Summarizing the COP 26 and its ramifications in the Indian Context

“The outcome of COP26 is a compromise. It is an important step, but not enough. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe”

~Antonio Guterres


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), signed in 1992, was the first treaty that formalized international cooperation in combating climate change. UNFCCC was initially extended through the Kyoto Protocol, which was superseded by the Paris Agreement completely in 2020. In its rounds, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly referred to as COP26 was the 26th edition of the annual feature of the UNFCCC.

COP26 concluded on 12th November. Happening after a stall of nearly 2 years due to the pandemic, the conference was expected to bring some major announcements and stringent commitments from the member nations, in a first after the 2015 summit. This was because the Paris Agreement expects the signees to revisit their policies to make sure they are compliant with the carbon neutrality and global temperature goals.

The 2015 Paris Agreement pledges countries to keep global average temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with a goal of 1.5°C. Crossing the 1.5°C thresholds, according to scientists, risks causing severely significant climate change repercussions on people, wildlife, and ecosystems.

The conference which was seemingly heading to a satisfactory conclusion to well-nigh all the parties witnessed a setback at the end, after the last-minute back out by China and India from coal mitigations. The first and third biggest carbon pollutant nations in the world asserted for the substitution of the phrase ‘phase-out’ of coal with the contentious phrase ‘phase-down of coal. Glasgow witnessed a diplomatic drama, shifting the limelight from developed to developing countries. India and China, who often share polarized views otherwise, could be seen backing each other in this debate.

The drama wasn’t unreasonable, as coal phase-out was the core step in the control of carbon emissions and keeping the global temperature below 1.5℃ than the pre-industrial levels. It is worth mentioning here that coal is the dirtiest energy source, responsible for 0.3℃ of every 1℃ temperature rise.

This relatively lower ambition jeopardizes especially the small island states at risk of submersion and angered the US and the European Union.

Initially, India nearly took the world by surprise, by declaring a net-zero emissions target by 2070. While this 2070 goal might seem a long shot, it is a quite ambitious target for a country like India, which is reliant on fossil fuels for 70% of its energy production. The west called for mixed reactions. While it was criticized in particular for not abiding by the 2050 goals of carbon neutrality, many critics hailed it as a bold move and noted how India first time openly committed to carbon phase-down at an international platform.

Moreover, PM Modi promised 500 gigawatts (GW) of non-fossil electricity capacity, raising the share of renewables in the energy mix to 50 percent, a reduction of emissions by one billion tons, and emissions intensity of GDP by 45 percent by 2030. 


The Indian POV

India is still dependent on coal for 50% of its power supply. Using the verbatim ‘phase-out’ would have implied a more immediate action rather than a gradual transition and that India is straight on its way to cut-down coal. However, this really can’t be the case.

An estimated 13-20 million workers in India depend on coal assets for their livelihoods, raising the need for a transition plan and financial support. Besides, India has many coal-based projects lined up which would bring tonnes of investments to the country. Phase-out of coal could have reversed the investor sentiment.

“The term phase-out of coal would mean putting a complete stop on coal, while phase-down would mean the proportion of coal in total energy would reduce… India being a developing country, phase-down can also be relative in the sense that the percentage of coal in the overall mix will go down but the absolute use of coal in terms of power generation and other industrial activity may rise”

~ Bhupender Yadav

Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of India

Indian sources have also stated that India wished to emphasize that the ‘phase out’ should be done in accordance with national conditions and with support for the poorest and most vulnerable. This will allow for a just transition from coal to alternative types of energy. 

India was also critical of the coal-targeting and leaving other fossil fuels relatively unchecked. This criticism has been ratified by multiple experts, as coal is the major source of energy for developing nations. As per a report by the Centre for Global Development, it is established that developed countries have been responsible for 79 Percent of Historical Carbon Emissions. The USA is still the hugest consumer of crude oil in the world, accounting for about 20.3% of the world’s consumption. Nonetheless, oil didn’t make it to the discussion at the forum.

Despite this energy mix, India is still responsible for cut-down its carbon emissions. The 2070 goal made should be the latest in nature and not the earliest. 

A report by Deloitte India calls for immediate action on climate change, failing which risks a loss of $35 Trillion to the Indian economy. The report pins down the five most vulnerable industries at the risk of losing the most from climate change financially. These industries —services (government and private), manufacturing, retail and tourism, construction, and transport — currently account for more than 80 percent of India’s GDP.
On the brighter side, it has suggested India’s potential to tank up to $11 trillion if it realizes its potential of how it can contribute to the world’s efforts of carbon neutrality, terming it ‘export decarbonization’.


The way forward

When the Indian government introduced the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008, India achieved the distinction of being among the first ten countries to have a consolidated scheme and action plan against climate change. However, 13 years later, the build-up on the 8-step framework that NAPCC was based on hasn’t been very delivering. Unfortunately, the data in the public domain hardly contains how these policies have fared so far. With more than a decade passed, the government requires a revisit to the framework, and special emphasis should be laid on fitting accountability. Thankfully, India already has the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change making up for the calls for institutionalized control of climate change in India.

Shifting consumer patterns to a more environmentally conscious approach can be a great policy tool. Carbon and plastic intensive consumer habits need to be discouraged. The government also needs to intervene in the employment patterns to accommodate those reliant on the carbon, plastic and subsidiary industries. It can constitute a commission or research that recommends policy changes on climate change.

India doesn’t need a root-new law or a new framework, all it needs is to stringently follow and implement the pre-existing ones in place. The corporate governance laws have largely evolved to contain environment as part of the ESG reporting. The transition to clean energy requires collaborative and sustained cooperation which can only be achieved by efforts on the community as well as individual efforts.

Akshat is currently majoring in economics from Delhi Technological University. With interests in policy, behaviour, game theory and diplomacy, he wants to direct this zeal as a means to solve the intricacies of the real world.