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UN Sec Gen’s ‘advice to India amounts to asking for its virtual de-industrialisation and stagnation’

Reject this inequitable climate proposal

By T. Jayaraman and Tejal Kanitkar

The UN Secretary General António Guterres’s call for India to give up coal immediately and reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 is a call to de-industrialise the country and abandon the population to a permanent low-development trap.

Piling on the pressure

In an extraordinary move in climate diplomacy, Mr. Guterres, delivering the Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture on August 28, at the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), in New Delhi, called on India to make no new investment in coal after 2020. Superficially framed as an even-handed appeal to all G20 nations, it was in reality a deliberate setting aside of the foundational principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that distinguish sharply between the responsibilities and commitments of developed countries vis-à-vis those of developing countries.

Delivered on Indian soil, at a premier climate institution in the country, and in the presence of India’s External Affairs Minister, the speech was an unmistakable ratcheting up of pressure on India in the climate arena. Subsequently, at a press conference at the UN Headquarters on September 9 while releasing the latest climate report of the World Meteorological Organization, he has upped the ante even further by asking China and India too to reduce their emissions by 45% by 2030, on a par with the developed countries. To add insult to injury, the advice was delivered after it was evident that India, with the lowest per capita income among the G-20, is undergoing the worst economic contraction among them currently, whose long-term impact is still very unclear.

What is the state of India’s climate action today? The UN Secretary General is quite aware that India, by any yardstick of reckoning, is punching at least on a par, if not above, its weight in responsibility and economic capacity in climate action.

India’s track record

Its renewable energy programme is ambitious while its energy efficiency programme is delivering, especially in the domestic consumption sector. India is one of the few countries with at least 2° Celsius warming compliant climate action, and one of a much smaller list of those currently on track to fulfilling their Paris Agreement commitments.

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Despite the accelerated economic growth of recent decades India’s annual emissions, at 0.5 tonnes per capita, are well below the global average of 1.3 tonnes, and also those of China, the United States and the European Union (EU), the three leading emitters in absolute terms, whose per capita emissions are higher than this average. In terms of cumulative emissions (which is what really counts in determining the extent of temperature increase), India’s contribution by 2017 was only 4% for a population of 1.3 billion, whereas the European Union, with a population of only 448 million, was responsible for 20%.

What then lies behind the UN chief’s call to India to set aside coal right away? The UNFCCC itself has reported that between 1990 and 2017, the developed nations (excluding Russia and east Europe) have reduced their annual emissions by only 1.3%. This amounts to practically nil, given the inevitable errors in such accounting. While talking about their phasing out of coal, which is often a decade or more into the future, the global North has obscured the reality of its continued dependence on oil and natural gas, both equally fossil fuels, with no timeline for their phaseout. While it is amply clear that their commitments into the future set the world on a path for almost 3°C warming, they have diverted attention by fuzzy talk of “carbon neutrality” by 2050, and the passage of resolutions declaring a climate emergency that amount to little more than moral posturing.

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A First World strategy

Alongside, large sections of First World environmentalist opinion, while unable to summon up the domestic political support required for climate action, have turned to pressure the developing countries to bear the brunt of climate mitigation. Their strategies include the demonising of coal mining and coal-based power generation, promoting claims that immediate climate mitigation would miraculously lower domestic inequalities and ensure climate adaptation, promoting Third World natural resources as active sites of mitigation and not adaptation, and promoting theories of “de-growth” or the neglect of industrial and agricultural productivity for the pursuit of climate change mitigation.

All of these are accompanied by increasing appeals to multilateral or First World financial and development institutions to force this agenda on to developing countries. A section of concerned youth in the developing countries, fearful of their futures, but unsensitised to global and international inequalities, have also helped promote the undifferentiated rhetoric of a climate emergency for which all are held equally responsible.

The current incumbent of the post of UN Secretary General has embraced this strategy almost fully. Tellingly, he has rarely, if indeed ever, called out the U.S. for its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, or called out the EU nations for their long-term reliance on gas and oil while hiding behind their overwhelming rhetorical focus on coal. He has been promoting the agenda of carbon neutrality by 2050 as national level goals applicable to all, without any reference to global and international equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in climate action. With this wilful neglect of the core principles of the climate convention, and extreme demands that the developing world cannot satisfy, the UN Secretary General risks unravelling even the Paris Accord, unsatisfactory as it is.

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Ending coal investment

What will be the consequences if India indeed ceases all coal investment from this very year? Currently, roughly 2 GW of coal-based generation is being decommissioned per year, which implies that by 2030, India will have only 184 GW of coal-based generation. But meeting the 2030 electricity consumption target of 1,580 to 1,660 units per person per year, based on the continuation or a slight increase of the current decadal growth rate, will require anywhere between 650 GW to 750 GW of renewable energy. Unlike the developed nations, India cannot substitute coal substantially by oil and gas and despite some wind potential, a huge part of this growth needs to come from solar. None of this will really drive industry, particularly manufacturing, since renewables at best can meet residential consumption and some part of the demand from the service sector. Currently, manufacturing growth powered by fossil fuel-based energy is itself a necessity, both technological and economic, for the transition to renewables.

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Whether providing 70% to 80% of all generation capacity is possible through renewables depends critically on technology development, including improvements in the efficiency of conversion of energy from its source into electricity, in the management of the corresponding electricity grids, as well as advance in storage technologies. But since the Copenhagen Accord signalled the end of legally binding commitments to emissions reduction by the developed countries, technology development in climate change mitigation technologies has registered a significant fall. Annual filing of patents shows a marked decline, ranging between 30% to 50% or more from 2009-10 to 2017, across all subsectors and across all developed countries, without exception. The exception is China which has a rising trend in select areas. Regrettably, India’s presence in such patenting hovers between minimal to near-vanishing, a persistent trend over decades that is very difficult to reverse any time soon.

Lacking production capacity in renewable energy technologies and their large-scale operation, deployment on this scale will expose India to increasing and severe dependence on external sources and supply chains. It is also a truism that renewables alongside coal will generate, directly and indirectly, far more employment than renewables alone. Apart from the impossibility of India implementing a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030, the advice by the UN Secretary General, taken all together, amounts to asking for the virtual de-industrialisation of India, and stagnation in a low-development trap for the vast majority of its population.

India must unanimously reject the UN Secretary General’s call and reiterate its long-standing commitment to an equitable response to the challenge of global warming.

T. Jayaraman is with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. Tejal Kanitkar is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru