At the recently concluded United Nations conference of parties (COP26) summit on tackling climate change, India was widely criticised for its key role in weakening crucial language on coal phase-out, resulting in a watered-down version of the Glasgow Climate Pact. India had, however, started its COP26 journey on a relatively positive note, with the announcement of a 2070 net-zero target and an ambitious target of 500 GW in renewable energy generation by 2030. While its 2070 target met with scepticism for being too distant, most observers lauded India for its ambitious 2030 targets, given the country’s limited historical responsibility for current climate change. Yet India emerged from the meeting as the fall guy that slowed down climate action to the particular detriment of climate-vulnerable countries.
Why did India lobby for lowering the ambition for climate action when millions of Indians are already vulnerable and facing the consequences of climate change in their daily lives? Those in support of India’s stance argue that the text of the draft pact, as it stood, was unjust in that it only mentioned the phase-out of coal, without outright provisions for phasing out other fossil fuels like oil and gas. Given India’s large coal dependency, a quick transition out of coal, and massive decarbonisation, without adequate climate finance to support this would decimate the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.
In addition, the draft language on finance and loss and damage compensation by the rich nations, which account for the major share of historical carbon emissions and are hence responsible for current climate change, was weak. In that context, India’s action at COP26 may have kept alive the pressure for a stronger language and provision for climate finance and loss and damage funds in negotiations at COP27, to be held in Egypt in 2022.
India’s raison d’etre for watering down the Glasgow Climate Pact provisions was to ensure a smooth (but slow) transition to a low-carbon economy and save the livelihoods of people who are directly or indirectly dependent on coal. Yet, paradoxically, India’s action may well end up affecting the lives and livelihoods of the very people it hopes to protect due to the fast-evolving impacts of climate change. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) latest climate report is unequivocal in showing that the South Asia region has already experienced a range of devastating climate impacts. Climate change has affected the region’s farmers and urban residents alike, with greater impacts being felt by the more vulnerable, like the poor, women, landless, Dalit and tribal communities. Climate change, especially extreme events like floods and droughts, have affected food production and water security. High heat, combined with humidity, has had severe health consequences, including lowering labour productivity. Each one of these impacts is projected to become more severe with every bit of incremental warming.
Scientists are also clear that unless the world starts bending the emissions curve immediately and reduces emissions by at least 45% by 2030, we will not be on track to limit global temperatures rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Impacts are severe at the current 1.1 degrees Celsius, and the region’s vulnerable population is already at the frontline of living through a myriad climate impacts. As the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), India will need to reduce its emissions.
The moral and practical argument for faster mitigation by developed countries remains as valid as ever. However, it is also clear that India can no longer delay a quicker transition to a low-carbon development pathway given the urgent nature of the climate crisis. It is India’s poor and vulnerable people who are bearing the disproportionate burden of those impacts.
India is at a unique crossroads today. On the one hand, India is the third largest emitter of GHG (though per capita emissions are still very low), tempting it to align its fate with other high-emitting nations like the US and China. These high-emitting countries have also resisted, both historically as well as at this COP, any explicit references to phasing out fossil fuel use. However, India’s fate is more aligned with the most climate-vulnerable countries in the global south, for two reasons.
First, India is highly exposed to the hazards related to climate change owing to its location in the low latitude tropics. Second, given its status as a developing country with a long history of suffering due to colonisation, and high poverty levels, its socioeconomic vulnerability remains high, making it more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than other high-emitting but high-income countries.
COP26 provided India with an opportunity to align more closely with the interests of the climate-vulnerable countries, and use its position to push for stronger provisions on climate justice and climate finance for people of the Global South. They, like India, are facing the impacts of a climate crisis caused by the historical emissions of rich countries. Hopefully, India will take a more pro-active role at next year’s COP to push for a stronger mandate on climate justice, finance and loss and damage funds.
Aditi Mukherji is a social scientist and an IPCC author who works on climate change and adaptation. The views expressed are her own.