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India at CoP28: Promises and perils in the way of climate action

Would world leaders' presence at the climate summit be enough to limit the damage from climate change already evident across an Earth ravaged by increasing heat waves, flooding, droughts, landslides and crop failures, from California to Australia to India?

Published: Dec 4, 2023 03:14:49 PM IST
Updated: Dec 4, 2023 03:39:34 PM IST

India at CoP28: Promises and perils in the way of climate actionThe 20 previous collapses at Silkyara, where miners were rescued after 41 days being trapped under a tunnel collapse, indicate that the fragile Himalayan area faces existential decline. The process of its decline constitutes clear and present danger to those who live and work there and to its irreplaceable biodiversity and species. Image: Sajjad Hussain / AFP
 
On November 30, following the opening of the world’s most important annual Climate Summit, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties 28 (CoP28) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on X "Landed in Dubai to take part in the COP28 Summit. Looking forward to the proceedings of the Summit, which are aimed at creating a better planet.”
 
Modi was joined in the UAE by other world leaders including United Nations Chief Antonio Guterres, possibly the world’s most outspoken figure on the climate crisis; John Kerry, special climate envoy to the US President and signatory to the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States of America; King Charles III of the United Kingdom, a passionate and lifelong advocate for protecting the environment; and others.
 

President of CoP28, who is also Head of the UAE’s national oil company, Adnoc, Sultan Al Jaber promised to bring a “business mindset” to the deliberations. The focus on business is apparent amidst the UAE’s extravagant infrastructure built with oil riches: Fantastical high-rises and man-made islands built with sand imported from Australia; artificial gardens and lavish lifestyles to be watered by icebergs proposed to be towed from the Antarctica.
 
Meanwhile back home in India, the focus of media attention barely had time to shift away from one of the largest rescue operations in Indian history: One day before CoP 28 began, 41 miners were rescued from the under-construction Silkyara tunnel in the ecologically fragile Himalayan State of Uttarakhand.
 
The miners were lucky: They were found miraculously alive after 17 days of highly publicised search and rescue. The focus on their rescue, however, downplayed the message of 20 previous collapses at the same location: It’s the fragile Himalayan area where they were trapped that faces existential decline. The process of its decline constitutes clear and present danger to those who live and work there and to its irreplaceable biodiversity and species.
 
The Silkyara tunnel collapse was the latest in a series of tragedies in the Himalayas where climate change has caused glaciers to melt at an unprecedented rate. In this increasingly unstable area, the risk of flooding, landslides and shifting of land is further aggravated by development activities which do not adequately safeguard against long-term environmental impact.

A man-made dam burst in February 2021 and washed away the village of Reini. Unchecked sand mining of the Ganga river worsened the effects of the consequent floods, killing at least 31 persons, causing 164 missing and damage to over 4,000 built structures. In January 2023, the town of Joshimath had to be evacuated when its houses shifted and cracked following the expansion of a road nearby.
 
Anjal Prakash, clinical associate professor (research) at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business (ISB),  told me over a phone call, “Coming to the events that are happening in India, I think we need to re-visit and re-vamp those projects which were conceptualised when climate change was not that stark. At this moment when climate change is almost striking us day in and day out we must re-evaluate the ways in which we are developing, especially in the Himalayas.”
 
Would CoP 28 prevent recurrence of other tragedies like the Silkyara tragedy and the many others afflicting the Himalayas recently?
 
Would world leaders’ presence at CoP28 be enough to limit the damage from climate change already evident across an Earth ravaged by increasing heat waves, flooding, droughts, landslides and crop failures, from California to Australia to India?

Also read: Carbon Credits: India's ethical environmental trading and global climate challenge

 
On December 12, 2015, 196 countries of the world committed to the Paris Agreement which came into force as legally binding on November 4, 2016. It’s stated aim is to “substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to hold global temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
 
Six years later, the political importance of the CoP meetings was escalated when several Heads of State attended CoP26 in Glasgow, billed as the last chance to control global warming, pointed out Anjal Prakash, who is an author for IPCC’s sixth assessment report and has observed the CoP meetings for almost a decade.

By then, the biggest UN poll ever, in January 2021  revealed that two thirds of the world’s population believed that the climate crisis was a global emergency and that Climate was playing an increasing role in political outcomes of elections.
 
The UN agreed that global warming constituted an emergency. “Code Red” said Guterres at CoP26.
In the intervening two years since then, the world sweltered under increasingly hot summers and an unprecedented heatwave in July 2023 across US, Africa, Asia and Europe. Guterres re-assessed our situation  and escalated his warning “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”
 
Those who suffered most included the most vulnerable sections of society, including women, children, forest and island dwellers, many of whom face severe disruption to their lives including displacement and death. “The UN Refugee Agency warned that more than half of all displaced people, a staggering 32.6 million, were displaced in 2022 because of climate disasters, even with the Ukraine war raging,” says Laika Abdulali, PhD Candidate, University of California, Berkeley Law School.

India at CoP28: Promises and perils in the way of climate actionNear the end-point of India’s southern portion, UNESCO included 130 sq. kms of Greater Nicobar’s primary forest - where the Shompen Tribes maintain their centuries-old lifestyles - in their Man and Biosphere Program in 2013. As we watch, an airport, power plant, and township are set to replace it along with the mangroves and coral reefs which once formed the Galathea Wildlife Sanctuary but will be replaced with a mega-port. Image: Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
 
Unsurprisingly, among the most vulnerable are island nations who are among the most vocal for effective action against climate change at CoP 28.
 
“Island dwellers are especially at risk of being displaced. 20 percent of Dominica’s citizens left the Caribbean island following Hurricane Maria (2017),” Ama Francis, climate director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, USA, told me.
 
India too contains vulnerable islands including the Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. “The UN Refugee Agency flagged that India saw almost five million people become internally displaced in 2021, because of climate disasters,” adds Laika
 
These vulnerable people know little of how the deliberations in far-away UAE would affect their daily lives. More immediate problems are those of disrupted weather patterns: Crop failures, droughts and flooding, illnesses due to air, water and noise pollution and displacement.
 
The Shompen tribes,  who depend on the eco-sensitive coral island of the Greater Nicobar for their ancient lifestyle will be displaced, along with their sacred river, hunting and foraging grounds when a Rs 72,000 crore development project named ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ commences.
 
The 17 year-long pleas of the Nicobarese Tribes who lived alongside the Shompen on the Greater Nicobar, but were displaced by a tsunami in 2004 and forced to live in ‘temporary’ settlements, have come to naught. They are now faced with permanent exile as the Government proceeds with its plans.
 
Not only the tribal people who live in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands face displacement. Its unique biodiversity is threatened too. In 2013, the UNESCO included 130 sq. kms of Greater Nicobar’s primary forest in their Man and Biosphere Program. As we watch, an airport, power plant, and township are set to replace it along with the mangroves and coral reefs which once formed the Galathea Wildlife Sanctuary but will be replaced with a mega-port.
 
Though crucially important to biodiversity, India’s islands form only a small part of its 7,516-long coastline dotted with some of the densest mangrove forests in the world. In Maharashtra, a Bombay high court order helped to strengthen weak enforcement mechanisms of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification and Environment Protection Act to effectively protect mangroves.
 
N Vasudevan, former head of Maharashtra’s Mangrove Cell, explains “Under direction of the Bombay high court, the Maharashtra government brought mangroves under the ambit of the Indian Forest Act and therefore the Forest Department could enforce mangrove protection in a very effective way, using its ground level machinery.”
 
The State Government also created the Mangrove Cell and the Mangrove Foundation under Vasudevan’s leadership to monitor and research mangrove areas, providing budgetary support, “which enabled the creation of a corpus of over Rs600 crore and encouraged the participation of coastal communities in mangrove conservation through several successful livelihood programmes.” The National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-31) of the Government of India urges all the coastal States to create ‘Coastal Ecosystem Cells’, essentially to replicate this model to conserve mangroves. “Unfortunately, this has yet to happen in any other State,” Vasudevan concludes.
 
Other laws to safeguard environment which are not enforced and some of which have even been amended recently to promote “ease of business” at the cost of environment include the Forest Conservation Act, the Forest Rights Act, the National Biodiversity Act and the very CRZ Notification which protects mangroves.

Also read: Will India's G20 leadership bring relief from increasing exposure to climate change?
 
These actions appear at variance with India’s position at CoP28 and as leader of the G20 until September. At CoP26, Guterres had emphasised that “G20 countries have particular responsibility as they represent around 80 per cent of emissions.”
 
Modi’s visit to CoP28 followed closely on India’s prestigious, year-long leadership of the G20 which ended in September 2023.  The website of the G20 asserts “By leveraging its presidency, India is fostering collaborative solutions that not only benefit its own population but contribute to the broader global well-being, reinforcing its spirit of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or the ‘World is One Family’.  
 
‘Climate resilience’ is named as an important component of this global well-being; it’s importance is further underscored by a report released at CoP28 that 10 percent of Indian hospitals would have to shut down or relocate by 2100 because of climate events.
 
However, when Mumbai’s AQI hit ‘very poor” (308 µ/m3.) immediately before the G-20 meetings held in Mumbai, on December 9, 2022,  instead of taking effective action to curb pollution, larger than life cutouts of political leaders and welcome messages disguised the polluting construction equipment barely hidden behind flimsy barriers caked with dust.

India at CoP28: Promises and perils in the way of climate actionApart from the commitments made, the CoP meetings offer a valuable opportunity to evaluate international climate commitments. On 1st December, Modi addressed the Opening session of CoP 28, and proposed to host COP33 Summit in India in 2028. An opportunity for India to clean up polluted cities permanently and a more immediate target than net-zero by 2070. Image: Ludovic Marin / AFP
 
The G20 events included a live musical performance at the Kanheri Caves within the core zone of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where loudspeaker use is banned to protect wildlife, since noise impacts all species. Even caterpillars’ heart beats accelerate with loud noise, lead to ‘road rage’, aggression and changes in migratory patterns according to a study.
 
‘Beautification’ for the G20 also included multi-coloured LED lights placed along roads and lighted billboards in the sea, now a permanent fixture. Light pollution, which, like noise, has potential to disrupt migratory and breeding patterns of birds and animals also can cause adverse health effects to humans.
 
Excessive lights fuel an escalating need for power. India uses coal to produce 49 percent of its installed generation capacity of 4.2 lakh gigawatt. Phasing down coal was a major goal of CoP 26 in 2021. Though India pledged net-zero by 2070, it did not agree to phase-out coal.
 
In line with its policy not to be “pressured” into cutting coal, India also did not sign a pledge on the sidelines of CoP28’s third day to triple  renewable energy, signed by 116 countries, even though the the G20 Summit in New Delhi agreed on this very declaration during its Indian leadership just two months before.

Apart from the commitments made, the CoP meetings offer a valuable opportunity to evaluate international climate commitments. On December 1, when Modi addressed the Opening session of CoP28, he said that India had set an example by striking a perfect balance between ecology and economy.  
 
India also actively supported discussions on the global financial package named the ‘Loss and Damage’ Fund which aims to make reparations to countries of the Global South for the effects of climate change. “Unprecedented that the first day of CoP Loss and Damage has been approved by the countries. Despite some discontent [on the quantum of reparation] at least the Fund is up and running which is very important for countries of the Global South,” said Anjal Prakash.

Also read:  Why marrying ecology with economics is important for sustainable living
 
“India is committed to UN Framework for Climate Change process. That is why, from this stage, I propose to host COP33 Summit in India in 2028,” said Modi in his speech at CoP28.
 
The CoP events are traditionally hosted in winter, the season when Delhi has suffered the worst air pollution in the world for years. Two days after Modi’s speech at CoP28, on November 3, real-time AQI in Delhi recorded 640 µ/m3,  or ‘hazardous’ as it topped the list of world’s most polluted cities.  
 
Via message from CoP28 in the UAE, Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, CSE, says “Within the time that is available we need to scale up multi-sector action not only in Delhi but across the entire region to meet the clean air benchmark. Air quality has to improve to protect public health round the year. This should not be an episodic exercise built around mega events.”
 
Through the haze which envelops it, India’s push to host CoP33 offers a glimmer of hope to Delhi and to other polluted Indian cities which frequently figure in the worldwide top-ten: That residents will demand political and administrative accountability for an effective CoP 33, one which will require Delhi to boast a pollution-free environment in November 2028.  

Certainly, a much more immediate and ambitious target than net-zero by 2070.  

(Sumaira Abdulali is the convenor of the Awaaz Foundation)

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