China, India fully justified to phase down coal
The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change concluded in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov 13 without making any significant movement forward. There is no clarity on whether limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius remains a practical objective. One participant probably put it right: Though there was no progress, the process isn't dead yet. We're hanging in there.
The Western countries can never be the villains. The United States had always been the crack in the West's armor. But when former president Barack Obama brought it into the Paris Agreement, all was forgotten. And now that incumbent US President Joe Biden has signed up again to climate multilateralism－not to mention an "ambitious greening" of his own country－it appears the developed world is truly the good guy.
But there have to be some bad guys out there－so the two most populous countries, which very often give voice to the concerns of the Global South, are being cited as the villains of COP 26. In fact, China and India have been the quintessential fall guys－on the issue of coal.
It would be pertinent to highlight a point that environmentalists and climate scientists have reiterated innumerable times in the past, especially since the signing of the Paris Agreement. The global community shredded the multilateral climate framework put in place under the Kyoto Protocol with one objective in view－getting the US to sign up to a global deal to limit global warming and combat climate change. That defenestrated some of the key principles enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol: the issue of historical responsibility; and arising from that the concept of shared but differentiated responsibilities.
Thus, after the Paris Agreement, it was no more the case that the developed world, which had emitted an overwhelmingly high volume of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and thus hogged the "emissions space", would alone have binding responsibilities. At the end of COP 26, there was a blowback against that kind of thinking.
The agreement reached between the world's two largest emitters, China and the US, midway through the conference on Nov 10 to speedily actualize the objectives of the Paris Agreement by working together to keep global warming to well below 2 C seemed to be a game changer. But soon many realized the deal was big on intentions but woefully short on details, as practically all multilateral negotiations have been till date, from Rio de Janeiro in 1992 through Copenhagen in 2009 and Paris in 2015 to Glasgow in 2021.
Moreover, a statement made by US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is significant. "If we've reached the goal that we have set for 30 percent reduction of methane by 2030," Kerry said, "that is the equivalent of taking all the cars in the world, all of the trucks in the world, all of the airplanes in the world, all ships in the world, down to zero. That's how big it is. That's what's on the table."
But since carbon dioxide accounts for 76 percent of all GHGs, and methane just 16 percent, Kerry's statement is somewhat incomprehensible. It also provokes the suspicion that the commitment of the Global North, especially the US, to making structural changes to its economies in an attempt to drastically reduce, if not altogether stop, the use of petroleum is suspect.
That brings us to the issue of coal, the other fossil fuel which the world must stop using to achieve net-zero emissions, say, by 2050, a commitment made by the US and the European Union.
In the run-up to Glasgow, after a global coal crisis hit many countries, China, which along with India, suffered power outages, released a statement saying there should be better balance between development and emissions reduction. This rethink would include a recalibration of its plans for the use of thermal power.
Although India did not issue any categorical statement, the facts speak for themselves. The country generates 70 percent of its electricity from coal, a large percentage of which it imports. A quick shift away from coal is not possible if industrial production has to grow at a decent clip. A shift to renewable energy will take time. As for China, it generates more than 55 percent of its electricity from coal.
Glib talk aside, the imperatives of growth in general and industrial production in particular preclude the two countries' sudden shift to renewable energy.
It is in this context that we must see India's and China's insistence that the wording of the coal clause in the Glasgow document be changed. To recapitulate, the confabulations in Glasgow had to go into extra time because the text of the final declaration had not been agreed by Nov 12, the scheduled last day. In the final statement, the phrase "phase out" coal was replaced by "phase down" coal.
Both countries have been criticized for bringing about this turnaround, though many agree that this is a matter of semantics, as coal is on its way out anyway. Yet COP 26 President Alok Sharma said the world is on its way to "consigning coal to history", so India and China would have to explain to climate-vulnerable countries why they did what they did. But the fact is, India and China are also climate-vulnerable countries.
The point that Western Europe and the US are not getting though, is that India, China and a host of other countries can't casually drop coal because it is central not only to their development paradigm but also the way lives are lived there.
For the West, it's the same with petroleum. Phasing out petroleum would be a big step toward achieving carbon neutrality. Will that be an acceptable objective for the US, when the world congregates in Egypt in November 2022 for COP 27?
The author is a veteran journalist based in Kolkata, India.