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COP26 Wrap: Are India & China Really Responsible for the Watered-Down Pact?

India’s Environment Minister insisted on replacing the term “phase-out” for coal power with “phase-down”.

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The COP26 summit, one of the largest international events since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world, was held in Glasgow in the backdrop of a looming climate emergency. It began with a lot of promise and aplomb but ended in a whimper with a watered-down climate deal that left many countries unhappy.

It reminds me of my journey from London to Glasgow to attend COP26. Given the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to take action on “carbon, cars, cash and trees”, switching away from fossil fuel cars is an important step towards net-zero. So, what better way to go from London to Glasgow than in an electric car? My friend Surina Narula, founder of Global Sustainability Film Awards (GSFA), and I decided to drive to Glasgow in a Tesla, looking forward to a peaceful scenic drive of about seven to eight hours, with some coffee breaks. The journey from London to Glasgow is about 400 miles, which would mean the Tesla would need to be charged twice or thrice, with heating and music on while driving.

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The Irony of High Emissions From COP26

However, it did not take long for us to realise that this was not going to be a smooth ride. The sales of electric cars are growing rapidly, and it is estimated that one in 10 cars sold this year in the UK is electric. But when it was time for us to find a charging station, we got the first hint of how difficult this journey would turn out to be. At some stations, only one or two charging points were working, and they showed a charging time of up to three hours. Tesla superchargers were few and far between. Even at supercharger points, it took us over an hour each time, compared to the few minutes it takes at any petrol station. Unreliable charging points, we were told, are quite common.

We went through several moments of panic on our way and the delay caused due to the time spent looking for working charging points and charging the vehicle meant we had to take a break for the night. We reached Glasgow the next morning. At this rate, the government definitely has a lot of work to do if it wants to scrap all diesel cars by 2030.

Finally, once we reached the hotel in Glasgow, we parked the car and took a rickshaw to the venue – we were being environment-friendly. But according to an initial assessment report for the UK government, emissions during the COP26, which lasted two weeks, were expected to reach the equivalent of 102,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide, reported the BBC. The figure for COP26 is double the emissions in the last climate summit in Madrid in 2019. Despite concerns around COVID-19, the Glasgow COP attracted more than 39,000 participants, as opposed to 27,000 in Madrid in 2019.

According to the report, about 60% of COP26 emissions are estimated to have come from international flights. Many world leaders, including Johnson, flew in by private jets; there were also cargo aircraft that carried helicopters and vehicles for motorcades.

But in Glasgow, low-carbon public transport ferried people to and from the COP26 venues. While reusable water bottles and single-use cups were used, food for delegates and attendees was 40% plant-based and 60% vegetarian overall.

India's Voice Rang Loud 

Once at COP26, it was not difficult to figure out that India’s voice within the G77 nations and China was playing an important part in the final agreement of COP26. Given India’s significant role in climate change and action, it was a bit incongruous to notice a lack of Indian presence at the Climate Action’s Innovations zone of COP26. The four-day programme had a scheduled panel discussion by the Adani Group. But at the last minute, even that was dropped.

At the close of COP26, countries remained locked in discussions, conducting last-minute lobbying to cut emissions and stem global warming. The intense work, which went down to the wire, underlined the clash between the global North and the global South. It was clear that the global South is running out of patience. China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia remained a highly influential bloc during the final negotiations.

The President of COP26, Alok Sharma, called it a “collective moment in history”. But while some countries remained hopeful about the outcome of COP26, many developing and smaller nations were not optimistic. The fact remains that it will take decades for the measures being framed to have a tangible impact on temperatures on the ground. In the meantime, countries such as India have to figure out how to deal with the deadly heat and other extreme weather impacts. India has been continuously stressing the need for financial subsidies.

The major sticking points in this COP have been coal, fossil fuel and finance. About 190 nations have signed the ‘end of coal’ agreement. However, China, Australia and India have shied away from it.

China, which burns as much coal as the rest of the world, intends to keep adding coal capacity until 2025, and only then will “gradually” reduce it.

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India's Visible Resistance

The decision of Australia, the largest exporter of coal, not to join the methane pledge or the coal promise at COP26 has left environmentalists feeling that Australia is putting cash before climate. Despite the resistance, it is the first COP agreement where the word ‘coal’ has been included.

In India’s case, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has refreshed 2030 targets on renewable energy, for which India was commended by both Johnson and Sharma, and set a net-zero goal, there has been no mention of a domestic coal phase-out plan or a sign-up to a global one. India, the world's second-biggest importer of coal, will have to find ways in the long term to guarantee energy security at the right price.

The ending of the two weeks of intense negotiations became very dramatic, with India throwing the final spanner into what, until then, appeared to be a more or less done deal.

The very obvious intervention came from India in the final text of the Glasgow Climate Pact in the final hour in the plenary hall, with India’s Environment Minister, Bhupender Yadav, insisting on replacing the term “phase-out” for coal power by “phase-down”.

India’s visible resistance helped camouflage the role played by China, and even the U.S., in the weakened outcome.

In the final hours of the plenary, members were seen gathered in clusters, including China and the US. China reportedly said it would like the language on reducing coal to be similar to the text that it had agreed to in a joint statement with the U.S. earlier in the week. However, it was India that spelt out the last-minute change, which made it into the final text endorsed by almost 200 nations.

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'China & India Will Have to Explain Themselves'

There was visible unrest among several members. China, the U.S. and India are the three biggest polluters, and all three have now pledged to zero out their emissions in the decades ahead. Several countries, including Switzerland, complained that while India got its way, other delegations had been blocked from re-opening the text. Most developing nations, however, agree that India cannot be held responsible for the watered-down version. Instead, it is the developed nations who share the responsibility for the watered-down version because they resisted additional financial commitments to poor countries.

It all ended on a rather emotional note because of the last-minute fracas, wherein a teary-eyed Sharma said, “I apologise for the way this process has unfolded, and I am deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment. But as you have already noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package.”

When asked if China and India had let down the world, Sharma said, “China and India will have to explain themselves to the other countries.”

So, is the 1.5°C target alive? It’s hurt and injured, but it’s alive. Until 2022 Egypt.

(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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