Net-zero carbon has many advocates in theory, but the commitment to objectively achieve that globally is missing all over. The latest UN Climate Conference in Glasgow (COP 26), on the surface, renewed pledges to reduce emissions substantially and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world would have to close down 40 percent of existing coal-fired plants by 2030 and stop building new ones. From the looks of the agreement though, COP 26 looks more like a cop-out.
There was immense push-back from India (supported by China) to alter the language of the final agreement and use “phasedown” instead of “phaseout” of “unabated coal power”. This is not an inconsequential change, and there is also no fixed timeline on the phasedown itself. For one, it does not sound very committal. But it does make sense. India is one of the biggest producer and consumer of coal with heavy dependence on the dirty fuel for power generation. PM Modi in fact laid out plans early on to expand coal production to 1 billion tons per year which is certainly not compatible with India’s commitment to COP26 targets.
Plus, there will be massive economic costs to bear if outright phasing out or even phasing down goes through as planned—nearly 20 million Indian workers depend on coal for their livelihoods. According to researchers, there is no conceivable way India could achieve net-zero by 2070 with the current policy of raising both coal production as well as renewable projects together.
But that does bring up the question of financing. Among one of the pledges of COP26, it was agreed that rich countries would provide funds to developing countries to cut emissions as well as adapt to extreme weather conditions. This was agreed earlier on in 2009 but the funds flow was limited and focused on building renewable energy projects in middle-income economies; with barely any funding coming through for adaptation. According to the UN Environment Program’s Adaptation Gap Report 2021, the cost of adaptation is $140-300 billion every year by 2030 and up to $500 billion annually by 2050 for developing countries. It has been vowed that climate financing will be ramped up but trends in current adaptation finance are not favourable.
Meanwhile, China—the biggest producer, consumer and financier of coal—announced back in Sep-21 that it will not support coal power projects abroad anymore. China joined Japan and South Korea in this pledge to shut down all coal investments—together these countries have contributed nearly 95 percent of all global financing for coal overseas since 2013. With new coal power investments drying up, there should be much-needed money available for renewables and the transition from fossil fuels.
The investments needed are large. The IEA estimated that the world would need to invest $115 trillion in renewable technology to achieve the global climate change targets. Meanwhile, the unpredictability and intermittence of most renewable technologies brings up the question of reliability which in turn raises the question of transitioning out of “reliable” fossil fuels.
The second issue that COP 26 failed on was agreeing to setting up a fund for “loss and damage”. Developed economies have developed and become rich on the back of dirty fuels which has damaged the planet—and everyone is paying for it. The damage fund is meant to support vulnerable countries that are suffering from this damage that rich countries have caused and still causing in the form of rising sea levels Needless to say, this agenda point was opposed by United States and the EU as providing these reparations would open them up to legal liability.
The recent surge in coal and gas prices as well as shortages shows the world just how dependent countries are on fossil fuels. China was found rationing power to industries and households amid that crisis while prices skyrocketed to their historic peaks. The country had to eventually re-open some coal plants to shore up coal inventories. But the glass half-full scenario is that as fossil fuels become more expensive, renewables look more and more attractive.
The glass-empty scenario is that evidently, net zero carbon is a huge feat which requires feasibility of clean projects, large investments in green tech, phase-out of fossil fuels (that countries are not yet ready to do) and massive funding into adaptation for poor countries. Now add global leaders getting cold feet to that list.