creating a brouhaha regarding who has emitted how much in the past, one needs to work out a solution on how to allocate the available carbon space henceforth. As far as the available space is concerned, there are several estimates which vary in quantum, though there is no disagreement across the board that available space is limited. To estimate the available space, one has to go through several calculations and there are vagaries to deal with at every stage.

To begin with, gross emissions calculations are not reliable because it is noted that some countries underreport their figures, which, in any case, are calculated on a normative basis. Thereafter, we need to calculate net emissions for which we need to deduct the emissions absorbed by forests and the oceans. Ballpark figures say that about 50 per cent of the emissions are absorbed, though there is no definite figure. Next, we need to know the quantitative relationship between carbon dioxide deposits in the atmosphere and the rise in temperature on the earth’s surface. Unfortunately, there are several estimates for this and to make things worse, some studies have even questioned the direction of causality, that is, whether carbon dioxide emissions cause temperatures to rise or is it the other way around.

To come back to the issue of available space, developed countries have already used up much of the space in the past and are at reasonably high levels of energy consumption, at least in per capita terms. In contrast, developing countries (including India) consume much less in per capita terms and it is only natural that they too get the opportunity to enhance their standard of living which would entail higher energy consumption.

On the issue of concessional finance of $ 100 billion per year, the calculations were made way back in 2009 during COP15 at Copenhagen. The requirement today, therefore, is much higher and estimated at $ 600 billion per year from 2020 to 2050 just to decarbonise the energy sector. The OECD, incidentally, states that about $ 80 billion was made available in 2019 and about $ 78 billion in 2018. These figures are contested since they include all types of transfers given to developing countries that have nothing to do with climate change.

It may be further added that all this money was mostly cornered by middle-income countries rather than the very poor African states and that they were used to finance “mitigation” projects rather than “adaptation” projects. The reason is that it is easier to do a cost-benefit analysis of mitigation projects. This adds credence to the theory that all these transfers were more commercial in nature rather than developmental. The short point is that the developed world reneged on its commitment to transfer $ 100 billion per year by 2020.

Notwithstanding the stand taken by developed countries, India has made a bold statement at COP26 which, inter-alia, states that we would become net-zero by 2070. Along with other targets like reducing emissions intensity by 45 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005, it was also announced that India would reduce absolute emissions by one billion tons between now and 2030. How this will be made possible is not clear, but perhaps, the intention is to undertake intensive forestation and/or adoption of technologies like carbon capture, utilisation and sequestration (CCUS). Things will get clearer once India revises its nationally determined contributions (NDC).

This bold action by India has to be backed by commensurate action on the ground and what we need is a sector by sector approach. Let’s take the case of solar generation. If we are looking at a massive expansion of solar generation, we can’t have states reopening power purchasing agreements, browbeating solar generators to back down, or withholding their payments for months altogether.

We also need to move with alacrity on areas, like, green hydrogen where we seem to have fallen silent after announcing the Hydrogen Mission a couple of months ago. Unless we take concrete action, we will only add to the list of 100 odd countries who have expressed the desire to go net-zero, but have done nothing beyond that.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 15, 2021 under the title ‘How to walk net-zero talk’. The writer is senior visiting fellow, ICRIER and former, member CEA

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