COP26: India’s Glasgow Offering, Elon Musk, And What Rich Countries Choose To Ignore

Glasgow is engaging in a collective delusion & obsessing with a net-zero target rather than an equitable pathway to getting there.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Narendra Modi with Elon Musk at the Tesla factory in San Jose, California, on Sept. 27, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)</p></div>
Narendra Modi with Elon Musk at the Tesla factory in San Jose, California, on Sept. 27, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that India would target net-zero carbon emissions by 2070 is pragmatic, in a United Nations Climate Change Conference otherwise marked by bluster and artifice. The pressure is to grandstand for the climate herd who are fixated on announcements that carry very little credibility, as many rich countries have repeatedly reneged on solemn commitments. The Prime Minister of the host country—United Kingdom—has reneged on a bipartisan commitment to maintaining foreign aid allocations at 0.7% of GDP; the United States is reentering a room its previous President walked out of, reneging on the commitments made by his predecessor. Germany’s commitment to closing its nuclear plants has delayed its coal phase-out to 2038.

On Oct. 21, India had quite correctly pointed out that the pathway to net-zero was far more important than the target itself. How much carbon would a country have put into the atmosphere before achieving net-zero should have been the focus of this COP. But that would not suit the denizens of the countries which have already pumped shockingly high amounts of carbon into the air of this common planet and continued doing so until technologies enabled them to maintain their luxurious lifestyles sustainably. The mobilisation of adequate climate finance—essential to secure sustainable pathways to prosperity—has been an abject failure, and there are glaring inequities in contributions as ODI’s fair shares report points out.

But a global tribe of rich country ‘climate warriors’ has incessantly demanded a zero-emissions date from India, without taking into account either India’s development needs or their own historical footprint. So now you have it for what it is worth. Please welcome India’s new net-zero target.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Climate-change activists hold a demonstration during the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, U.K., on  Nov. 2, 2021. (Photographer: Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg)</p></div>

Climate-change activists hold a demonstration during the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, U.K., on Nov. 2, 2021. (Photographer: Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg)

The climate-centric warriors should be pleased. It pays court to the bald fact that ultimately, average global temperatures will continue to rise until humanity collectively reaches net-zero emissions. It implies India’s per capita cumulative emissions will only ever be a fraction of all OECD countries. But India made this commitment a long time ago at the Heiligendamm 2008 G8 summit.

Unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, India, despite the change of the political party in power, has not broken any commitments to action in the global public interest.

Its per capita emissions today are only half the global average. It accounts for only 3% of cumulative emissions despite accounting for 17% of the world's population.

India’s new commitments further recognise that every unit of greenhouse gas counts, and has therefore included strong 2030 targets: for instance, half of India’s energy to come from renewables and the carbon intensity of GDP to fall by 45%. These are more ambitious commitments than more polluting nations, such as Australia, have pledged.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>An open coal mine in the Latrobe Valley, Australia, on Oct. 26, 2021. (Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg)</p></div>

An open coal mine in the Latrobe Valley, Australia, on Oct. 26, 2021. (Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg)

But to hear the sneering tone of many a climate warrior, India is doing too little too late and is somehow a major culprit in the Glasgow COP being about as action-oriented as a Five-Year Plan in the former Soviet Union.

But I would ask the sneerers to pause for a minute and pay just a little attention to what the Indian Prime Minister also said, both in Glasgow and in Rome, about the importance of human development for resilience to climate-related impacts: extreme heatwaves, heavy rainfall, severe flooding, catastrophic storms, rising sea levels and more.

Human development (and biodiversity, for that matter) are sideshows at Glasgow, with good reason. Scapegoats have to be found for the real reason why Glasgow is engaging in a collective delusion and obsessing, Soviet-style, with a net-zero target rather than an equitable pathway to getting there.

At its worst, climate action is only acceptable to global elites if it perpetuates inequalities in wealth creation and consumption between and within geographies, that have been firmly in place since 1945. Any attempt to rebalance these and thereby ensure that net-zero is also poverty zero and inequality reducing—a reasonable proposition if we do indeed share a common planet—has for long now been off the table, since rapid advances in clean energy technologies allowed people to enjoy lifestyles of luxury while doffing the cap to sustainability. Why bother with public transport or clean water for slums as long as Elon Musk can produce fancy electric cars to drive rich kids to fancy private schools and use his profits to fund exciting adventures to outer space? There is no need for school buses now—poor kids can just walk to the nearest state school if there is one, no carbon footprint there.

When these climate warriors depart Glasgow, it will be after Diwali, the most polluted time in India’s cities. Net-zero advocates should be speaking to this crisis: renewable energy, regenerative agricultural practices, and better waste management could address this environmental killer and climate change simultaneously. Instead, India’s cities will be polluted and cleaned by manual scavengers, because net-zero is not concerned with slums while their carbon footprint is negligible.

But I care about these things, which is why I care about sustainability. Every open cast coal mine in Jharkhand jeopardises the health and well-being of thousands of Indian children, securing only freedom from starvation and destitution, not the prosperity of their futures. Every unsustainable agricultural practice disempowers farmers, destroys the commons, and causes India to slip even further in the hunger index. Every slum in Mumbai is testimony to the hollowness of the Gilded Age in that city. Every development failure on agriculture, the built environment, water, and biodiversity exacerbates India’s carbon footprint and has a direct negative impact on the lives and prosperity of younger Indians.

So, unlike the climate warriors focused on their future instead of India’s present, I am interested in the pathway to net zero, presumably for the same reasons as the Prime Minister. A pathway that bucks the interests of the global rich and embraces a wider understanding of sustainable development that improves the quality of India’s built environment and agriculture, that safeguards its biodiversity, that does not debauch India’s coastlines, forests, and oceans, that prioritises lifeline over lifestyle energy. Such foundations will get India to net zero even faster than 2070. For, a just society is a sustainable society. India’s quest is to find the pathway that will deliver prosperity to those whose futures we are trying to protect from climate change, not to Elon Musk and his wannabe clones among India’s rich.

Rathin Roy is Managing Director at the Overseas Development Institute.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.