In the world of diplomacy, India may be remembered for its last-minute push to downgrade coal language at this year's climate talks.
But India’s importance in the global transition away from fossil fuels is significant for other reasons.
It is the world’s third-largest carbon polluter and also a rapidly expanding economy, meaning the amount of greenhouse gases it will continue to send into the atmosphere is only likely to keep growing as its population does.
For India, the ability to reap the benefits of fossil fuels in the way that the United States and other industrialized economies did as they were growing is a matter of equity. That's something India's environment minister and lead climate negotiator Bhupender Yadav highlighted in his remarks to delegates from nearly 200 countries as the climate talks came to a close over the weekend.
“How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies?” he asked. “Developing countries have still to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication.”
The proposal to change a provision in the final text of COP 26, from a “phase out” of coal to a “phase down,” wasn’t an idea that came just from India. China and several other emerging economies also pushed for it. But it highlights the challenges facing countries that are seeking to reduce emissions while also bringing power and quality of life improvements to growing populations.
Almost two weeks earlier, at the beginning of the climate summit, India grabbed the spotlight for a different reason entirely.
On the first day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the surprise announcement that his country would reach net zero by 2070.
It would do so in part by scaling up its use of renewable energy, he said, ensuring clean sources like solar and wind would account for half of India’s electricity mix by 2030, up from roughly a quarter today.
As a result, coal use will naturally come down, said R.R. Rashmi, a former climate negotiator now heading an earth science and climate change program at the Energy and Resources Institute in India.
It will need to accelerate the pace of its lessening coal dependence, with demand for electricity in India about three times the global average, according to the International Energy Agency.
“[India] has this very unique position of having so much at stake in these conferences because we are so vulnerable to climate impacts,” said Ulka Kelkar, director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute India. “But also as a so-called major emitter and large economy, so much is expected from us in terms of commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
That the country of 1.3 billion people is aiming for such an ambitious clean energy goal is notable given how difficult and costly it will be.
“I think people forget that what India is trying to do is pretty audacious,” said Kelkar. “Our current energy needs are unmet, and we’re basically promising the world that we’ll meet all our growing energy needs for development through clean sources.”
Much of India’s coal phaseout will depend on its ability to ensure renewable energy can be fed into the energy grid. That will require better storage systems and other technologies that need to be scaled up in India.
The other challenge facing India is that it lacks alternative sources of fossil fuel energy. It imports oil and natural gas at a high cost—and that elevates the important role coal plays in the energy mix, Kelkar said.
That doesn’t mean India isn’t already starting to make the transition.
“In fact, India’s ambitions and its targets are much more ambitious than many of the G-20 countries,” said Rashmi of the Energy and Resources Institute.
Yadav, the environment minister, pointed to India’s establishment of the International Solar Alliance and its participation in an initiative to create a more interconnected global solar grid as evidence of its commitment to reducing emissions through international commitments.
“We are walking the talk,” he added.
While India has continued to highlight its work on renewable energy, it has been far more reluctant to take a stand on coal. It did not join a coalition of countries that committed to a coal phaseout during the first week of the climate summit.
And it continued to push back against language in the final text of the Glasgow agreement that it saw as deviating from the Paris pledge to account for national circumstances—language many developing countries interpret to mean they shouldn’t be asked to cut emissions as fast as the world’s largest historical polluters, like the U.S.
Market forces may be pushing that way regardless.
“Although coal is going to be clearly in the cards for the next couple of decades, just given the huge amount of its energy needs and the amount it already uses, already new coal is becoming completely uneconomic for India. So it has to address what the alternatives are and really work hard to scale those up,” said Camilla Fenning, a senior policy adviser on coal transitions at E3G.
Other initiatives that hinged on scaling up renewables or clean power transitions were also launched on the sidelines of the climate talks. Many of those are more measurable because they set hard targets. But whether they’re enough to limit global temperature rise in line with what scientists say is needed to prevent irreparable climate damage is difficult to tell, since many of the agreements exist only on paper.
How countries work to move them forward will be vital, said Fenning.
Rashmi said eliminating coal from the global energy system requires action, not just an agreement.
“Without a strategy in terms of technology and finance, these decisions don’t mean much,” he added.
Much of what India was pushing for when it caused an uproar in the last moments of COP 26 was time to make the transition—both for itself and other nations in the developing world.
“Ever since there have been COPs … the interests of different types of countries have never aligned, their needs have not been the same, their capacity to deliver has not been the same,” said Kelkar of WRI India.
“What matters is to see this as one more episode in a continuing multilateral process that is not the only weapon in our arsenal to fight climate change.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.