The Failing Climate Negotiations – And the Need for India’s Leadership in Representing the Global South 

Surya P. Sethi, Distinguished Fellow at FSR Global, Former Principal Advisor Power & Energy and Core Climate Negotiator, Government of India


Apr 12, 2024

Successive COPs have become an exercise in wordsmithing positive sounding outcomes, claiming progress in tackling global warmingOn the ground, though, emissions are still rising and average annual warming in 2023 broke the 1.5degee Celsius bound 

At COP 26 (2021), in Glasgow, the coalition of the rich industrialized countries successfully led and adopted the Net-Zero by 2050 outcome.  These rich countries should have reached net-zero by 2021 under a fair burden sharing exercise endorsed by over 200 civil society organisations.  Thus, the Glasgow outcome, hailed as a commitment to keeping global warming below 1.5oC, actually gave these rich countries the right to keep on enlarging their already disproportionate share of the limited carbon budget under any desirable bound for global warming. 

COP 27 (2022), at Sharm El-Sheikh hailed the historic approval of the long-pending Loss and Damage Fund.  This ignored the fact that earlier commitments to fund climate action, including adaptation and the required energy transition, that science demands, have remained unfulfilled.  Again, there are multiple independent estimates informing that: (i) the energy transition required to deliver net-zero GHG emissions by 2050; (ii) delivering the essential adaptive capacity to withstand impacts of global warming to some 2.4 billion climate vulnerable humans; and (iii) funding loss and damage – each requires the rich countries to provide hundreds of billions of dollars annually to countries comprising the bottom half of the World, based on their respective responsibility and capacity, for an equitable and just solution to global warming.  Analysis carried out by Oxfam, however, shows that in 2020, the net value of funding provided by the rich nations, specifically to support climate actions in the bottom half of the World amounted to just US$21 billion to US$24.5 billion!  Importantly, the long-held myth about global capital markets, providing climate finance has been totally shattered.  The need for massive amounts of new and additional public funding is growing by the day and actual flows of climate finance, add up to less than 5% of the estimated needs. 

    And then came COP 28 (2023) under the Presidency of Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil CompanyShortly before presiding over COP 28, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber sought guidance by saying: “Please help me, show me the roadmap for a phase out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

    By the end of COP 28 he had the answer and historically gavelled the epic outcome of COP28 that, in line with 1.5°C pathway, calls on Parties to contribute, in a nationally determined manner, to: “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” This hollow pronouncement overlooked the fact that just 20 countries are together responsible for nearly 90% of the proposed fossil field development worldwide between 2023 and 2050 and just 5 of the world’s richest countries (USA, Canada, Australia, Norway and UK) account for 51% of the proposed fossil field development globally between now and 2050! 

    Continuing their good work, the same Civil Society group concluded that delivering the COP 28 outcome requires: (i) immediately stopping all new investments in fossil fuels worldwide; (ii) the rich countries to phase out all fossil fuels by 2031; and (iii) the same rich countries must provide US$ 235 billion annually, in the very least, to help the low-income and lower middle-income countries to phase out fossil fuel dependence progressively by 2050. 

    The hollowness of the above outcomes get fully exposed when one recognizes that: (i) globally, fossil fuel consumption and GHG emissions are still rising; (ii) the emissions gap for delivering the 1.5°C pathway is growing; (iii) the first year-long breach of the key 1.5oC warming limit was experienced in 2023; and, most importantly, (iv) the fair and equitable burden share exercises endorsed by the above civil society group show, beyond doubt, that the rich countries, are seriously falling short in meeting their fair share burden of climate actions domestically as well as in meeting their global obligation (to deliver finance, technology and capacity) that stem from their historic responsibility for global warming and their respective capabilities to address the consequent climate change. 

    Truth is that the richest 1% of the world, even today, have emissions equal to the emissions of the bottom 66% of humanity.  The rich world and China (which is now a rich country under the World Bank’s country classification) together have some 92% responsibility for global warming to date and together account for over 75% of current GHG emissions.  COP 28 which took account of the first global stock-taking exercise failed to effectively address these realities. 

    Importantly, all the solutions being offered are addressing the supply side of energy systems.  Demand-side efforts to reduce the unsustainable consumption of the rich rely primarily on improving energy efficiency.  However, research has repeatedly shown that energy efficiency improvements do not curtail consumption.  Providing every human at least lifeline levels of access to basic necessities, to raise adaptive capacity, to an acceptable threshold, is constantly paid lip-service without any concrete plans or funding for achieving it.  Even the supply-side solutions are often driven by technologies that are yet to prove their technical and/or financial efficacy.  Then, there is the ever-present lure of geoengineering solutions that are not even fully understood with respect to their local and/or cross-border ramifications.  Not to forget the scholarly debates on why the 1.5°C pathway is still not lost, based on dubious science of temporary overshoots, without a clue about the duration or the impact of such an overshoot.  And finally, there is talk of IPCC’s science-based requirement of global GHG emissions coming down by 43% from their 2019 level by 2030 – but, off course, without any agreed differentiation among nations for delivering this global target. 

    The Global Tipping Point report, compiled by an international team of some 200 researchers was released on the eve of COP 28.  The report unequivocally states that our planet is on the verge of breaching five catastrophic climate tipping points.  These include the loss of ice sheets in Greenland, loss of glaciers in West Antarctic, the thawing of permafrost, the destruction of coral reefs, and the collapse of the crucial ocean current in the North Atlantic.  Tipping points, once breached, result in catastrophic damage that can never be undone.  The report further confirmed that three other thresholds could be breached in the 2030s if global warming exceeds 1.5oC.  These include the destruction of mangroves and boreal forests.  Tim Lenton, the lead author from the University of Exeter warned that the changes “pose threats of a magnitude never faced by humanity.  They can trigger devastating domino effects including the loss of whole ecosystems and capacity to grow staple crops, with societal impacts including mass displacement, political instability, and financial collapse.” 

    India’s Imperative 

    The world has been stumbling from one COP to another for 30 years without addressing global warming and, in fact, exacerbating climate change.  Failure, some claim, is embedded in the DNA of the processes of UNFCCC.  Many now refer to COP as the ‘Conference of Polluters’ and, those attending, it’s Pollutocrats!  Deeply vested interests, grossly outnumbering official delegations in recent COPs, have succeeded in kicking the can down the road! 

    Based on UNDP’s 2023 Multidimensional Poverty Report, 83% of the global poor live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.  These two regions are home to about 90% of humanity living in the bottom half of the World comprising of low-income and lower-middle-income countries.  India alone is home to at least 22% of the global poor; making it the country with the largest number of poor in the World.  Together with the other 7 countries in the Indian Peninsula; South Asia is home to about 35% of the world’s poor! 

    The responsibility of the bottom half of the world, for global warming, to date, remains negligible.  Their combined share of current global GHG emissions is below 15%.  The rich countries, including China, are responsible for about 92% of the global warming, to date, and account for over 75% of current global GHG emissions.  Importantly, this bottom half of the world cannot stop global warming but will suffer its worst consequences.  

    The primary climate action for the bottom half of the World is eradicating poverty and raising adaptive capacity of their citizens by ensuring universal access to lifeline levels of basic human needs such as water, nutrition, shelter, sanitation, health services, climate-resilient physical infrastructure, education, skills and mobility.  To do this sustainably, the bottom half of the world would need all assistance from the upper half of the world by way of finance, technology and capacity, as repeatedly emphasized by Civil Society. 

    The bottom half of the World is home to 90% of climate vulnerable humans worldwide.  About 60% of the climate vulnerable humans globally live in the Indian sub-continent (South Asia).  India’s climate vulnerabilities mirror the vulnerabilities of the bottom half of the world.  However, India is the only country in the bottom half of the world that has the necessary institutional, intellectual capital and socio-political drivers to lead this group of countries in getting the upper half of humanity to deliver what the duly ratified Framework Convention mandates in accordance with their respective responsibilities and capacities.  India must secure its place at the high table by becoming the voice of the bottom half of the world in the global climate negotiations.  This bottom half is the right constituency for India in shaping the new world order!  Not doing so would be a dereliction of India’s duty towards this bottom half of humanity!  

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