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Insights into Editorial: Reject this inequitable climate proposal

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Context:

In an extraordinary move in climate diplomacy, UN Secretary General, delivering the Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture, at the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), in New Delhi, called on India to make no new investment in coal after 2020.

The UN Secretary General call for India to give up coal immediately and reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 is a call to de-industrialise the country and abandon the population to a permanent low-development trap.

The Paris Agreement:

  1. The Paris Agreement builds upon the Convention and for the first time brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.
  2. The Paris Agreement central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  3. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change.
  4. The Paris Agreement requires all Parties to put forward their best efforts through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead. This includes requirements that all Parties report regularly on their emissions and on their implementation efforts.
  5. The Agreement also prescribes that Parties shall communicate their NDCs every 5 years and provide information necessary for clarity and transparency.
  6. The Paris Agreement reaffirms the obligations of developed countries to support the efforts of developing country Parties to build clean, climate-resilient futures, while for the first time encouraging voluntary contributions by other Parties.
  7. The agreement also provides that the Financial Mechanism of the Convention, including the Green Climate Fund (GCF), shall serve the Agreement.

India’s track record in renewable energy programme:

  1. Its renewable energy programme is ambitious while its energy efficiency programme is delivering, especially in the domestic consumption sector.
  2. India is one of the few countries with at least 2° Celsius warming compliant climate action, and one of a much smaller list of those currently on track to fulfilling their Paris Agreement commitments.
  3. Despite the accelerated economic growth of recent decades India’s annual emissions, at 0.5 tonnes per capita, are well below the global average of 1.3 tonnes, and also those of China, the United States and the European Union (EU), the three leading emitters in absolute terms, whose per capita emissions are higher than this average.
  4. In terms of cumulative emissions (which is what really counts in determining the extent of temperature increase), India’s contribution by 2017 was only 4% for a population of 1.3 billion, whereas the European Union, with a population of only 448 million, was responsible for 20%.
  5. While talking about their phasing out of coal, which is often a decade or more into the future, the global North has obscured the reality of its continued dependence on oil and natural gas, both equally fossil fuels, with no timeline for their phaseout.
  6. While it is amply clear that their commitments into the future set the world on a path for almost 3°C warming, they have diverted attention by fuzzy talk of “carbon neutrality” by 2050, and the passage of resolutions declaring a climate emergency that amount to little more than moral posturing.

First World environmentalist opinion in brunt of climate mitigation:

  1. Large sections of First World environmentalist opinion, while unable to summon up the domestic political support required for climate action, have turned to pressure the developing countries to bear the brunt of climate mitigation.
  2. Their strategies include the demonising of coal mining and coal-based power generation, promoting claims that immediate climate mitigation would miraculously lower domestic inequalities and ensure climate adaptation, promoting Third World natural resources as active sites of mitigation and not adaptation.
  3. Promoting theories of “de-growth” or the neglect of industrial and agricultural productivity for the pursuit of climate change mitigation.
  4. All of these are accompanied by increasing appeals to multilateral or First World financial and development institutions to force this agenda on to developing countries.
  5. A section of concerned youth in the developing countries, fearful of their futures, but unsensitised to global and international inequalities, have also helped promote the undifferentiated rhetoric of a climate emergency for which all are held equally responsible.
  6. The UNFCCC itself has reported that between 1990 and 2017, the developed nations (excluding Russia and east Europe) have reduced their annual emissions by only 1.3%. This amounts to practically nil, given the inevitable errors in such accounting.

What will be the consequences if India indeed ceases all coal investment from this very year?

  1. Currently, roughly 2 GW of coal-based generation is being decommissioned per year, which implies that by 2030, India will have only 184 GW of coal-based generation.
  2. But meeting the 2030 electricity consumption target of 1,580 to 1,660 units per person per year, based on the continuation or a slight increase of the current decadal growth rate, will require anywhere between 650 GW to 750 GW of renewable energy.
  3. Unlike the developed nations, India cannot substitute coal substantially by oil and gas and despite some wind potential, a huge part of this growth needs to come from solar.
  4. None of this will really drive industry, particularly manufacturing, since renewables at best can meet residential consumption and some part of the demand from the service sector.
  5. Currently, manufacturing growth powered by fossil fuel-based energy is itself a necessity, both technological and economic, for the transition to renewables.
  6. Whether providing 70% to 80% of all generation capacity is possible through renewables depends critically on technology development, including improvements in the efficiency of conversion of energy from its source into electricity, in the management of the corresponding electricity grids, as well as advance in storage technologies.

Conclusion:

Lacking production capacity in renewable energy technologies and their large-scale operation, deployment on this scale will expose India to increasing and severe dependence on external sources and supply chains.

It is also a truism that renewables alongside coal will generate, directly and indirectly, far more employment than renewables alone.

Apart from the impossibility of India implementing a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030, the advice by the UN Secretary General, taken all together, amounts to asking for the virtual de-industrialisation of India, and stagnation in a low-development trap for the vast majority of its population.

India must unanimously reject the UN Secretary General’s call and reiterate its long-standing commitment to an equitable response to the challenge of global warming.