Flipping the context: Shifting the focus to developed country climate (in)action

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In the run up to as well as following the commencement of the much-awaited COP 26 negotiations, several countries have announced plans of becoming net zero emitters. Although a welcome move, it is important to highlight the inherent inequities between the developed and developing countries in terms of ambition and concrete action. Perhaps a closer look at some of the historical developments would help drive the point home.

First, it is interesting to note that Annex I G20 countries with net zero targets have already reached their peak emissions several years ago. A key takeaway from this is the gap between the peaking year and the terminal year chosen for fulfilling the targets. This, coupled with the argument of convincing developing countries to become net zero by 2050 (majority of whom are yet to reach their emissions peak) is against the spirit of Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR), is inequitable and unjust. A recent study by Ahluwalia and Patel (2021) reiterates this point and argues that the developed nations should bear a larger brunt of climate action.

Table 1: Emission Peaking Years for Annex 1 G20 Countries with NZE targets

CountryGHG Emissions Peaking YearNet Zero Target YearNumber of years in between peak and net zero
United Kingdom1979205071
European Union1979205071
Source: World Bank   

Second, while some countries such as UK and France have passed laws that support net zero transitions, others like EU and Canada have proposed legislations and still others have expressed interest in turning net zero by some terminal year such as Germany, US and Japan.  It is crucial that net zero targets of these countries necessarily feed into their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and/or Long-Term Strategy documents. This has clearly not been done so far in the case for countries like US, UK and Canada. Australia is one such Annex I country that has not only not declared any net zero targets, but has also not increased its level of ambition between the first and the new/updated pledges.

Third, if one takes into consideration outcomes of the previous international agreements on climate change one finds that the results have been rather disheartening. For instance, under the Kyoto Protocol, Annex I countries were assigned commitment periods (Period I: 2008-2012) for reducing their emissions by 5 percent (on an average) from the 1990 levels. However, the target was considered to be insufficient by critics. Following the Doha Amendment to the protocol, a second commitment period between 2013-2020 was initiated, with an emission reduction target of 18 percent from the 1990 levels by 2020. Unfortunately, even these targets were found to be inconsistent with the results of the IPCC report on limiting global temperature increase. Annex I countries who participated in the Kyoto Protocol and are also G20 members include – Australia, EU, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and UK. During the Doha Amendment, Japan joined the ranks of US, Canada and Turkey (non-participating countries), stating that the second commitment period did not include US and China who were responsible for occupying more than half of the carbon space. While Canada had initially ratified the protocol in 2002, it later withdrew its support on the grounds that penalties for non-achievement of targets were too stringent and would damage its economy. For the entire duration of the commitment period, the Doha amendment did not come into force. Similarly, as per the Cancun Agreement developed countries had committed to collectively mobilize $100 billion every year till 2020 to help developing countries address their developmental needs while combating climate change. However, these pledges have not materialized. In fact, the target year has now been pushed to 2023. The fact that developed countries have been unable to honour their previous commitments, makes one vary of whether they will be able to deliver on their newly released pledges and targets.

Against the previously set target of reducing emissions intensity of GDP by 33-35 percent from the 2005 levels by 2030, India has already registered a reduction of 28 percent. As per the recent announcements, the country has increased its ambition and aims to reduce emissions intensity by 45 percent by 2030. With regard to the earlier target of achieving 40 percent non fossil fuel-based power generation installed capacity by 2030, the country has already installed renewable capacity to the tune of 38.5 percent. Moreover, if one accounts for the renewable capacity that is currently under construction, the share of installed capacity exceeds 48 percent. The point being made here is that, India has gone above and beyond with regard to exceeding its earlier NDC targets, increasing its ambition levels and announcing plans of becoming a net zero emitter.

The country has been an ardent supporter of the argument of CBDR and as such should be provided some leeway given its developing country status. In particular, with limited availability of carbon space coupled with challenges of managing developmental goals, in an economy that is already resource strapped, it is unfair to have developed countries adhere to a timeline similar to the developing countries in becoming net zero and/ or carbon neutral. What is needed is for the developed countries to increase their ambition levels and turn carbon negative rather than focussing on carbon neutrality! It is high time that they vacate the available carbon space and make room for emerging economies to improve their standard of living.

Developing countries such as India are largely coal dependent economies. For them, a shift towards net zero would require not just a shift in energy sources to renewables but would also involve upskilling and absorption of the workforce currently engaged in coal-based activities. The aforementioned tasks would involve substantial costs which would require financing. Moreover, with the recent net zero targets, the country is likely to face the issue of loss of revenue for states dependent on fossil fuel industries such as Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh etc. Similarly, battery storage technologies to supplement the increasing variable renewable energy reliance is a prerequisite for India’s net zero energy transition. More so if the country is to realize it’s target of delivering 50 percent of its energy requirements via renewables by 2030.

With the recent announcement of the country turning net zero by 2070, no doubt India would be advancing towards realizing its targets at a war footing. Perhaps what the country should focus on now, is to complement its climate action with legal backing, thereby ascribing them greater credibility. As far as the developed countries are concerned, what we need is concrete actions in the short to medium term rather than mere declarations of long-term targets.  If emerging economies are to accelerate the process of climate change mitigation, the level of investments required to fund relevant technologies need to be gathered. For this, detailed assessments of their financial requirements need to be carried out and conveyed to the developed countries. Equity in carbon space should be the guiding force for all discussions on emission reduction.

(Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of ICRIER)

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