November 21, 2021

COP26 Under-achieves, India Disorganised


COP26 came to a close on November 13, nearly 24 hours after originally scheduled. The final plenary got stuck at the final draft of the COP statement, now named Glasgow Climate Pact. For hours, viewers of the live telecast saw country after country making final remarks on the text, most expressing serious disappointments, but saying they would accept the statement in the spirit of compromise and so that they would not have to leave Glasgow empty-handed. The last minute hold up was reportedly due to India not agreeing to one particular part of the statement referring to a “phase out” of coal-based electricity. The many speeches in the plenary were intended to both mark time enabling consultations on the sidelines to solve the problem, and to mount pressure on India.


This was reminiscent of the 2011 COP in Durban, except that there environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan was surrounded on the plenary floor itself by numerous delegates of both developed and developing countries all pressurising her, who finally accepted what was later perceived not to be a crucial amendment. This time in Glasgow, the lead negotiators of the US, EU, China and India went into a huddle in a private room off the floor, and returned announcing an agreed amended text which was read out to the waiting delegates of over 200 countries. The announcement was greeted by much booing and grumbling, and several expressions of disagreement and frustration at both the decision and the non-transparency with which it was arrived at, but ultimately approved. COP 26 president, UK environment minister Alok Sharma, choked back tears and apologised for these developments, saying India and China would have to explain themselves to those countries most vulnerable to climate change.  It was believed that China, with some reports speaking of South Africa too, also supported India’s stance even though Gabon, acting as the spokesperson for the G77+China grouping, had earlier accepted the draft as a compromise.

The final statement changed the draft text wording from “phase out” to “phase down,” meaning gradually reduce rather than completely eliminate coal-based power. The final version also added wording to provide for India’s subsidies for LPG to poorer households. After this, India was almost universally blamed as the villain of the summit by the western press, international NGOs and many leading delegates, although scientists and energy experts were somewhat more understanding. Even this compromise phrase was suggested by the US, as recently admitted by Indian officials.

It is at least partly true that India was being made a scapegoat for everybody’s disappointment and frustrations, although the real culprit was the utter failure of COP 26 to address the key issues before it, namely arriving at an agreement to keep temperature rise to 1.5C and to provide substantial funding particularly to most vulnerable nations and least developed countries to assist them in coping with the impacts of climate change and making the necessary transition to a decarbonised economy and society. At the same time the Indian government has a lot to answer for, to the international community of nations, to key interlocutors it has been dealing with the past few months, as well as to its own people, for the total mess it made of its negotiating position, preparations for and participation at COP26. India completely failed to capitalise and build on its quite ambitious and bold revised emission reduction commitments made in the PM’s speech, and in fact squandered the advantage that it may have brought by subsequently withdrawing these commitments for unknown reasons. India may well have caused serious damage to its international reputation and to its soft power. Further, by the prime minister taking one position, and senior ministers and officials taking another, India may also been seen either as very poorly prepared or as acting in bad faith.

All this is being made worse by officials continuing to propagate a different narrative from that conveyed in the PM’s speech. Even at the time of writing, officials are giving interviews stating that the PM was only making general statements in Glasgow about India’s future emission reduction plans, mainly aimed at domestic action, and not in the framework of the international negotiations and the required NDC which, the officials say, may or may not even be filed! So where does all this leave India, its relationship with the international emissions control regime and related negotiations? A lot of hard work and damage control lies ahead, besides much essential homework to clarify India’s policy regarding a decarbonisation pathway.


This drama by and around India, however momentous it may seem here in India, was marginal to the actual outcomes in Glasgow. Even a brief examination would show that the poor outcomes at Glasgow were driven strongly by the developed countries and also by the fossil-fuel especially oil and gas industries.

Developed countries did not make any emission reduction pledges at Glasgow beyond what they had made in the run-up to it. The US, Japan, Australia, Canada and other developed countries made only long-term pledges for net-zero by 2050 which, all experts agree, mean little without sharp increase in short-term emission cuts by 2030 which have not been forthcoming. The Biden administration in the US, on rejoining the Paris Agreement, stepped up its earlier NDC pledge from 26-28 per cent cut from 2005 levels to 50 per cent by 2030, complete non-fossil fuel electricity by 2035, and net zero emissions by 2050, still however lagging about 27 per cent behind EU commitments of around 55 per cent by 2030 but from a 1990 baseline.

As seen by the minor drop in projected temperature rise by 2030 from 2.7C before the COP to 2.4C after it, Glasgow represents status quo rather than a major move forwards in the global fight against climate change, certainly as far as the developed countries are concerned.

The Glasgow Pact now calls for all countries to submit further revised and enhanced emission reduction targets by next year. Will another year make much difference? Can such annual increments be kept up for long? Will any of these further cuts come from developed countries and, if so, how much? Another glaring reality must also somehow be acknowledged, namely China’s huge annual emissions and its share of the carbon budget going forward. It looks increasingly unlikely that the 1.5C target can be met without China sharply stepping up its emissions cuts.

Much has been made of the very fact that the Glasgow Pact for the first time clearly signals the end of the road for coal power. Yet, it is also noticeable that no such “phasing down” or “phasing out” have been mentioned for oil or natural gas, a transitional fuel available mostly to the US and EU between oil or coal and renewable energy.  The pact only speaks of “inefficient subsidies” for fossil fuels but does not say what “efficient subsidies” would look like or why they would not be applicable for coal. Several observers pointed to the fact that the fossil fuel industries collectively had the largest presence in Glasgow, outnumbering even Brazil’s outsize 450 delegates!

Much was also made of the several multilateral agreements by different countries, such as on stopping deforestation by 2030 and cutting methane emissions by 2030. Yet, it is not at all clear whether these measures be in addition to the NDCs put forward by the countries involved or contribute to existing NDCs? While India was not part of either of these, India was part of multilateral deals on lowering the use of coal power linked to financial assistance for the same, again presumably another avenue in pursuit of its overall target for lowering the presence of coal in its energy basket.


On financial assistance to developing countries too, the developed countries have once again reneged on their earlier promises, and gotten away with it. The figure of 100 billion dollars per year was first agreed upon in the Paris Agreement, continually postponed, and has now been formally put off to 2023 at Glasgow. A major victory has been claimed by now including a promise by developed countries to double finances for adaptation from the 2019 levels of 20 billion dollars annually to 40 billion dollars per year, again by 2025. Even this is, of course, only within the overall 100 billion dollars total assistance pledged and which is yet to see the light of day. Much effort was put in by island states and least developed countries to put in stronger text regarding financing for loss and damage, that is, compensation for damage already caused due to impacts of climate change.

The time and energy invested in the cause of loss and damage may well prove not to be as fruitful as its proponents believe. However “politically incorrect” it may be, two uncomfortable yet undeniable facts must be faced realistically. The developed countries, particularly the US, will probably never recognise loss and damage as payments towards reparations or compensation, since they view this as imposing a legal liability with unforeseeable costs, and will therefore push loss and damage into the category of assistance for adaptation etc.  Further, all financial assistance from developed countries ultimately comes out of the same kitty which they are already reneging on and trying to dilute by including loans, funds from the World Bank etc into this category. Unfortunately, as happened in Glasgow, developed countries use their financial clout to keep dangling the issue of finances in order to stave off pressure on emission reductions.

International climate negotiations are mired in a flawed process and emissions control architecture of its own making. The strategy of voluntary pledges first enunciated in Copenhagen and enshrined in the Paris Agreement now clearly stands exposed as a failure, and as handing over the levers of power to developed countries. A new regime combining top-down and bottom-up strategies is now required.