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Episode 12: Degree of intent: Business unusual for India at COP26

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi presenting his national statement at the COP26 in Glasgow. Credit: Alastair Grant/Getty Images

Subhra Priyadarshini has her ear to the ground as climate change negotiations enter a decisive decade.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is being seen as crucial if climate change is to be brought under control. Climate scientists have sounded a “Code Red” suggesting it is time enough for world leaders to take action. In this special episode, we explore why global collective action is so complex, and what we can expect from the COP26 summit in Glasgow. We hear from a climate refugee and connect with journalists, policy experts and the COP26 president about India’s past contributions to emissions — and its new commitments to curbing them. Host: Subhra Priyadarshini. Produced by Jinoy Jose P., Amrita Gupta Nambiar and Prince George.



Subhra Priyadarshini has her ear to the ground as climate change negotiations enter a decisive decade.

(Lightly edited for readability)


Ulka Kelkar, T Jayaraman, Jayanta Basu, Alok Sharma, Subhra Priyadarshini

00:02 Srikanta Kayal: Speaking in Bengali.

00:27 Subhra Priyadarshini: Srikanta Kayal is 55 years old. He lives in the Mousuni village on the western borders of Sunderbans in West Bengal, India. Speaking in Bengali, in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, he's telling us that his home Mousuni is shrinking. Frequent cyclones and sea level rise have engulfed almost 10% of the island in just the last 15 years. Most villagers are shifting inland, looking for somewhere safer to move to.

In the next few days, the fate of millions like Srikanta and his children, and their children, will essentially be decided.

01:32 Partner announcement: This episode is produced with support from the DBT Wellcome Trust India Alliance.

01:39 Subhra Priyadarshini: Welcome to this special episode on the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. taking place as we speak in Glasgow. I'm your host Subhra Priyadarshini. This global summit is seen as crucial if climate change is to be brought under control to curb the impacts that are threatening billions of people just like Srikanta.

02:07 Ulka Kelkar: The recent Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body, pointed out that all of us are at risk due to the impacts of climate change, including extreme temperature, extreme rainfall and sea level rise. So climate change being a global problem requires a multilateral coming together of different countries and of commitment right from the top from governments of countries.

02:40 Subhra Priyadarshini: That’s Ulka Kelkar, who's leading the climate research program at the World Resources Institute in India. Ulka has been working on climate change issues for the past 20 years.

02:51 Ulka Kelkar: I think there's a lot of anticipation this year because, as you know, last year the COP couldn't happen because of the pandemic. The other reason for some excitement is that the United States is back in the Paris Agreement. So there is some anticipation that this climate change COP is going to be an important one. And will set the stage for decisive actions over the coming decades.

03:20 Subhra Priyadarshini: It can perhaps seem like a lot of hype around the conference of world leaders while the seas are rising, and the forests are on fire. youth movements like Extinction Rebellion and Friday's for Future have understandably expressed frustration at this process. Even the Queen of England was recently heard voicing her irritation at world leaders talking more than they act.

03:45 Ulka Kelkar: Although there is a lot that private industry can do, and a lot that we can do as individual human beings in terms of our behavior and the way we use energy and resources, it is still very important that governments set the right kinds of policies over the long term that is on a period of 10, 20, 30 years in order to make sure that we achieve the kind of greenhouse gas emission reduction that is required.

04:14 Subhra Priyadarshini: The issue, of course, is that climate change is a global collective action problem. It cannot be solved by one country alone. We asked TJayaraman, Senior Fellow Climate Change at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai to explain.

04:32 T Jayaraman: the world requires a cooperative solution and not individual sacrifice to reach the goals of keeping the world safe. Even theoretically, before 25 or say 20 years, we committed no emissions at all. We had zero emissions for 20 years. Then we would delay the onset of one point by degrees by less than two years, less than in fact about one and a half years. So we don't matter in that sense, our individual emissions are low.

05:10 Subhra Priyadarshini: Individual action alone can't save us. But of course, collective decisions take time despite the urgency of the situation.

05:20 Jayanta Basu: In COP, there is no voting. There are about 200 countries who are members of UNFCCC, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Each and every country has to agree on something to take it forward.

05:30 Subhra Priyadarshini: That's Jayanta Basu, a Kolkata based journalist specializing in environment and climate change. Jayanta has been covering the Conference of Parties since 2009. Now the person in charge of shepherding these world leaders is COP26. President Alok Sharma. We tuned into his ‘Covering Climate Now’ press conference just a few days ago, to learn more.

05:59 Alok Sharma: Well, I think the first thing to just acknowledge, of course, is that the IPCC report was a wake-up call, quite frankly. I think, Code Red is the way that it has been described. I think that's absolutely right. And I think for anyone who was in any doubt, the fact that it emphatically stated that it is human activity that is causing climate change and global warming, was very, very important.

Based on the dire warnings put forward by the panel scientists, a lot of cooperation and commitment needs to be achieved at the conference. We are looking for countries to come forward with ambition on mitigation. Secondly, we have asked the donor countries to step forward and deliver on the 100 billion dollars that has been promised since 2009, on an annual basis from 2020 onwards to support developing nations. Thirdly, we've asked for countries to set out their plans on adaptation. And fourthly, for us to work together to ensure that we can close off the Paris rulebook. The overarching ambition that we have got is that we want to be able to say with credibility coming out of Glasgow that we have kept 1.5 within reach, 1.5 alive.

07:22: Subhra Priyadarshini: Some climate experts are skeptical about that, including Jayaraman and Jayanta Basu.

07:28 T Jayaraman: Even at the time of the Paris Agreement, several of us I personally certainly (and I wrote publicly about it) and several others realised that the chances of keeping below the 1.5 degrees target were fairly slim, because you had a very stringent target, the most stringent target we have spoken of on the one side. And on the other side, we had the loosest arrangement. So we are left with a situation where the 1.5 degrees centigrade, is aspired to but stays out of reach in the real world.

08:15 Jayanta Basu: the world is going towards a 3-5 degrees temperature rise and the worst possible scenario, maybe 50 years down the line. So 1.5 degrees temperature rise, put very simply, 1.5 degree rise, compared to the pre-industrial era, is already being talked about as a doom scenario. And if you think about a 3-5 degrees centigrade, the world will not become habitable. So we are not talking about far down the field down the line. So world has to understand, each and every person on this world has to understand, this negotiation is all about survival.

08:50 Subhra Priyadarshini: Well, we are already at at least 1.1 degrees of global warming. So that's why it should be of utmost concern to everybody what gets decided in Glasgow. Now, of course, the stance of most developing countries, including India, is that they did little to create the situation, yet, they now bear the brunt of climate change impacts. The negotiating table is not a level one. Here's Jayaraman with some numbers for context.

09:22 T Jayaraman: India, for instance, between 1850 and 2018, of all the cumulative emissions, which is of course, what gives rise to temperature increase, temperature increases linearly proportional to cumulative emissions. And we have had a 1.07 centigrade increase in temperature. So since 1850 or so, India has contributed 4.37% of cumulative emissions. So, there's no sense in which we are responsible.

10:03 Ulka Kelkar: Even now, for example, India's per capita greenhouse gas emissions of purpose and greenhouse gas emissions are well below the world average. And the average Americans consumption of fossil fuels is about 20 times that of Indians. So this is why equity lies at the heart of global burden sharing on climate change. So we recognise that we all must play our part. But some of us have less of a historical responsibility, and others have more of a financial capacity. So can we do some burden sharing together so that the world is of all benefits?

10:44 Subhra Priyadarshini: That was Ulka explaining the concept of equity that should underlie action to combat climate change. In 2015, this understanding led to a pledge enshrined in the Paris Agreement -- rich industrialised nations of the world, whose pollutants have already warmed up the planet would shore up 100 billion dollars a year to help poor countries address climate change, and pivot away from fossil fuels. That didn't happen.

11:15 Alok Sharma: Of course, we need to be doing more in terms of finances, it's disappointing that we weren't able to reach the 100 billion in 2020, there is confidence that we will reach the 100 billion in 2023. And over the five-year period from 2021 to 2025, we will likely be above a 500 billion in aggregate.

11: 37 Subhra Priyadarshini: Climate financing will be a big topic at COP26. Another huge area of debate is the nationally determined contributions. Jayanta explains.

11: 47 Jayanta Basu: Each and every country who had signed, that is part of the Paris agreement, had to submit something called NDC. That is the nationally declared commitment that what they are committing to counter or to cut emission in their own country.

12: 04 Ulka Kelkar: So India submitted its first nationally determined contribution under the Paris agreement in which it promised that it would do three things by 2030 – first, to redeuce GHG intensity of our GDP, that is when we produce any goods and services, you know, our economic production, we will produce it more cleanly, we will produce it through cleaner fuel sources by using energy more efficiently. It had set a target that it would reduce the GHG intensity of GDP by 33 to 35%, below 2005 levels by 2030. And recent trends show that it is very much on track to achieve this target. The second target that we announced was that by 2030, 40% of our electricity capacity would come from non-fossil fuel sources. And we have recently in August of 2021, almost achieved this target, nine years ahead of schedule.

13:07 Alok Sharma: India has made massive efforts in terms of building out its renewable sector, I think we're at 100 gigawatts now. And by 2030, the aim is to be at 450 gigawatts. I think that's incredibly welcomed. And obviously Prime Minister Modi also announced a national hydrogen mission. And again, hydrogen is an area where there are very many countries focused. I'm encouraged by that.

13:36 Subhra Priyadarshini: But not everybody is so sure. It's important to point out that just recently, climate action tracker run by nonprofit climate analytics and research group, the new climate Institute found that India's action to mitigate climate change was ‘highly insufficient’. Under India's current targets and policies, emissions will continue to rise and are consistent with four degrees Celsius, the CAT stated. Jayanta Basu for one is sure India can do better.

14:10 Jayanta Basu: Because time is running out. Everybody's understanding -- if we look at the global negotiation platform, India always tends to play from the back. I really feel that India can be more aggressive, stronger, and perhaps make stronger commitment without compromising on its developmental need.

14:32 Subhra Priyadarshini: And the news hot off the press is that India has indeed made some ambitious new commitments at COP26. In a historic and unexpected announcement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi just surprised world leaders with a 2070 Net Zero target for the country. The other four pledges were equally transformative. India will up its non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030. It will meet 50% of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030. It will reduce the total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tons between now and 2030. And it will reduce its economy's carbon intensity to less than 45% by 2030. For these reasons, some climate experts like TJayaraman say, India is walking the talk on climate policy.

15:35 T Jayaraman: India is, I think in terms of his renewable energy targets in terms of its commitments, I think is doing clearly and well, punching well above its weight, punching well above its fair share.

15:49 Subhra Priyadarshini: The outcomes of the next few days will determine the course of the future. There is still an opportunity for us to ensure that we take action now in what is being described as a decisive decade. Let's hope that science leads the way and that leaders heed the ‘Code Red’ that climate scientists have sounded, complex geopolitics notwithstanding.

I'm Subhra Priyadarshini and this is the Nature India podcast. That's it for this episode. If you liked what you heard, stay tuned for more soon. In the meantime, you can check out our archives on the new Nature India website. We bring you insights on Indian science and scientists within the country and across the diaspora.

16:57 Partner announcement: Thanks to the DBT Wellcome Trust India alliance for their support in producing this episode.

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