'Transitioning away' from fossil fuels and what it means for India

Despite the shortcomings, Dubai marked a qualitative shift.
Members of Greenpeace gather for a photo around a sign that reads 'We will end fossil fuels' at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit in Dubai (Photo | AP)
Members of Greenpeace gather for a photo around a sign that reads 'We will end fossil fuels' at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit in Dubai (Photo | AP)

It first seemed the World Climate Change Conference at Dubai – COP28 – was doomed to failure. It had all the elements of a non-starter. The environment summit was being hosted by a petrostate, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For a conference of 200 countries seeking a reversal of global warming, the presidency was in the hands of Sultan Al-Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc). 

In the run-up to the conference, Al Jaber stirred the pot by claiming there is “no science” indicating that a phase-out of fossil fuels is needed to restrict global heating to 1.5C. Then the stink got worse. At the peak of the two-week conference letters from the cartel of oil-producing countries, OPEC, revealed member countries had been told to lobby hard against any resolution to ‘phase-out’ fossil fuels. 

(Express illustrations | Sourav Roy)
(Express illustrations | Sourav Roy)

Two big wins

Given all this baggage, it was remarkable that the conference ended on a high note. Al-Jaber and the Saudis did not want a failed conference, and some back-channel negotiations by the Chinese and US delegates turned around a hopeless first draft. 

President Sultan Al Jabber struck the gravel, hugged the UN climate chief Simon Steil and announced the passage of a consensus resolution calling upon member countries to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal. It was the historic first time that the winding down of fossil fuels had been linked to reversing global warming. 

The second big win for Cop28 was the setting up of the long-debated ‘Loss and Damages’ Fund demanded by the developing countries as a fallback to climate disasters like floods. Compared to the estimated $400 billion climate-related damage caused each year, the initial commitment of the developed world of $700 million may seem like a drop in the ocean. But it is a start to institutionalizing the principle of ‘polluters-must-pay’. 

Expectedly, the environmentalists aren’t happy. The oil and gas-producing countries had nixed any direct reference to the ‘phasing-out’ or ‘phasing-down’ of fossil fuels in the text. There was also confusion in the plenary session where the Alliance of Small Island States – a coalition of 39 countries worst impacted by flooding and climate changes – said they were excluded from the final resolution. 

Despite the shortcomings, Dubai marked a qualitative shift. It underlined the need to exit from fossil fuels to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which account for 90% of global warming. UN climate chief, Simon Steill, summed it well: “Cop28 needed to signal a hard stop to fossil fuels and their planet-burning pollution. We didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era, but this is clearly the beginning of the end.”  

Phasing out coal

What does the new anti-fossil fuel language mean for India? Like China and other large developing economies, she is caught in a bind. India’s resolution to become a ‘green’ economy has not been lacking. She has pledged a 50% transition to renewable energy by 2030, and net zero carbon emission by 2070. 

India has no oil or gas. But the Achilles Heel is coal.

India is today hopelessly dependent – to the extent of over 75% –  on coal-generated energy. We are also far from ‘transitioning away’ from coal. In fact, another 17 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity expansion is planned over the next 16 months. This year saw an increase in coal-based electricity to make up for a poor monsoon that created a shortfall in hydropower.

India has had an astonishingly fast growth of renewables – wind, solar, and hydropower. From a negligible 35GW in 2014, we are today generating 175 GW from renewable sources. But things have now hit a plateau with energy demands spiking. In the absence of a rapid growth of renewable energy, the state is turning to increasing capacity from coal generation. 

In international negotiations, while oil and gas have strong lobbies, coal producers and users have been isolated. The CopP26 summit in Glasgow agreed to a ‘phase-down’ of coal power, but India’s bid to extend the ‘phase-down’ to all fossil fuels at last year’s Cop27 in Egypt was nixed by the oil producers. After that India, along with China, have resisted attempts to put a cap on coal production. 

Demanding “equity and justice”, India and other developing countries have rightly argued that the developed and wealthy countries had contributed much more to the climate crisis by their indiscriminate pollution since the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century. 

“Over the past century, a small section of humanity has indiscriminately exploited nature. However, entire humanity is paying the price for this, especially people living in the global south,” Bhupinder Yadav, India’s environment minister said in Dubai. 

With the new target of ‘transitioning away’ from fossil fuels, it is only fair that those who have built their growth on the ‘dirty coal’ era and are more responsible for global warming, now must finance and pass on new technology to tap renewable energy. 

As Cop28 has approved the ‘Loss and Damages’ Fund to meet climate disaster, it is high time a ‘Transition Fund’ of $500 billion be set up initially to shoulder part of the burden of the developing world transiting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

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