Many nations join India’s call to phase down all fossil fuels

  • The European Union and the U.K. have said they will join India’s call at the climate summit in Egypt to phase down all fossil fuels provided the earlier agreed-upon pace of coal phase-down is not slowed.
  • Many other nations are likely to back the proposal, including 39 countries of the Alliance of Small Island States, seriously threatened by the rise in temperatures and sea levels.
  • India’s diplomatic offensive at the U.N. climate summit in Egypt puts the spotlight on oil and gas-producing nations, as well as countries that rely on coal. The outcome remains uncertain.

After India suggested a faster phase-down of all fossil fuels and not just coal, the proposal found support from other countries at the U.N. summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, including the European Union and the U.K.

What on Saturday was seen as a diplomatic offensive by India, which relies heavily on coal for its growing economy, has emerged as a major taking point in the second week of COP27, making a splash on Tuesday when Frans Timmermans, chief climate negotiator of the European Union, said that the bloc supported India’s call as long as it does not slacken the pace of phasing down coal, as was agreed earlier.

“We are in support of any call to phase down all fossil fuels,” Timmermans said at a media briefing. “But we also have to make sure that this call does not diminish the earlier agreements we had on phasing down coal, so if it comes on top of what we already agreed in Glasgow, then the E.U. will support this proposal.”

Indian environment minister Bhupender Yadav presenting India’s statement at Tuesday’s plenary at the summit venue. Photo sourced from PIB

At the Glasgow climate summit last year, this led to a standoff between India and other major economies on the phasing out of coal. The rich countries wanted to include the phrase ‘phase out,’ which India opposed, insisting on ‘phase down’ as an alternative. The Glasgow declaration ultimately called for a phase-down of coal.

India’s call could find strong support from the 39 nations comprising the Alliance of Small Island States, which are facing an existential threat because of rising global temperatures and consequent rise in sea levels. Some of them, like Tuvalu and Vanuatu, last week called for what they termed as fossil fuel non-proliferation.

Shakeup in summit

The shakeup in the second week comes amid work that started on Saturday to draft a declaration that can be presented for unanimous agreement at the end of the summit. The Egypt presidency has indicated that the two-page outline of the expected deal is for further discussions. There will surely be many more changes in the contours and language that are important in such multilateral documents.

Whether the call for the phase down of all fossil fuels is included in the final text or not, it remains a welcome development, experts said.

“The proposal has India coming from a position of strength,” said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow at the Council on Energy Environment and Water, a think tank. “It demonstrates ambition and puts the spotlight on all fossil fuels, and not just coal,” he adds.

India has demonstrated its willingness to take climate action by reducing energy subsidies, said Shruti Sharma, senior policy advisor at the International Institute of Sustainable Development. “India has been steadily reducing fossil fuel subsidies,” Sharma said while adding, “In the past seven years, there has been a 72% reduction in subsidies.”

India is also one of the few signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement that has submitted higher voluntary cuts, known as nationally determined commitments, experts pointed out. “The whole world has to show progress if the targets of the Paris pact are to be met,” said Sharma.

There seems to be broad support among nations on the proposal, said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative of the World Resources Institute, a research outfit. There is no doubt that “we need to phase down all fossil fuels,” Waskow said.

The development comes at a time when China on Monday agreed to resume climate talks with the U.S. after a meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. The stands that the world’s two largest emitters take could well determine the fate of India’s proposal.

Both India and China depend heavily on coal to power their economic development. Although India has agreed to phase down coal, China has so far made no such commitment as it continues to build new thermal power plants at a rapid pace. “Both China and India have to take the coal phase-out seriously,” Waskow said.

The world must swiftly cut carbon emissions from coal to avoid severe impacts of climate change, the International Energy Agency said in a new report on Tuesday. Although there has been some movement in this regard, they remain inadequate.

A railway loading centre at Talcher where coals mined in Talcher are loaded into the trains. India is also one of the few signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement that has submitted higher voluntary cuts. Photo by Manish Kumar/ Mongabay

A majority of global coal consumption takes place in countries that have pledged to achieve net zero emissions. However, far from declining, global coal demand has been stable at near-record highs for the past decade. If nothing is done, emissions from existing coal assets would, by themselves, tip the world across the 1.5 °C limit, the report says.

Oil and gas conundrum

India’s proposal to shift the emphasis of phase down to include all fossil fuels and not just coal is not expected to go down well with major oil and gas producing nations that, include the U.S., Russia, and the oil cartel of OPEC+ countries.

Investments in crude oil and natural gas production show no signs of declining. In fact, investments in the planet-warming oil industry continue to outpace the sum total of global resources allocated to battle climate change.

Based on the scientific evidence presented by the International Panel on Climate Change, the landmark Paris pact agreed to contain the global temperature rise to “well within” 2°C and make efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. Although this implied reducing and ultimately ending fossil fuel use, no explicit reference was made in the agreement.

India’s proposal also assumes significance because it now holds the presidency of the G20 grouping of major economies that account for some 80% of the gross world product and two-thirds of the global population. Western nations will find it hard to oppose India’s proposal, as seen by the European Union’s early support. Whether it finds unanimous acceptance remains to be seen.

Banner image: Civil society protesters demonstrating against fossil fuels at the UN summit in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh. Photo by Soumya Sarkar.

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