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April 29, 2021

Climate Diplomacy

By Nitin Desai



Global climate diplomacy must focus on accelerated 2030 goals rather than net-zero target dates Global climate diplomacy appears to be entering a new more activist phase. One can see this in the spate of announcements from countries pledging to observe a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, including China which has set 2060 as its net-zero goal and the announcements about enhanced emission reduction by 203 from USA, Europe, UK and Japan. The change in USA and China is crucial.

Global climate diplomacy operates on a 40:40:20 power structure. The first 40 includes the two big emitters, China and the USA, the G-2, who account for around 40 percent of global emissions and who have a de facto veto as their participation is a pre-condition for an effective agreement. The second 40 consists of about 18 countries, including India, each one of which accounts for 1 percent or more of the global carbon emissions. Collectively they are as significant a factor as the G-2 and large emitters in this group, like the EU and India, can exercise some individual influence on the outcome. The balance 20 consists of about 180 countries that are at the receiving end. An increasingly significant factor is the public influence of scientific organisations and global activist groups. An example of this is provided by the impact of the report released in 2018 by the IPCC on the impact of 1.5°C increase relative to a 2° C increase.

This report has ignited a debate on accelerating the pace of transition envisaged in the Paris agreement and led to a spate of announcements from countries pledging net-zero emissions by 2050. A net-zero target for the mid century will not keep us below the 1.50C increase if in the next thirty years we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the rates implied by current policies.

The gap in the greenhouse gas emissions that are likely in 2030 on the basis of current policies 59 giga (billion) tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GTCO2e), and what they need to be if the world is to be on a 1.50C track, 25GTCO2e, is very large. Focussing on net-zero by 2050 makes no sense if we do not accelerate emissions reductions and raise the targets for 2030 beyond what was promised at Paris. Last week President Biden announced that the USA, which accounts for 13 percent of GHG emissions, would reduce these by 50 percent by 2030.

A significant part of this promise depends on actions which have to be approved by the Congress which may not be as committed to global cooperation as Biden. The EU+UK which accounts for 9.3 percent of global emissions, has announced a 55 percent cut by 2030 and Japan, which accounts for 2.8 percent of emissions has announced a 46 percent cut. Hence several large developed countries which account for around 25 percent of current emissions have announced reduction targets for 2030 which bring them closer to what they should be doing for the 1.50C target. But is this enough?

Given their culpability for the accumulated emissions and the need to create carbon space for the developing countries should they not be doing more?. Assuming that USA, EU+UK and Japan, who have announced substantial reductions by 2030 and net-zero by 2050, fulfil their assumptions they will still use up over 150 GtCO2e of the available carbon space from now till 2050. By the time they reach net-zero emissions in 2050 they will have used up 976 GtCO2e of available carbon space, taking account of their emissions from pre-industrial times. On a similar basis, China, whose emissions in 2018 were equal to the sum of emissions from USA, EU+UK and Japan, will have used up 530 GtCO2e of available carbon space by its net-zero date of 2060.

India is not in the same league as China. Its carbon emissions are just a little more than one-quarter of China’s. Yet there will be pressure on India to announce a net-zero emissions target date. Assuming that its carbon emissions peak at 4.5 GtCO2e in 2040, which is about two-thirds above the current level, and reach a net-zero level by 2070, it will have occupied only 194 GtCO2e of carbon space. This difference in the expropriation of shared carbon space requires that the industrial nations should be aiming at net-zero emissions well before 2050 and leave room for the latecomers to the path of economic prosperity like India. India should agree to make an announcement about its target net-zero date only after a more thorough analysis of what is feasible since the few currently available studies on net-zero emissions by 2050 outline a path that is patently unrealistic.

The target date for net-zero emissions that India may present after careful study should be a conditional one assuming concessional finance and technology flows, as required from the perspective of climate justice, and an unconditional one which obviously will be later. An important issue that needs careful study is the time frame for India to phase out coal use for power generation. At the summit called by President Biden last week, China announced that it would start scaling down coal use starting in 2026 when its 15th Plan starts. India has new coal-based power plants due to come on stream by 2026-27. But it also has an ambitious programme for renewables which are expected to account for 40 per cent of power generation capacity by 2030.

Beyond 2030 the bulk of additional power demand can be met from new renewable investment. Assuming this and an accelerated drive to reduce coal consumption in steel and cement, India could consider giving a date for peaking of coal consumption soon after 2030 and a progressive decline after that. One must also note that these estimates and the commitments announced are based on emissions from production rather than consumption. A consumption-based analysis has shown that the consumption of the richest 10 per cent of the world’s people account for 48 per cent of the emissions and that half of these people are in the high-income countries and most of the remaining half in middle-income countries.

Hence the inter-country focus of the principle of common but differentiated responsibility can be connected with some basic principles of social justice between rich and poor individuals. India has implemented its commitments under the Paris Agreement, honourably and effectively. It must respond to the pressures it will face by insisting on the importance of the 2030 goals, the need to work out credible target dates for net-zero emissions after careful study, and the principles for climate justice which must be reflected in the nationally determined commitments and in the monitoring and evaluation of these.

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