Why did India object so fiercely to coal ‘phase out’ in Cop26 agreement?

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Britain’s President for Cop26 Alok Sharma  makes his concluding remarks during the UN climate change conference in Glasgow on 13 November  (Getty Images)
Britain’s President for Cop26 Alok Sharma makes his concluding remarks during the UN climate change conference in Glasgow on 13 November (Getty Images)

The Cop26 summit in Glasgow ended with a last-minute controversy over the language on coal, with India facing criticism for watering down the deal.

After negotiations between 197 parties at the summit last week, India’s environment minister sought a final amendment in the last plenary, asking that the words “phase out” of coal be replaced with “phase down”.

Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels and is responsible for a majority of greenhouse gas emissions. The Glasgow pact was the first time any kind of curbs for fossil fuels were added to a United Nations climate pact, and was celebrated as a major step forward.

India’s last-moment change, however, was seen as a weakening of the crucial pledge and drew severe criticism from the international community.

But experts have pointed out that the Glasgow pact failed to address concerns about global equity. They have said that the deal put more pressure on developing countries such as India and China, and left out loopholes for developed countries for coal usage.

Top officials of India’s foreign affairs ministry have now pushed back against the criticism that New Delhi must be blamed for the change in language. They have pointed out that the addition of “phase down” was done in consensus with other countries.

Here are the details of what transpired on the last day of the Glasgow summit from India’s perspective, and the reasons behind the alleged watering down of the language on coal.

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While it looked like India, a largely coal-dependent country, was trying to water down the language on curbing the dirty fossil fuel, officials have said that objections were raised in consensus with several other countries.

“It is not a term that India either proposed or tabled [for the first time]. It [term ‘phase down’] was already there [in circulation], we simply accepted it,” an official from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said.

“We were opposing it also on behalf of BASIC [a group of newly-industrialised countries such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China] countries for which India holds the chair,” the official said.

They added that countries such as Australia, Venezuela and Indonesia also had similar concerns.

In fact, the term “phase down” was a “compromised language agreed upon” by countries, including China and the US, but “media made it sound” like India came up with the suggestion, the official said. The phrase came from a bilateral deal between the US and China that was announced on the sidelines of the Glasgow climate summit.

According to the ministry official, India had suggested the addition of “providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable countries in line with national circumstances” to the final text, instead of “phase down”.

“Our main concern was national circumstance,” the official said, “and we introduced the amendment”.

The official added that India had raised concerns over previous drafts as well when a full “phase out” of coal was mentioned.

What are the implications of the coal language in the Glasgow pact?

While the change in language on coal in the Glasgow pact was widely reported as lenient, the Indian official said that the previous text was unfair to developing countries.

The pact mentions curbing use of coal but does not mention other fossil fuels like natural gas, which developed countries such as the US depend upon.

Coal, the most dangerous of all fossil fuels for the environment, largely remains a cheap energy source for developing countries like India. But New Delhi has time and again said that India’s historical emissions and per capita emissions are minuscule in comparison to the developed world, and it wants to exercise its right to development and to bringing its population out of poverty.

Explaining why India viewed the phrase “phase out” of coal as discriminatory, the MEA official said: “The gap between coal and other fossil fuels is a fundamental problem.”

“The UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] refers to mitigation of greenhouse gases and does not single out coal,” the official said. “For that matter, all fossil fuels are bad. But developed countries have moved on to other fossil fuels – such as oil and gas – and are no longer dependent on coal. Whereas developing countries are still in the process of transitioning.”

“But there has been very little discussion on the other fossil fuels,” the official added.

India has maintained that it wants to take on economy-wide emissions reduction targets and not sectoral since the country is still trying to expand its electricity network, especially to rural, vulnerable areas.

India faces the same problem in fossil fuel subsidies. While long discussions were held during the Cop26 summit to end subsidies to fossil fuel companies, India provides subsidies on LPG cylinders in order to move its rural population away from biomass and other more harmful fuels.

Is India facing unfair backlash?

Indian officials have said that the language in the pact failed to take the ground realities of developing countries into consideration and that it was “unfairly targeted” for its objections, when all it had done was to borrow a phrase that other countries were also in consensus with.

“You have to make allowances for the vulnerable people in society,” the MEA official said, adding that UNFCCC deals are supposed to be finalised with agreement from all countries, instead of a majority decision.

India has announced goals to transition out of coal towards renewables, but officials maintain that coal cannot be ended abruptly. “We will need some coal production till 2030 in order to meet our demands. We cannot suddenly and completely shut down one of our major energy sectors,” the official said.

“Of course, we are working towards transition [sic] to renewables as can be seen in the announcements made by prime minister [Narendra Modi] at Cop,” the official said.

At the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, a deal was finalised on cutting down methane, another harmful greenhouse gas, but India stayed out of it. The official said that India couldn’t commit to the pact because targets like this will require a complete overhaul of how farming is done in India.

India is doing “whatever we can do largely with our own resources”, the official said, adding that the country hadn’t received sufficient climate finance.

Climate experts have pointed out the need for mitigation and climate finance in achieving stronger goals to prevent global warming. However, developing countries including India have already said the session failed to make much progress on climate finance and adaptation.

However, India says, despite the final moment of criticism, it finds the summit successful for itself and it managed to tell the world that it is fulfilling its climate action targets, while setting more ambitious ones for the future.

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