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Insights into Editorial: Does India have a right to burn fossil fuels?




There has been quite a lot of debate on India’s dependence on coal against the backdrop of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) meeting.

Despite the environment minister adopting a similar position on the eve of the COP26, the Government of India has, for the first time, made a commitment to achieve the net zero target by 2070.

The crux of the theoretical argument is that India needs to develop, and development requires energy.


Is India emitting higher carbon emissions?

  1. Since India has neither historically emitted nor currently emits carbon anywhere close to what the global North has, or does, in per capita terms, it has no reason to commit to declining dependence on coal, at least in the near future.
  2. If anything, the argument goes, it should ask for a higher and fairer share in the global carbon budget.
  3. There is no doubt that this carbon budget framework is an excellent tool to understand global injustice but to move from there to our ‘right to burn’ is a big leap.
  4. It is like arguing that since India was colonised, it has a right to do the same and stopping the country from doing that is injustice.
  5. For development, do the countries in the global South necessarily need to increase their share in the global carbon budget?
  6. Thankfully the answer is ‘no’ and it does not come at the cost of development, even in the limited sense as development is defined generally.


Types of injustice:

  1. Developed countries have usurped more than their fair share of the global carbon budget.
  2. Reaching net zero alone is not enough, as it is the cumulative emissions up to net zero that determine the temperatures that is reached.
  3. India’s cumulative and per capita current emissions are significantly low and far less than its fair share of global carbon budget.
  4. The framework of addressing global injustice in terms of a carbon budget is quite limiting in its scope in more ways than one.
  5. Such an injustice is not at the level of the nation-states alone; there is such injustice between the rich and the poor within nations and between humans and non-human species.
  6. A progressive position on justice would take these injustices into account instead of narrowly focusing on the framework of nation-states.
  7. Not only is it not primarily responsible, but the global South, especially its poor, will unduly bear the effect of climate change because of its tropical climate and high population density along the coastal lines.
  8. So, arguing for more coal is like shooting oneself in the foot. It is true that mitigation from the South alone will not make the difference required to stop this catastrophe but burning more coal will not necessarily solve the problem either.


The question of development:

  1. Infrastructure, or construction, essential for urbanisation and quality of living is responsible for two-fifths of global carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion and 25% of emissions overall.
  2. These emissions arise from energy intensive cement production and half of the steel produced which is used in construction, both having no substitutes.
  3. India’s emissions story cannot be bracketed with the top three. India is responsible for no more than 4.37% cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide since the pre-industrial era.
  4. Even though it is home to more than a sixth of humanity. India’s per capita emissions are less than half the world average, less than one-eighth of the U.S.’s, and have shown no dramatic increase like China’s post 2000.
  5. However, by 2030 India will ensure 50% of its energy will be sourced from renewable energy sources.
  6. India will reduce its carbon emissions until 2030 by a billion tonnes. India will also reduce its emissions intensity per unit of GDP by less than 45%.
  7. India would also install 500 Gigawatt of renewable energy by 2030, a 50 GW increase from its existing targets.
  8. With the announcement of a net zero emissions target for 2070 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow, India has joined a high-profile group of countries.
  9. Others with net zero goals include major emitters such as the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union with a 2050 target, and China aiming for 2060. A dozen countries besides the EU have a legal enactment towards the goal.


Way Forward:

Chalking out an independent, greener path to development may create conditions for such negotiations and give the South the moral high ground to force the North to come to the table, like South Africa did at Glasgow.

One of the ways in which this can be done is by making the global North pay for the energy transition in the South.

Net zero should be a pathway to real and transformative climate action and not greenwash.



The need of the hour is a global progressive agenda that does not pit the working class of the North against the South but the working people of the world as a whole resisting the global ruling elite in its aggressive and dangerous model of competitive emissions.

Carbon emissions need to be reduced now, and land-based climate solutions must center ‘food-first’ approaches that help achieve both zero emissions and zero hunger.

The only way to sustain the reduced emissions for whole world is governments taking conscious decisions to change the sources of energy like moving towards renewable energy sources.