Race to Zero: Unique opportunity for G7 and Modi

Zero-emission and zero-subsidies go hand in hand


June 4, 2021

/ By / Pune

Race to Zero: Unique opportunity for G7 and Modi

Leaders of G7 must urgently address climate finance (Photo: Reuters)

‘Race To Zero’ for net-zero carbon emission is now a flagship movement in all global climate meetings. However, that goal could remain a dream as long as the race to ‘zero subsidies’ on fossil fuels, be it oil, gas or coal is also prioritised. In the forthcoming G7 summit in the United Kingdom on June 11-13, 2021, India, along with some other developing nations, has been invited. The summit is an opportunity for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to point the global movement to the right direction.

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Modi’s image appears to be tarnished, mainly in the western media, that has found governance-gaps in his management of  second wave of COVID pandemic. On the other hand, the world’s seven rich countries have recognised  India’s emerging strategic role in economic, social and environmental global recovery post-Covid-19.  The invitation to Modi to attend G7 reaffirms yet another stark reality that there is no alternative on the horizon to Modi’s bold and decisive role in the global play and India’s strategic geo-political position that hedges against Chinese hegemony.

The next pandemic-tsunami is widely recognised to be the climate-crisis. The G7 is determined to address it in an intrepid way and through unflinching approaches. Modi has already set the pivotal tone towards that approach when he addressed President Joe Biden’s Climate Summit held in April on the Earth Day of 2021. Biden and Modi launched the India-US Clean Energy Agenda to mobilise global investment, demonstrate clean technologies and enable green collaboration. It was the first ever global initiative taken by Biden after he became President. It was also first-ever climate-alliance between world’s oldest democracy and the largest democracy that recognises, the almost forgotten role of ‘climate finance’ to achieve climate-goals of the Paris Climate agreement.

‘Race-To-Zero’ is a buzzing and bubbling global campaign to rally global leaderships and youth to achieve the goals of Paris Climate Agreement. It is emerging as trending and even ‘exploding’ hashtag on  social media, effectively competing with pandemic-phrases like vaccine-shortages, ICU-Beds, third-wave, herd-immunity and so on.

Leading up to the 26th Conference of Parties, called ‘COP26,’ to be held in Glasgow, UK, in November 2021, the campaign has caught attention of many climate front-liners drenched in uncertain Covid-19 waves that are striking the humanity in the most severe way. The backdrop to preparation of COP26 is provided by the usual non-stop national political conflicts, regional wars, international economic down turn, monster of unemployment and brand new re-entry of USA in Paris Climate agreement.

The story of ‘race-to-zero’ is relatively recent. An analysis by UNEP in its ‘emission gap’ reports reveals that voluntary actions for GHG-emission reductions submitted by nearly all192countries, known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs under 2015 Paris Climate Agreement were found to be totally inadequate to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The need for more ambitious NDCs has become obvious and urgent.

COP25,which was to be held in 2019 in Chilean capital Santiago, but the venue had to be changed to Madrid due to a nationwide agitation in Chile, paradoxically, because of the government’s decision of raising the fare of the transportation. A courageous Climate Ambition Alliance was launched during COP25 for enhancing the emission reduction targets for meeting the goals of Paris Agreement. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit the rise in global average temperature, by end of the 21st century, to1.5°Cand definitely not more than 2°C above the pre-industrial  level.

While the Paris Agreement includes the NDCs, the Climate Ambition Alliance is intended to include commitments of non-state actors like regions, cities and business. The global climate conference (COP26) could not be held in 2020 due to the pandemic and postponed by a year. In order not to miss the need for an extra boost to the emission reduction targets on World Environment Day of 5th June 2020, Chile and the United Kingdom, representing the venues of COP25 and COP26, launched the ‘Race to Zero’ campaign as part of Climate Ambition Alliance. It brought together the leadership in  businesses, cities, regions and investors for a healthy, resilient and carbon-free recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and enables inclusive and sustainable growth. Nearly all members of the alliance are committed to the same enhanced goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated in its recent report that by around 2050, the world has to be carbon neutral to meet the target of limiting the rise of temperature to 1.5°C and by around 2075 to limit the temperature rise to 2°C. China, the largest emitting country in the world, in 2020, has pledged the carbon-neutrality by 2060.

Carbon neutrality does not mean achieving zero emission but achieving ‘net zero’ emission. Carbon neutrality in simple terms means reaching a balance between the emission of carbon dioxide and absorbing the same from the atmosphere in ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests, oceans and soil. That would provide much needed ‘net zero’ addition of carbon or carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

Interestingly, the Paris Climate Agreement does not mention carbon-neutrality as a target, though the agreement encourages countries to enhance voluntary targets of emission over and above the NDCs submitted to the Secretariat of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Carbon-neutrality is an ambitious enhancement of the emission reduction targets.

The 5th Anniversary of the Paris Agreement in December 2020, was a major milestone in more sense than one. First, 2020 ranks as the second-hottest year on record for the planet, knocking 2019 down to third hottest. Second, it was in December that scientists recorded that Earth’s average temperature rise was close to 1.2°C, dangerously close to 1.5°C, one of the two stringent targets under the Paris Agreement. The year 2020 also signalled that now onwards the world should aim for the target of 2°C, having made a target of 1.5°C near impossible. Third, having observed the continued growth of emissions over last more than 24 years since the UN Climate Convention was accepted in 1992, the world has realised that now there is no other go but to achieve the carbon neutrality between 2050 and 2075.

As of today, ‘net zero’ initiative includes nearly 120 countries, more than 700 cities, 2,000 businesses and 163 of the biggest investors, all committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Collectively these actors now cover nearly 25 pc global CO2 emissions and over 50 pc GDP.

However, when talking of carbon neutrality there are no deliberations on climate justice, climate finance, as well as alternative  technologies needed by the developing and least developing countries as a necessary and essential accelerator to achieve carbon neutrality. These are the pillars for the widely accepted principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in all the Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

For the leaders from developed countries, the time has come to reaffirm the commitment made to developing countries in COP15 held in Copenhagen in 2009. That included the financial support to the developing countries to be provided by the industrialised rich developed countries, starting with a modest USD 10 billion per year rising to USD 100 billion per year from 2020 onwards.

It is also necessary to make finance flows consistent with a country’s reductions in emissions as well as separate financing for climate-resilient development, also known as climate adaptation fund, which is clearly embedded in Paris Climate Agreement.

Nearly 12 years after commitment in Copenhagen and five years after the Paris Agreement was signed, how far have the developed countries and their groupings come on the climate finance agenda? Here we are in 2021 without any signs of raising ambition for climate finance. The performance of the ‘Green Climate Fund’, a dedicated fund for global action on climate change is miserable. It has so far managed cumulatively only about USD 10 billion, ridiculously far away from the commitments of the developed world.

Developing countries complain about total lack of transparency in definition and calculation of climate finance. Developing countries were firm in stating that they needed dedicated fund. Official Development Aid (ODA),  private sector finance and bilateral aid should not be counted. Developed countries are harping on counting all these flows.

India has more credibility under Paris Climate Agreement unlike other major developing countries including China. India had played a key role in carving out Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Further, India is well on track, as confirmed by the UN and other independent agencies to meet its climate targets as provided in its NDC. Its joint initiative with France of International Solar Alliance has also been considered a game changer and path-breaking mechanism that would practically add to the ambitious targets.

More than 20 top Indian private-sector corporations, including Infosys, Reliance and Tatas have declared that they would go climate neutral. Over 250 higher educational institutes in India have also pledged to go climate neutral under the ‘Not Zero-Net Zero’ campaign by an NGO, Terre Policy Centre’s project called Smart Campus Cloud Network. While these initiatives will be piloting and making youth and business -leaders ‘Carbon-neutrality-ready’, such positivism can be leveraged by Modi to position India in COP26 as the country that would walk the talk.

While carbon neutrality was the pitch during Climate Summit of April 2021, hosted and chaired by Biden, Modi deployed climate diplomacy not only to remind the developed countries about the accepted principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, but also about their past commitments on climate finance. Jointly with Biden, Modi declared in that Summit , the mechanism and alliance for tracking climate finance that is being provided to the developing countries and thus mainstream the demand for climate justice, without which our planet would lose the battle to save it.

Back in 2009, interestingly there was another exploding and trending phrase just before 15th Climate Conference of Parties-COP15-that was held in Copenhagen, many called it as ‘Hopenhagen’ because of hopes of urgent action expected from the countries and corporations that time. The hyped phrase leading to COP15 that time was ‘Seal the Deal’. It conveyed the need for finalising the deal for action on mitigation of climate change, particularly on the climate finance and technology transfer by the developed countries to developing countries.

Interestingly, there was another pandemic of sort that engulfed the whole world between 2007-2009.  It was the ‘Great Economic Recession’. Every country was affected in its own and different way. Average GDP growth was minus 5 pc and unemployment at 10 pc.

Sadly, no deal was sealed in Copenhagen. The outcome of the Conference was called as ‘farcical accord’.  Much hyped preparations for and expectations from the conference proved to be self-defeating. The accord was not legally binding and without any accountability. The reasons?

The long-term goal of limiting the maximum global average temperature increase to not more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels did get into the text of accord, but it was subject to a review in 2015. The countries had no clues on how to meet that goal in practical terms. It also included a reference to consider limiting the temperature increase to below 1.5°C, a key demand made by small island developing countries, again without any binding agreement.

The most crucial part of the Copenhagen ‘accord’ was the promise by the developed countries’ to fund actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change in developing countries. Developed countries promised to provide USD 30 billion for the period 2010-2012 (which meant USD 10 billion per year), and to mobilise long-term finance of a further USD 100 billion a year by 2020 from a variety of sources. The words, ‘from variety of sources’ as now become a sort of escape for the developed countries to wriggle out of funding commitment, at least to a certain extent. The well negotiated term of ‘additional financing’ seems to be getting weaker to pin down the developed countries.

The global recession played its part in making it non-binding non-legal accord of 2009. Would history repeat itself in 2021 during COP16? There are strong reasons why it would. The world is facing the real unprecedented pandemic. Again each country faces multiple crises like health, economic, social, political  and environmental. In 2009, the world looked to the then American President Barack Obama for hope. Now there is Joe Biden. The hyped phrase is ‘Race To Zero. But the question is same as in 2009. Where would the climate finance come from? Countries are busy with recovery and rebuilding. The key difference is, unlike in 2009 when the economic pandemic was nearly over, the world in 2021 is still drenched in health pandemic that is sucking the global economy in black hole.

But in every crisis lies an opportunity. This time it is the long-pending need of phasing out of subsidies. And the G7 Summit is best placed to implement ‘Race to Zero’ for subsidies.

Eliminating  fossil fuel subsidies would prove to be a triple win for the world. It would grossly reduce global carbon emission and also health risk from air pollution. The third win would be from freeing the subsidy funds for climate finance for the developing countries. Direct global fossil fuel subsidies reached about USD 300 billion or USD 100 billion energy related subsidies in 2017. These costs rise to USD 5.2 trillion when indirect costs such as air pollution are priced in, says the International Monetary Fund. This is much more than the total global spend on human health. Ending these subsidies to zero can cause a 28 pc reduction in global carbon emissions and a 46 pc reduction in air pollution deaths as per UN.

Polluter pays is a well-accepted, recognised and well applied principle in global environmental negotiations. The historic responsibility of the developed countries requires that they launch the ‘Race To Zero’ for fossil fuel subsidies along with Race To Zero for GHG emissions at the G7 summit. If the opportunity is missed then the COP26 meet in Glasgow will also be on the same slippery slope that Copenhagen found itself in and the best possible outcome would be an equally farcical Glasgow Accord.

Modi has the opportunity to join hands with his host and British counterpart Boris Johnson to strengthen the climate finance pledge. He should remind the G7 that besides the Race to Zero emissions, it is time to launch the race to zero fuel subsidies and the race to USD 100 billion a year, if the world has to have any hopes of surviving the climate catastrophe that is on us now.


(Rajendra Shende an is IIT Bombay alumni, a former director of UNEP and currently chairman of Terre Policy Centre and advisor to Media India Group. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Media India Group. )

(rajendrashende.com, rajendrashende.blog)



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