Photo: The Indian Express

COP26 begins: Amidst rhetoric, India surprises with “historic” net-zero target

Ambitious announcements from heads of states set the tone for the next two weeks in Glasgow. Will negotiators follow through with a workable deal now?

The highly anticipated 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 began on Monday. UN chief Antonio Guterres kick-started the event by urging nations to unite in this fight. “We must keep the goal of 1.5°C warming alive. This requires greater action on mitigation and immediate concrete steps to reduce global emissions by 45% by 2030. We need maximum ambition from all countries on all fronts to make COP26 a success,” he said. 

Biden, in his opening speech, called the coming decade a decisive one, “in which we have an opportunity to prove ourselves.” He encouraged every nation to sign on to the global methane pledge, calling it “the most simple and effective strategy we have to slow global warming in the near term.” COP26 president Alok Sharma called the summit “our last best hope” to keep 1.5°C within reach. 

India announces net-zero target

In his opening speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took observers by surprise, announcing a 2070 net-zero target for the country. Such a goal had been dismissed as unrealistic and counter-productive by most in his administration in the run up to the conference. 

The goal was part of five pledges (panchamrit) that Modi announced in his speech. The other four pledges were—India will up its non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030, it will meet 50% of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030, it will reduce the total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes between now and 2030, and it will reduce its economy’s carbon intensity to less than 45% by 2030. 

The announcements were welcomed by climate and industry experts. Ajay Mathur, director general, International Solar Alliance (ISA) said, “PM Modi cut through the rhetoric and delivered a big promise of climate action from India. Reducing 1 billion tonnes of emissions by 2030 and expanding non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 GW are enormous and transformative steps.”

According to Ulka Kelkar, WRI India, the five pledges are significantly more ambitious than India’s current NDC. “These will take the country on a low-carbon development pathway and give strong signals to every sector of industry and society. Meeting these targets will not be a simple matter and will require additional investments and supporting policies,” she said. 

Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), said, “India has clearly put the ball in the court of the developed world. This is real climate action. Now India demands US$ 1 trillion in climate finance as soon as possible, and will monitor not
just climate action but also climate finance.” 

The high-level ministerial segment that kicked off the COP however is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the issues on the table at COP go. Negotiators still have a host of unresolved issues to contend with as they jostle to tie up a host of unresolved issues which could determine the success of the Paris Agreement beyond topline announcements by heads of states.

Key issues yet to be resolved

1) Agreeing on common timeframes and the net-zero pressure

COP26 was supposed to focus on the next round of NDCs to be submitted by 2025. But in light of the recently released UN Emissions Gap Report, which stated the world is currently on the path to a 2.7°C rise in temperature, developed countries are pushing for another round of updated NDCs by 2023 to close the 1.5°C gap. The emissions gap report stated that net-zero pledges could reduce the temperature rise to 2.2°C. So far, 49 countries and the EU have made net-zero pledges. But most of these pledges lack detail and are not part of NDCs. 

The other issue is common timeframes. Currently, countries have to submit revised NDCs every five years, but the Paris Agreement does not specify the period of time that they should be set for. The EU, US and African countries are keen to set 5-year climate pledges. But other countries such as China and India are opposed to a single timeframe. 

2) Delivering on climate finance

This is a major sticking point between the developed and developing world. There was a major scramble by rich nations to make good their promise to deliver $100 billion a year from 2020 onwards, which they had made back in 2009. But even though the US and the EU announced their intentions to raise their contributions, the $100 billion figure is yet to be reached. 

The issue has been complicated even more by developed nations, who now say they will only be able to deliver on this promise by 2023, which is three years later than what was previously decided. 

For poorer countries, the issue goes beyond just delayed funds that could help them combat climate change. The Paris Agreement stated that the $100 billion was going to be the 2020 goal. Countries were to come up with a new figure for 2021-2025 with $100 billion as the floor. And it isn’t just about more money. Developing nations continue to push for a discussion on agreeing to a standard definition of climate finance. They have argued that the ambiguity surrounding its definition has meant developed nations largely overstate their share of climate finance. The fact that a lot of climate finance still comes in the form of loans and not grants is also something that adds to the indebtedness of developing nations. 

3) Addressing loss and damage

Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have been asking for loss and damage to be accounted for in climate negotiations for years. They have also been asking for a dedicated and organised structure that will help them address issues related to loss and damage as a result of extreme events such as frequent flooding and rising sea levels. Rich countries have argued that there is no need for a dedicated separate structure, as existing arrangements are enough to address the issues. A system called the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM) was established in 2013. In 2019, the Santiago Network was established as part of WIM to avert, minimise and address loss and damage. But developing countries are still calling for rapid operationalisation of this network ahead of the COP26.

4) Reaching an agreement on Article 6 of PA

This is another bone of contention between the developed and the developing world. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement calls for the creation of a new mechanism for carbon trading. Under this system, countries that are unable to make adequate emissions cuts can purchase “carbon credits” from countries that have gone beyond their emissions cut targets. This way, the country that is lagging behind can make up the emissions deficit, while the country that is going beyond the required capacity is financially compensated. 

The first problem is, developing countries such as India earned millions of carbon credits under the old clean development mechanism (CDM) devised as per the Kyoto Protocol. They would like these to be transferred to the new system. But this is being opposed by their richer counterparts. The other concern regarding Article 6 is that poorly designed market mechanisms can function as carbon offsetting schemes, and fail to actually reduce emissions overall. As a result, total GHG emissions may stay the same or even increase. This was the reason why mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol failed to deliver.     

Another contentious issue pertaining to Article 6 is related to adaptation funding. The Kyoto Protocol placed a levy on trades made under CDM. The revenue generated from this was to be put into an adaptation fund. The Paris Agreement also supports such a levy. However, developed nations are reluctant to divert any proceeds made from the market mechanism towards the adaptation fund. This funding is crucial for LDCs, especially, who have already begun facing climate impacts. If an agreement is not reached, the window to adapt is likely to close for LDCs and mitigation will be the only way forward.

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