COP28 would be remembered as the one in which India lost the moral high ground in fighting climate crisis – in spite of winning (along with other developing countries) the fight to (a) dilute exclusive focus on coal and (b) inclusion of oil and gas (in the fossil fuel mix) for "transition away".

It had a head-start in 2018, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the UNEP Champion of the Earth award in recognition "for his bold environmental leadership on the global stage. Under Modi's leadership, India pledged to eliminate all single-use plastics in the country by 2022. Prime Minister Modi also supports and champions the International Solar Alliance, a global partnership to scale up solar energy".

This was a first for India (the award was instituted in 2005). The Prime Minister put a firm (policy) foot forward at COP26 (Glasgow) in 2021 by presenting his "Panchamrit" (five nectar elements) philosophy for India: (i) "reach" non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030 (ii) "meet" 50% energy needs from renewable energy by 2030 (iii) "reduce" carbon emissions by one billion ton by 2030 (iv) "reduce" carbon intensity by less than 45% and (v) "achieve" net-zero emission by 2070. These became India's "Long-Term Low-Carbon Development Strategy" or India's Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in 2022.

The moral high ground came in 2023, when the Prime Minister declared "Vasudhaiva kutumbakam" or "One Earth, One Family, One Future" as the theme of G20 presidentship – advocating, among others, "living in harmony" with nature "in a sustainable, holistic, responsible, and inclusive manner". The G20 declaration sought to "urgently accelerate" climate actions "by strengthening the full and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement" (COP21 of 2015 that brought in equity and Common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) which is what the NDC is all about but India had played a passive role at COP21).

These gains dissipated at COP28 in Dubai.

At COP28, India skipped four key commitments:

  • 118 countries pledged to decarbonise the energy sector (which contributes the most to greenhouse gas emissions) by tripling green energy capacity by 2030.

  • More than 150 countries, including the two major methane emitters Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

  • 22 countries pledged to tripling nuclear energy by 2050 (from 2020 level).

  • 63 countries pledged to cut down cooling-related emissions (which includes refrigeration for food, medicine and air conditioning etc).

Instead, India's focus shifted to pushing (a) "green credit initiative" which the Prime Minister co-hosted (b) equity and CBDR (of COP21) which India’s chief negotiator Naresh Pal Gangwar (MoEFCC official) disclosed and (c) better clarity on "climate finance" which Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav flagged.

The big win came on December 13, 2023 when the final declaration was announced. It diluted the COP26 commitment to “phase-down of coal power” (to which India was a party by replacing it with “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power” and “drive the transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems” (notice the changed terminology and missing “phase-down” or “phase-out” for oil and gas).

India, along with China and other developing countries, had fought for this change at COP26 and COP27 also and finally won. The fight was legitimate because COP26 had singled out coal. The changes are two: (a) "coal" was replaced with "unabated coal" (burning coal without carbon capture and storage technology) and (b) "fossil fuels" (not just coal, but oil and gas) was included for the first time in three decades of climate negotiations for action.

What did India gain at COP28?

India's problem (and that of China and many developing ones) is its overdependence on coal, which provided 49% of installed energy capacity and lignite another 1.6% as on December 13, 2023 (Ministry of Power), although coal-based thermal power accounts for 74.6% of the electricity generated in 2021-22 (P) as per the Energy Statistics of 2023). Developed countries (the US and Europe) have already shifted away from coal to oil and gas and the OPEC countries (oil producers) are on their side. Their clout was evident at COP28: (i) "a record" and "unprecedented" number of lobbyists/delegates for oil and gas companies ("at least 2,456") were in attendance and (ii) "leaked letters" showed the OPEC asked its members to "proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, i.e., fossil fuels, rather than emissions".

The three fossil fuels together account for about 80% global energy and 66% electrical generation, contributing nearly 60% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions responsible for climate change (as per the UNEP). Hence, including oil and gas is critical in fighting climate crisis.

At COP26, India had agreed to "phase-down" coal (not "phase-out" to which it had strongly opposed). "Phase-down" coal meant India not commissioning new coal mines and coal-based projects (power, steel, cement etc.) – not abandoning coal altogether. "Phase-out" coal was meant for "unabated coal".

India should have committed to both – for the following six reasons.

One, going by India's NDC commitment of 2022, its goal for 2030 is to raise renewable energy (RES) production to 500 GW. Since its current installed RES capacity (including hydro but excluding nuclear energy), as on December 12, 2023, is 173.6 GW – achieving 500 GW would mean tripling it. The NDC has already declared to triple nuclear power by 2030.

So, why did India skip these pledges at COP28 is not clear.

Two, not many know that India is energy surplus at least since FY11 – that is, India generates far more "net" electricity ("available" from all sources) than its "net" sale to consumers (domestic as well foreign) – and the surplus is growing by the day.

The Energy Statistics of 2011 and 2023 show, the "net" surplus went up consistently from 1,94,537 GWHr in FY11 to 2,99,006 GWHr in FY22 (P) – up to which data is available – without accounting for T&D losses. If T&D losses are added – "net" surplus is mostly zero, except for -1 GWHr in FY18 and +7,596 GWHr in FY22 (P). The T&D losses are declining but at a slow pace – from 24% of "net" available in FY11 to 20% in FY22 (P).

The two above points raise a question: Does India really need coal?

Three, India faces severe air pollution and deaths caused by it. Here are three sobering data:

  • India has 39 of world's 50 most polluted cities in the world – as per the fifth World Air Quality Report – with both New Delhi and Delhi-NCR figuring at the top 10.

  • A 2022 Lancet report said, 93% of India had higher air pollution level than the WHO’s 2021 norms for safe air.

  • A 2020 Lancet's report had said air pollution killed 1.67 million in India in 2019, accounting for 17·8% of the country’s total deaths.

Four, the Global Carbon Project's 2023 study (presented at COP28) says India was one of the top four polluters of CO2 (from fossil fuel) in 2022: China (31%), the US (14%), India (8%) and the EU27 (7%) – together contributing 59%. In 2023, it said, India would see 8.2% rise in fossil emission over 2022 – maximum growth in the world and twice that of China's 4%, while both the U.S. and EU would decrease theirs by 3% and 7%, respectively. These are in line with long-term trends.

Five, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy's Environmental Performance Index of 2022 (EPI) placed India the last – 180th among 180 countries – as the "least sustainable" country from environment view.

Six, the RBI's "Report on currency and finance: Towards a greener cleaner India" of May 2023 says: "India ranked high (seventh) in the list of most affected countries in terms of exposure and vulnerability to climate risk events as per the Global Climate Risk Index 2021" It listed a sharp rise in "extreme weather events" in 2022 "on 314 of 365 days…which claimed 3,026 lives, affected 1.96 million hectares of crop area and 4,23,249 houses, and killed over 69,899 animals"); it estimates that "up to 4.5 per cent of India's GDP could be at risk by 2030 owing to lost labour hours from extreme heat and humidity conditions".

Both the recent cyclone hitting Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and the air pollution hitting Delhi NCR and other parts of north India in October-November 20203 ("new normal") have been attributed to climate change by experts (including Prof Gufran Beig, founder director of SAFAR-India).

All the six reasons call for India to take urgent steps to fight climate crisis – including "phasing-out" unabated coal.

Instead, India is doing the exact opposite.

India pushing coal

India stepped up coal use in the past few years – before and after its COP26 commitment:

Coal Minister Pralhad Joshi has repeatedly said (in 2023) that India plans to export coal by 2025-26.

Union Cabinet extended contract period for coal mining up to 30 years in April 2022 to ramp up coal production (which will run to 2052 – beyond 2030).

Coal was opened for “commercial mining” in a big way in 2020; Coal India auctioned 91 new coal mines (with 221 MT per annum capacity) until 2023 and announced further auctioning of 39 new mines for FY25 on November 13, 2023 – raising the numbers from 23 mines decided in May 2023.

Coal India is re-opening old mines ("discontinued/abandoned mines") to raise coal production on revenue-sharing basis or outsourcing; 30 mines have been identified so far and are in various stages of being outsourced – as per the Coal Ministry’s annual report of 2022-23.

On June 7, 2023, the CCEA cleared outlay of ₹2,980 crore for coal exploration, which involves private sector participation.

The RBI's November 2023 bulletin says, India has lined up "sanctioned" coal-fired power projects of 28.2 GW (which are under various phases of construction).

States like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh are riding on coal wave to set up new coal-based power plants – while private players are shifting to green – says a news report of November 2023.

India is now considering easing the lending norms for new coal-fired power plants to meet demand.

In fact, Washington Post flagged many of these in February 2023 to say, “in India, ‘phase down’ of coal actually means rapid expansion of mining”. The COP28 merely provides a convenient excuse now. The big question that arises is: Is India pushing coal to serve private interests?

India harming environment and forests

India hasn't pledged to protect forests (carbon sinks) or reduce deforestation and skirted it in its NDC stating that (i) India has “24.62%” forest cover and (b) “among the lowest rates of gross deforestation in the world”. But this undermines the National Forest Policy of 1988 which set the target of forest cover at “minimum of one-third of the total land area” – 33.3% of land.

Like coal, India has stepped on diverting forest land in the name of faster growth.

The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act of 2023, passed in August 2023, significantly dilutes (i) definition of forests and (ii) gives wholesale exemptions from forest clearances – up to 100 km in international borders, up to 10 hectare for security-related infrastructure, up to 5 hectare in naxal-affected areas, land not notified as forest in government records on or after 1980 (which is substantial, forcing the Supreme Court to assign “dictionary meaning” to forests and ask states to notify additional areas as forests in the Godavarman case) and declaring “forestry” to include zoos and wildlife safaris etc.

Similarly, India has withdrawn legal protects against environment.

The Jan Vishwas (Amendment) Act of 2023 passed in August 2023 significantly weakens protections provided under three laws – the Environment Protection Act of 1986, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1986 and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974. These amendments de-criminalised pollution and handed over adjudicating powers to government servants (away from independent authorities and courts).

There is more.

Methane is ‘no-go’ area

India has been coy about methane, second only to fossil fuel in causing climate crisis. From COP26 to COP28 and its NDC, it refuses to commit to reduce methane without explaining why. It is commonly understood that agriculture and livestock – the main producers of methane – are politically sensitive areas and would call for overhauling existing policies for which the necessary bandwidth may be missing.

No time to waste

Climate negotiations began with the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 (when the UNFCCC holding COP negotiations was adopted). Conflicts of interests – developed economies primarily responsible for global warming and now developing ones like India and China are doing the same as they grow – has dogged the negotiations then.

The victory for India (and China and other developing countries) at COP28 is, however, a double whammy. The climate crisis is here and now.

The UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2023, released on November 20, 2023, said the world breached the 1.5°C threshold (above pre-industrial levels) on 86 days (more than one-fourth days) this year. Washington Post reported that July 4, 2023 was the hottest day on Earth since at least 1979, with the global average temperature reaching 62.9 degree Fahrenheit (17.18 degree Celsius), quoting the data of US National Centers for Environmental Prediction; it added, some scientists believed July 4, 2023 might have been one of the hottest days on Earth in about 125,000 years.

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