COP26 and India: The Dilemma of Growth and Climate Change in a Post-Pandemic World

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

Guest Author: Abhishek Sharma

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 01: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presents his national statement on day two of COP26 at SECC on November 1, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. 2021 sees the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference.

As the Biden administration came into power in the United States, a clear shift has happened in American Politics on Climate Change. After President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Deal, it sent negative signals to the international community that the U.S. would not fulfill any commitments to compromise its domestic economic progress. Now with the Biden Administration, there is an expectation of more liberal approaches towards the challenge of Climate Change and related policies. President Biden in his statement at the United Nation General Assembly(UNGA) September 2021 stated a policy of ‘Relentless Diplomacy’ to mobilize opinions and enhance cooperation from developing states and the international community at large on Climate Change. This policy shift on Climate Change with Biden coming to power directly affects India, and its consequences will be seen at the upcoming COP26, where India will face collective pressure from the developed world. COP (Conference of Parties) 26 is the 26th instalment of conference of parties on the UN Framework for Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At COP26, states will negotiate and discuss issues to address the challenges of climate change, by focusing on diverse subjects like climate financing, carbon-offset market mechanism (Article 6 of COP21), adaptation and mitigation policies, National determined contributions (NDCs), and make commitments for further course of action, either through net-zero declaration or laying out structural framework for climate change. The COP26 is considered as the last chance, i.e., an opportunity that will shape the direction of climate change action.

India is the third-largest country after China and the U.S, responsible for carbon emissions globally and has traditionally positioned itself in the Global South regarding climate change negotiations and has found strong support from the developing world, like China and Brazil. However, after the announcement from major countries responsible for the carbon emission on their Net-zero commitments, be it South Korea, Japan, U.K, European Union by 2050, and particularly China by 2060, there is a lot of pressure on India. Especially under Biden Diplomacy, the issue of Climate Change is one of prestige after the egregious Trumpian legacy. The competitive climate diplomacy between India and the rest will be played at the COP26. At COP26 it is expected that countries will

make more significant commitments with extensive diplomatic negotiations. Around 190 world leaders, with thousands of negotiators, will join at Glasgow, UK from 31st October-12th November 2021, this shows the ambitious character of the Summit.

The Adani Power Company thermal power plant at Mundra in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Credit Amit Dave/Reuters

India and COP26: The challenge of Coal, COVID-19 and Climate Change

As mentioned in the UK COP26 agenda, some contentious subjects for India are: to end coal power, address deforestation, and remove polluting vehicles. The most vital concern among these for India is energy generated from Coal. Coal energy still contributes to 70 percent of India’s electricity output. While India crossed the 100GW Installed Renewable capacity this year, achieving a milestone and also announced its ambitious target of 450GW renewable energy capacity by 2030. But the current trends on coal point towards a contradiction, the share of coal in electricity generation rose to the highest in the first quarter of 2021 with an increase in demand. With the share of coal projected to be around 42 percent in 2040. Therefore, the dependence on coal will decrease, but will remain substantial. With post-second wave economic recovery, the electricity demand has increased, leading to more electricity production from coal energy. However, the current global situation with an increase in demand for coal and with less coal production in China has put India in a difficult situation. Also with heavy rainfall in India, coal production has plummeted this year, compared to the past. This incident indicates the dilemma in front of India on Coal that is directly linked with the country’s development and the challenge waiting ahead at COP26 negotiation.

The pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated inequalities worldwide, but particularly in developing countries, the situation is worrisome. As per the world bank estimate, 60% of pandemic-induced new poor lives in South Asia. In India, the number stands at 230 million, according to a report by Azim Premji University. These numbers project the challenges of a developing country like India. Hence India will be going into the COP26, keeping the current energy-security challenges and the pandemic socio-economic after-effects in mind. These specific obstacles are acknowledged by the principle of Common but differentiated capabilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC).

India's traditional position on CBDR-RC is reiterated through BRICS environment minister statements. Even the Quad Leaders Joint statement shows India’s cautious position using words such as ‘intend’ to update the NDCs(Nationally Determined Contribution) by COP26 and achieving net-zero emission ‘preferably’ by 2050, both subject to national circumstances. Considering both these statements shows that India's intent is subject to its domestic obligations and development. And going forward, Climate Change policies will have more domestic spoilers like the current shadow of coal scarcity in India. However, this doesn’t mean that India will not make any commitments in addition to the 2015 NDCs. India’s record and progress during COVID-19 economic recovery on Climate Change reposit faith in India. In addition, both the leaders, the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav and the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, have been sensitive on the issue of Climate Change.

India doesn’t want itself to be seen as an obstructionist on the subject of Climate Change. However, it doesn’t want to compromise on its development either. Hence, getting any definite commitments from India on net-zero carbon emission will be an impossibility even by 2060 at COP26. Therefore, the aim of the COP26 should be to have frank conversations with India, to engage directly on issues that can be resolved, such as economical alternatives technology for energy production, instead of seeing anything as a package deal that ignores India’s concern. Any ambitious, single-minded target such as getting a commitment to net-zero emission from India will be a point of contention. Going forward, Climate Change negotiations should be approached with keeping in mind the nuances and realities existing currently domestically.


About the Author

Abhishek Sharma holds a Master's degree in International Relations from South Asian University. He is interested in evolving Geopolitics of East Asia and the Indo-Pacific Region, focusing on India-South Korea relations and Indian Foreign Policy. His research interests also include the intersection of Gender and International Politics, particularly in Environmental Peacebuilding, Nuclear Disarmament, and Feminist Foreign Policy.

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