After COP26, India Weighs its Geopolitical Clout
Maria Tavernini 24 November 2021

“The outcome of COP26 is a compromise. It is an important step, but not enough. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe”, warned the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, as the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came to an end. After weeks of negotiations, the parties have reached an agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact, aimed at containing climate change and limiting the global average temperature below 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels (preferably 1.5°). Critiques poured in. The pact was slammed as being “weak” and “inefficient” to tackle climate change, also due to a last-minute change that reworded a crucial passage and watered down the efforts to abandon coal power.

With a last-minute objection, India and China – respectively the world’s third and first carbon polluters, and the top two coal-burning nations – pushed to water down the commitment on accelerating the phasing out of coal. The move has angered the EU and the US, but also those vulnerable countries on the frontline of climate change. Instead of phasing it out, India and China proposed to “phase down” the use of coal. When the agreement was finalized, many countries expressed their dissatisfaction over the change since the phasing-out of coal was one of the main pillars for the 1.5°C target.

Despite the diluted language in the final version of the pact, activists and campaigners have hailed the move as the first step towards ending the use of the dirtiest source of energy. In fact, the final agreement explicitly mentions coal, which is the most polluting fossil fuel, and greenhouse gas emissions from burning it are the single biggest contributor to climate change. Previous COP agreements have never addressed coal or even fossil fuels. Despite the diluted language, the Glasgow Climate Pact will go down in history as the first climate deal to expressly mention the commitment to reduce coal.


The relativism of ambition

At the start of the summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to cut emissions to net zero by 2070. China has planned to become carbon neutral by 2060; the US and EU aim to reach net zero by 2050.  Although activists and experts in the West may have been disappointed by the 2070 net zero target, it is indeed an ambitious goal for a country that is still heavily reliant on coal, as fossil fuels amount to over 70 percent of India’s energy mix. Moreover, Modi promised 500 gigawatts (GW) of non-fossil electricity capacity, raising the share of renewables in the energy mix to 50 percent, a reduction of emissions by one billion tons and emissions intensity of GDP by 45 percent by 2030.

The next years will be crucial to achieve these first goals. “This is real climate action. Now India demands $1 trillion in climate finance as soon as possible and will monitor not just climate action but also climate finance,” said Dr Arunabha Ghosh, Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a leading think-tank that works on climate. As the world expressed disappointment, climate experts in India were impressed by the first-ever commitment to the phasing down of coal by their country in an international climate agreement. Many have seen it as an “important indicator of the energy transformation underway”. Developed nations, upset by the last-minute rewording, were criticized once again for failing to deliver the promised climate finance.

Less developed countries and emerging economies, such as India, have long taken a stance on a more just share of the carbon budget and claim that they are being put under pressure to move away from fossil fuels and switch to renewables. They also accuse developed countries of not helping them financially sustain the costs of the transition. India is the third-largest carbon emitter after China and the US but, given its population of 1.35 billion, its per capita emissions is seven times lower than that of the US. India needs to secure its future energy supply, which is fundamental for its development and to sustain the needs of its ever-growing population. Many analysts have seen Modi’s commitments, both in the short and in the long term, as a bold statement.

“The Pact’s fundamental and fatal flaw is in the very first page, where it says, rather dismissively, that it notes the importance for some of the concept of climate justice. We cannot erase the fact that certain countries — the US, EU-27, the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan and Russia and joined now by China — have consumed roughly 70 per cent of the carbon budget, the space in the atmosphere that is available to keep the world below the 1.5°C temperature rise. The challenge is that the world has run out of carbon budget, but some 70 percent of the world’s people still need the right to development”, wrote Sunita Narain, environmental and political activist, director of the think-tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).  “The Glasgow Climate Pact’s only achievement — if you can call it that — is that it acknowledges and reiterates the need for financial support for adaptation, but it does nothing more than this.”


Geopolitical questioning

The issue of available space and the right to development is a pressing issue. Developed countries have already used much of the space keeping reasonably high levels of energy consumption, at least in per capita terms. Less developed countries (including India) consume much less per capita and they assert their right to enhance their standard of living which also implies a higher energy consumption. From 1850 to date, 23 rich countries contributed 50 percent of total emissions. Over 150 other countries contributed the remaining 50 percent. Moreover, those 23 rich countries account for only 12 percent of the world population, while the other 150 for 88 percent.

Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, head of the Indian delegation in Glasgow, said that “the world needs to wake up to the reality that the climate crisis has been precipitated by unsustainable lifestyles and wasteful consumption patterns in the developed countries”. Finally, the pact was seen as a success back home. That Indians are great negotiators is no news. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise either that two arch-rivals such as India and China – despite their turbulent relationship, not last a recent border dispute – have joined hands on the issue of coal and on past responsibilities of the current climate crisis.

In an increasingly risky geopolitical environment, however, with China’s assertive approach embodied by its Belt and Road Initiative, and the gradual withdrawal of the US from its leading global position, India is pondering the challenges and options for the near future more broadly. A new world order will take shape after the coronavirus pandemic, and India will have a “major role” to play in it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said earlier this year during a meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the coalition which governs at the center. In what terms?

As the fracture between the US and China deepens, the Indo-Pacific emerges as the main stage for countering Chinese expansion in the area, and Beijing has never made a secret of cultivating its interests in the area. Born more than a decade ago, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – an informal and loosely defined group that includes India, Japan, Australia, and the US and whose primary objective is to work for a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” – has gained momentum in the past year. The Quad is seen as a forum for open dialogue among democracies, with the implicit objective of countering China’s aggressiveness in the area. New Delhi, the weakest partner (not only in military terms) of the grouping, will now have to “decide whether to share or to pass the burden to contain China in the area”, which means engaging more seriously with the other partners of the Quad. And whether to abandon India’s traditional non-aligned position (by joining the coalition of democracies in the Indo-Pacific) or to preserve its independence, making sure it does not turn into isolation, at a time its internal authoritarian politices are attracting growing international scrutiny.


Cover Photo: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a session of the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow – November 2, 2021 (P. Noble / AFP).

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