By Tilak K. Doshi
November 29, 2021
As the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came to an end last week, India became something of a whipping boy in the mass media, accused of being the “last-minute spoiler” by forcing the summit communique to water down language on “phasing out” coal to merely “phasing down.” It also earned notoriety by demanding $1 trillion of public cash for itself before the end of the decade, to be put up by the wealthy countries if they want India to steeply cut emissions in order to avoid the “climate crisis.” Let’s put some context to the hyperbole that has marked much of the popular press coverage as the summit wound down.
Net Zero by 2070
In early 2021, speculation abounded in the Indian media about the government’s plans for a net-zero goal. One report indicated 2047 – the centenary of India’s independence from British colonial rule – as a possible target. With China announcing a net-zero target of 2060, and other large emitters such as the EU, U.S., Japan, and South Korea having made their net-zero-by-2050 pledges, India saw a slow but steady ratcheting of diplomatic pressure to announce a net-zero target in the months leading up to the global climate summit in Glasgow.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry visited India twice in 2021, in April and September. Kerry’s visits focused on raising climate ambitions ahead of COP26. He proposed collaboration on a 2030 agenda for clean and green technologies and met ministers, policymakers, and business and civil society leaders. During his interactions, Kerry tried to pressure India to agree to a net-zero-by-2050 target. In September, Kerry attended the launch of the U.S.–India Climate Action and Finance Mobilization Dialogue as part of the U.S.–India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership, announced by President Biden and Prime Minister Modi during the Leaders’ Summit on Climate 2021. During his visit, Kerry continued to attempt to raise climate ambitions ahead of COP26.
COP26 president Alok Sharma had also visited India for discussions with ministry, industry, and civil society leaders in August 2021. During Modi’s visit to Washington in late September 2021, the White House released a joint statement of the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (called “the Quad”), discussing the aim of achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050.
Just before the start of COP26, India’s environment secretary R.P. Gupta rejected calls for his country to announce a net-zero carbon emissions target. “It is how much carbon you are going to put in the atmosphere before reaching net-zero that is more important,” he said. Earlier, at an April meeting organized by the International Energy Agency to discuss climate ambitions, India’s power minister Raj Kumar Singh called the “net zero by 2050” mantra pushed by the EU and the U.S. “pie in the sky . . . you have 800 million people who don’t have access to electricity. You can’t say that they have to go to net zero, they have the right to develop, they want to build skyscrapers and have a higher standard of living, you can’t stop it.”