Turning A Page From An Activist’s COP-Diary: The 26th ‘Carbon’ Copy
In my opinion, every COP seems exclusive because of the fact that young students like me from the Global South always struggle to find financial support for their participation. All the governmental and non-governmental organisations who preach about supporting youth participation should first consider abating the financial constraints of the interested youth.
Srijani Datta, youth climate activist
It has been almost two months since COP26 ended. If I got a penny for everytime I was asked how COP was, I believe I would have enough to cover my entire expenses for COP-26. Jokes aside, since it was my first time getting acquainted with the international politics side of climate policy, it was quite overwhelming. It was not easy, especially because I believe it's made to be not easy, to be inaccessible to most observers, especially young people. In the run up to COP-26, research institutions and global NGOs tried to break down COP related jargon for their audience and people who were going to attend the summit. However, these efforts largely left out the young people who needed it the most. The panels, workshops, and discussions continued to exist within a closely guarded ivory tower of academia populated by researchers, bureaucrats, government officials etc.
Over the course of COP-26, I met so many wonderful young people from civil society who wanted to contribute meaningfully to the negotiations and eventual implementation of the NDCs in their countries. Even though young people like me followed certain negotiation tracks from starting to end, the procedure was very hard to grasp in its entirety. The negotiators referred to several different documents, paragraphs, clauses, leaving you feeling really lost. However, as they spoke in terms of paragraphs and country interests, there were some journalists who broke it down for their social media. I followed what they were posting to understand what was being said inside those plenary rooms. Once the jargon has been dropped, you realise that these issues are so important to you and your future, and that you do understand what this is about, and you have an opinion about it or have some lived experience to support your argument. But you also realise that lived experiences don’t count in COP negotiating rooms.
On the point about whether COP26 achieved a lot or not, I do believe that it made substantial progress on issues which have remained unresolved for a while (Carbon markets, common time frames, sectoral pledges etcetera). The promise of keeping 1.5 degrees alive was met, but just barely. The enhanced ambitions next year will tell us more on whether or not the 2030 decarbonisation goals will allow us to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Sectoral deals covering coal, deforestation, and methane were important highlights of the summit. However, many researchers in India were not in favour of COPs discussing sectoral decarbonisation as I discovered in post COP discussions.
The summit started off on a high note as several heads of state announced enhanced goals under the Paris Agreement. I was asked by almost every journalist I interacted with whether I believed that the 2070 net-zero target for India was a wise choice. While I think India reluctantly submitted to the pressure by the West for declaring a net zero target, having a larger goal to work towards does help. However, I am more interested in the 2030 goals that India has set for itself. India’s non-fossil energy capacity to reach 500GW by the end of this decade is an uphill task, but seems achievable as we invest more and more in solar and green hydrogen. For me, decarbonisation is a social project. Non-fossil fuel sources include hydro-power and nuclear energy which are not always the most desirable means of producing energy. The effect of unplanned hydro-power projects is being felt in the last couple of years most intensely in the Himalayan region of the country through frequent flooding and landslides.
Further, even the way solar energy is being expanded in the country isn’t the most sustainable route to take. Mega solar parks which acquire acres of land and displace thousands of people are being installed in the name of sustainability. The very companies which caused large-scale environmental pollution and displacement of people through their mining projects and thermal power plants are being given the contracts for these mega solar parks. This is especially problematic when decentralised solar power has immense potential in India. Finally, even the 500 GW of renewable energy target shows us half the face of the problem. The other 500GW would still come from coal, considering that only 50% is supposed to be renewable energy. Today India has an installed capacity of 388 GW. At the end of Q1 2021, conventional fossil fuel sources had a cumulative installed capacity of nearly 241 GW, accounting for 63% of the total installed capacity. By the end of the decade this percentage has to be brought down to 50%. Simple math tells us that even though in percentage we might be able to bring it down to 50% if we reach our 500GW renewable energy target, this would also give space to our economy to expand on its cumulative fossil fuel energy capacity. Thus from 241 GW currently it could increase substantially in the next decade. CREA recently found that in India the minable capacity of already allocated coal blocks is around 15 to 20% higher than the expected demand in 2030. This indeed gives India an opportunity to move away from fossil fuels more easily.
Having said that about domestic policies, I still thought that COP-26 revealed the truth about Western dominance on international climate policy formulation, and how easily Western media churns false narratives around the countries of the “developed” world. For example, the United States and the European Union blocked the proposals from developing countries for the COP-26 summit to create a facility providing financial support to victims of climate disasters. Island nations demanded a separate funding facility for loss and damage. They received backing from the G77, a U.N. coalition of 134 developing countries plus China. This wasn’t as widely talked about by the media as one would expect, especially in an international context where severity and frequency of climate disasters has increased substantially. The wealthy countries also blocked calls by developing countries for a working definition of “climate finance” which would help them determine how much of the 100 billion dollar promise is being met. For a while now, not only the quantity but also the quality of climate finance is being questioned, as increasingly high-interest loans are also considered under this category by some institutions. Further, finances which were already being provided for other social justice related projects such as women empowerment, or health and sanitation are also being double counted under climate finance if the programmes that are sponsored have some positive impact on the local ecology. The definition of climate finance is essential to maintaining accountability.
In the final hours of negotiations on the Glasgow climate pact, Indian Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav intervened to propose that “phase-out of unabated coal” be replaced with “phase down”, which led to backlash from other countries and the media. However, most people ignored the fact that the phrase “phase down” also figures in the US-China Joint Declaration on Climate Change announced on November 10. There is also the glaring truth that the pact very conveniently left out the term ‘fossil fuel’ which includes oil and gas, the dominant fuels in developed countries.
In my opinion, every COP seems exclusive because of the fact that young students like me from the Global South always struggle to find financial support for their participation. All the governmental and non-governmental organisations who preach about supporting youth participation should first consider abating the financial constraints of the interested youth. Further, they need to be empowered by equipping them with the right knowledge sources and opportunities to learn from and network with other people in the fields they are interested in. Finally, I am disappointed with seeing youth participation being restricted to only climate policy professionals, bureaucrats or business owners in their late twenties. Most of these youth represent the most privileged sections of our society- rich, white men or in India’s case Ivy League educated, English speaking, upper-caste, urban men. I hope that youth participation is enabled to be inclusive of diverse identities, experiences and interests.
Srijani Datta is an associate editor at Hindu College Gazette, and has been part of the Indian climate movement for almost three years now. She heads a team at Youth For Climate India where she has been involved in making resources for climate education and upskilling of young people in the domains of advocacy,leadership,campaigning and building social movements. Last year,she went to COP26 ( 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference) as a youth delegate from India