Even as its capital was blanketed in toxic smog, India led the charge to weaken anti-coal commitments at the COP26 summit, with experts saying it is prioritizing its economic growth over the future of the planet.
The world’s third-largest emitter teamed up with China to water down language on fossil fuels at the Glasgow conference, forcing a compromise: a climate deal that requires countries to “step down” but not “phase out” »The use of coal.
India’s resistance to more ambitious restrictions on dirty energy is driven by its need for cheap fuel to power a booming economy and lift hundreds of millions of its citizens out of entrenched poverty.
“We have a huge population that still has not reached a basic minimum standard of living,” Samrat Sengupta, climate change expert at the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, told AFP.
Coal consumption has nearly doubled over the past decade – only China burns more – and the fuel still powers 70% of India’s electricity grid.
The government dragged its feet on stricter regulations for coal-fired power plants and last year announced a series of commercial mining auctions to boost domestic production.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to wean his country off coal, but told delegates in Glasgow that India would only aim to be carbon neutral by 2070 – a decade after China and 20 years after the other major emitters in the world.
But without decisive action sooner, experts warn India’s emissions will skyrocket in the years to come and scuttle global efforts to curb global warming.
“Objective difficult to achieve”
The effects of India’s dependence on fossil fuels are already keenly felt, with a veil of thick gray haze enveloping New Delhi each winter.
Emissions from coal-fired power plants and vehicle exhaust combine with smoke from farm fires to suffocate the mega-city’s 20 million people.
On the same day that COP26 delegates finalized the global climate agreement, Delhi closed its schools for a week to keep children indoors.
Smog is responsible for over a million deaths in India each year, and a recent University of Chicago study found that air pollution was likely to reduce life expectancy by more than nine years. for four in ten Indians.
The Modi government aims to alleviate the problem by developing renewable energy, pledging to make solar power as big a part of the energy mix as coal by the end of the decade.
But India lacks the high-tech capacity to meet the demand for solar panels and relies heavily on expensive components from overseas.
He tried to boost domestic manufacturing of solar technologies by increasing import duties, thus raising the cost of renewables.
The solar target of 2030 “is a huge goal and very difficult to achieve,” said Sengupta of the Center for Science and Environment.
“It takes a lot of finance and cheap technology to make it available.”
India has long argued that historical polluters such as the United States and Europe are obligated to provide technical expertise and finance for climate change mitigation.
Its environment minister told COP26 delegates on Saturday that developing countries have “the right to responsible use of fossil fuels.”
Bhupender Yadav said nations with little historical responsibility for climate change should not be held to the same standards as the world’s largest per capita emitters.
“In such a situation, how can we expect developing countries to promise to phase out coal and fossil fuel subsidies? He asked.
The weakened COP26 commitment was adopted with deep reluctance by other countries, which were eager to push through the deal after two weeks of marathon negotiations.
Other developing countries – including Pacific island countries facing the existential threat of sea level rise due to global warming – bristled at the suggestion that the last-minute intervention of the India had been made in their name.
The Attorney General of Fiji, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, expressed “not only our amazement, but also immense disappointment at the way this was introduced”.