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Glasgow Climate Pact is a mixed bag of modest achievements and disappointed expectations

Shyam Saran writes: As in the past, the can has been kicked down the road, except that the climate road is fast approaching a dead-end

Written by Shyam Saran |
Updated: November 16, 2021 7:37:47 am
Delegates gather inside the venue on another day at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 3, 2021. (AP)

The Glasgow Climate Pact was adopted on Saturday and, as was to be expected, it is a mixed bag of modest achievements and disappointed expectations. The achievements include a tacit consensus on a target of keeping global temperature rise down to 1.5 degrees Celsius with the Paris Agreement target of 2 degrees being no longer appropriate to the scale of the climate emergency. The notional target of 2 degrees remains but the international discourse is now firmly anchored in the more ambitious target and this is a plus.

The Pact is the first clear recognition of the need to transition away from fossil fuels, though the focus was on giving up coal-based power altogether. The focus on coal has the downside of not addressing other fossil fuels like oil and gas but a small window has opened. The original draft had contained a pledge to “phase out” coal. India introduced an amendment at the last moment to replace this phrase with “phase down” and this played negatively with both the advanced as well as a large constituency of developing countries. This was one big “disappointment”. This amendment reportedly came as a result of consultations among India, China, the UK and the US. The phrase “phase down” figures in the US-China Joint Declaration on Climate Change, announced on November 10. As the largest producer and consumer of coal and coal-based thermal power, it is understandable that China would prefer a gradual reduction rather than total elimination. India may have had similar concerns. However, it was inept diplomacy for India to move the amendment and carry the can rather than let the Chinese bell the cat. The stigma will stick and was unnecessary.

There is a welcome recognition of the importance of Adaptation and there is a commitment to double the current finance available for this to developing countries. Since this amount is currently only $15 billion, doubling will mean $ 30 billion. This remains grossly inadequate. According to UNEP, adaptation costs for developing countries are currently estimated at $70 billion annually and will rise to an estimated $130-300 billion annually by 2030. A start is being made in formulating an adaptation plan and this puts the issue firmly on the Climate agenda, balancing the overwhelming focus hitherto on mitigation.

On the critical issue of finance, there was little to cheer about. The Paris Agreement target of $100 billion per annum between 2005-2020 was never met with the shortfall being more than half, according to some calculations. There is now a renewed commitment to delivering on this pledge in the 2020-2025 period and there is a promise of an enhanced flow thereafter. But in a post-pandemic global economic slowdown, it is unlikely these promises will be met. In any event, it is unlikely that India will get even a small slice of the pie. As long as ambitious targets are not matched by adequate financing, they will remain ephemeral.

The same applies to the issue of compensation for loss and damage for developing countries who have suffered as a result of climate change for which they have not been responsible. This is now part of the multilateral discourse and the US has agreed that it should be examined in working groups. That is a step forward but is unlikely to translate into a meaningful flow of funds any time soon.

Two important plurilateral outcomes could potentially develop into more substantial measures. The most important is an agreement among 100 countries to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. India is not a part of this group. Methane is a significant greenhouse gas with a much higher temperature forcing quality than carbon — 28 to 34 times more — but stays in the atmosphere for a shorter duration. Cutting methane emissions, which is generated mainly by livestock, is certainly useful but there is a much bigger methane emergency around the corner as the earth’s permafrost areas in Siberia, Greenland and the Arctic littoral begin to melt due to global warming that has already taken place and will continue to take place in the coming years. There are warnings that as the permafrost melts huge volumes of carbon and methane would be generated by the plant and animal material that has lain trapped under the ice.

Another group of 100 countries has agreed to begin to reverse deforestation by 2030. Since the group includes Brazil and Indonesia, which have large areas of forests that are being ravaged by legal and illegal logging, there is hope that there will be progress in expanding one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet. However, Brazil has subsequently clarified that its commitment only applies to illegal logging. India did not join the group due to concerns over a clause on possible trade measures related to forest products.

Going beyond the Glasgow summit and climate change, a noteworthy development was the US-China Joint Declaration on Climate Change. This was a departure for China, which had held that bilateral cooperation on climate change could not be insulated from other aspects of their relations. The November 10 declaration implies a shift in China’s hardline position but this may be related to creating a favourable backdrop to the forthcoming Biden-Xi virtual summit on November 15. US Climate Envoy John Kerry and China’s seasoned climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, were seen consulting with each other frequently on the sidelines of the conference. It appears both countries are moving towards a less confrontational, more cooperative relationship overall. This will have geopolitical implications, including for India, which may find its room for manoeuvre shrinking.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had taken centrestage at Glasgow during its early high-level segment thanks to the absence of Xi Jinping. His commitment to achieving net-zero carbon by 2070 compared favourably with China’s target date of 2060. His announcements of enhanced targets for renewable energy were also welcomed. However, the favourable image wore thin by the end of the conference with India declining to join the initiatives on methane and deforestation. India’s ill-considered amendment on the phasing out of coal pushed the positives of its position off the radar.

How should one assess the Glasgow outcome? There is more ambition in the intent to tackle climate change but little to show in terms of concrete actions. These have been deferred to future deliberations. Enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are expected to be announced at a meeting next year and further deliberations are planned on the other pledges related to Adaptation and Finance. There are no compliance procedures, only “name and shame” to encourage delivery on targets. As in the past, the can has been kicked down the road, except that the climate road is fast approaching a dead-end. What provides a glimmer of light is the incredible and passionate advocacy of urgent action by young people across the world. This is putting enormous pressure on governments and leaders and if sustained, may become irresistible.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 15, 2021 under the title ‘Why Glasglow disappoints’. The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and Senior Fellow, CPR. He was PM’s Special Special Envoy and India’s Chief Negotiator for Climate Change 2007-10

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