A mixed bag


The Glasgow climate conference has delivered enough to keep the hope alive for meeting the 1.5°C climate goal.

Person holding a green plant

Climate change conferences follow a pattern: They never end on time; they make incremental progress, and there is always a last minute drama that captures the headlines, drowning the overall assessment of the meeting. The 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which ended on Saturday (a day later than the deadline) in Glasgow, followed the pattern to a tee, though with a little more drama than some of the previous meetings.

Over the next few days, we will read headlines (mainly from the western media) screaming murder on how India weakened the outcome of the COP26 by forcing a last minute amendment that diluted the language on ending coal power. We will also read headlines from India defending this amendment. But in these headlines, the consequential decisions made by this COP would be lost. However, there were significant decisions taken at Glasgow that must be dissected. But first, let’s look at the coal controversy.

In the conference's closing minutes, a dramatic process to change one paragraph of the final text unfolded, which was started by China, ended by India and decried by many countries. The paragraph relates to the phasing out of coal power. In the final version of the text, “phase-out” of coal power was mentioned. China was the first to ‘mildly’ object to this paragraph. Then India proposed a new version of the paragraph that replaced “phase-out” with “phase-down” to describe what needs to happen to coal use in power generation. While India's proposal was accepted, several countries, mainly Europeans and small vulnerable countries, objected to this change, including how it was done. Though the change in the word itself is a non-issue, how India got this done is certainly something that needs introspection.

Phase-down means progressively reducing the use of coal, whereas phase-out means altogether eliminating its use over a period of time. Thus, a country will have to first phase down its coal use and ultimately phase it out. So, phase-out is the end of phase-down. By changing the word to phase-down, India accepted that coal power must be reduced but did not agree to completely end it.

Now, this differentiation would be significant if there was a deadline to do so. But nowhere in the text, a timeline is mentioned to phase-out coal power. In fact, Germany, the poster child of coal phase-out, is planning to end coal power by 2038 – two decades in the future. So, this fight over phase-out and phase-down is immaterial without a deadline, at least for this decade. And, the way renewable plus storage technology is developing, it is inevitable that India will not install new coal power post-2030.

So, the question is what India gained by forcing this change? In my view, the answer is nothing. This change has no material bearing on India's energy future or its development trajectory. However, by projecting itself as a coal champion and forcing the modification at the last moment, India's image has undoubtedly taken a hit. What is even more galling is that China, which consumes 50 per cent of the world’s coal and had initiated the demand to change the paragraph, sat pretty while we exposed ourselves to the scorn of the western media. And, this has been the problem of India's negotiating strategy at the UNFCCC. We pick fights where there is none.

At COP26, we should have exposed the double standards of the developed countries on oil and gas and fought for the finance and technology needed to meet the ambitious target announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the beginning of the conference. We should have worked with vulnerable countries to advance the adaptation and loss and damage agenda, which the Prime Minister highlighted in his speech at Glasgow. But we did little of these and wasted our energy on issues that are good for rabble-rousing but have no bearing on India's development or green transition. Going ahead, India will have to seriously look at its negotiating strategy. Most importantly, India has to decide what it wants. I am not sure that we have really thought through the end game.

Coming back to the decisions taken at the COP, it is clear that many of them will shape how the world will develop in the future. First, there is a tacit acceptance that the temperature goal must be 1.5°C and not between 1.5°C and 2.0°C as per the Paris Agreement. This is good for India's poor, who will be most hit at higher temperatures.  

Second, all the major economies have now announced a net-zero target. If all the net-zero commitments are met, we are on course to limit warming to 1.8°C to 1.9°C. This is huge! For the first time in the history of climate negotiations, we have pledges on the table that can limit warming to less than 2.0°C. This means that we must now devise processes and mechanisms to hold countries accountable for their net-zero pledges.

Third, the rulebook of the Paris Agreement has been wrapped-up. After six years of haggling, a deal was finally struck on the market mechanism rules. These rules are stricter than the previous one and will allow countries like India to gain by selling carbon credits and bringing new technologies.

Fourth, while the developed countries have wriggled out of making any future commitment on climate finance, there are enough provisions in the final decision to hold them accountable for delivering US$ 100 billion in the near term and developing a roadmap for enhanced long-term climate finance.

Fifth, both adaptation and loss and damage have received much more attention than before. As a result, developed countries have agreed to double the adaptation finance and were forced to start a dialogue process for financing loss and damage.

Finally, the need to ensure just transitions while phasing down fossil fuels has received due recognition in the final decision. Accordingly, the decision includes providing finance and technology support to the developing countries for the just transition.

Overall, while the Glasgow climate conference has not delivered everything, it has provided enough to keep the hope alive for meeting the 1.5°C climate goal. As far as India is concerned, it has decided to decarbonise its economy and pursue green development by announcing a net-zero target for 2070 and an ambitious 2030 target. We must now develop a negotiating strategy to facilitate and get financial and technological support for these targets.



This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Heinrich Böll Stiftung will be excluded from any liability claims against copyright breaches, graphics, photographs/images, sound document and texts used in this publication. The author is solely responsible for the correctness, completeness and for the quality of information provided.