The Implications of India’s Climate Promise at COP26

Larkin Gallup, Editor

Over the past week, leaders from over 200 countries met in Glasgow for COP 26. This was the 26th meeting of the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (referred to as the Conference of the Parties), and featured delegates from all around the world, representing nations, NGOs, and different industries. Meetings like these occur for two main reasons. Firstly, they provide a form of accountability: World leaders are expected to give highly public accounts of their efforts to mitigate climate change, exposing them to possible shaming if their efforts are not deemed substantial enough. Secondly, they provide a space where common goals and plans can be formulated: Nations can plan on future collaboration and push their peers to adopt more (or less) ambitious goals and plans. This combination of recapitulation and planning offers a centralized platform for more organized mitigation and increased accountability.

In the past week, as world leaders have given their statements, the main goals have been revealed as ending/reversing deforestation, fully divesting from coal as an energy source, and making/updating promises to become net neutral by a certain date. President Biden promised that the United States would cut greenhouse gas emissions by well over a gigaton, increase and update renewable energy infrastructure, and would strive towards becoming carbon net-neutral by 2050. Biden also promised to sign on to internationally-based efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and prevent future global warming, including a promise to help developing nations in these efforts. Though these strong words implied an optimistic about-face from the past four years of US climate policy, President Biden’s credibility was slightly hindered by the US’s failure to pass the Clean Electricity Performance Program, an ambitious bill aiming for emissions reductions, as reported by NPR.


Though Brazil’s President Bolsonaro did not make an appearance at the conference, Environmental Minister Joaquim Leite promised that his country will be a “part of the solution” and will encourage green projects in efforts towards a green economy. These statements come in opposition to Brazil’s past climate policy, which has included staggering rates of Amazon deforestation and agribusiness expansion. It remains extremely unclear whether these statements are meaningful, and if there will be any significant changes to Brazil’s climate policy and rhetoric, especially given President Bolsonaro’s increased international isolation and thus-far refusal to acknowledge the problems in Brazil’s environmental laws or his government’s efforts to weaken them.


Unlike the statements made by American and Brazilian leaders, Chinese president Xi Jinpeng made no major climate promises in his written remarks. Instead, he called on developed countries to aid developing countries in their efforts to “do better”, echoing statements by developing countries for the past few decades. While he urged countries to jointly take action, and said his country would “speed up the green and low-carbon energy transition, vigorously develop renewable energy, and plan and build large wind and photovoltaic power stations”, he made no serious promises regarding becoming carbon net-neutral, an extremely hot topic at the conference. Silence on this matter looks especially bad for China—given they are the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitter—and overshadows the other, legitimate promises made and reports given on progress.


China’s lack of a carbon net-neutrality promise looked even worse when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued India’s first-ever net-neutral pledge, stating that India would have net-zero emissions by 2070. At first, this pledge seems disappointing and unambitious—scientists have declared that the world needs to go net-zero by 2050 to escape the worst effects of the climate crisis; a country as large as India being two decades late could become a serious obstacle to this goal. However, it is necessary to put this pledge into context: India is the world’s largest democracy, at 1.4 billion people, and has thus far never made a climate policy promise of this scale. India is also a developing country, and does not have the level of green energy infrastructure that other major countries do.


That fact, and India’s pledge in general, sheds a worrying light on the framework and priorities of the United Nations when it comes to preventing climate change. Today’s developed countries, including the United States, Russia, members of the European Union, and others, have caused much of the climate crisis, and to this day have the most per capita greenhouse gas emissions. They are also the nations that have the money and infrastructure to better mitigate climate change, as well as prevent future warming.


Now, as developing countries such as India and China begin to grow their economies, and as a result, emit more greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change in other ways, developed nations expect them to put their development and economic growth on hold in order to help fix a problem they did not create. This demonstrates a continued lack of accountability on the part of developed nations, as they attempt to shift responsibility for the climate crisis off of themselves and onto developing nations. Especially considering the lack of universal access to electricity in India and the nation expects a larger increase in energy demand in the next twenty years than any other part of the world, it is unfair, to say the least, that these burdens have been placed on India.
These sentiments were echoed by Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav in his statement, where he revealed that India would expect climate finance of 1 trillion USD to aid in mitigation efforts and infrastructure building. Requests of this nature are not new in the international climate sense; the success of the Montreal Protocol of the late 1980s was largely due to the fact that developed nations gave more than 3.7 billion USD to developing nations in order to help them reach the goal of protecting the ozone layer. The imbalance of responsibility highlighted above has historically been addressed in the form of payments, so India’s request is therefore not surprising. While the request does work to shift responsibility back onto developed nations, as well as address the continued lack of infrastructure in developing nations that may impede the timeline of mitigation, it also takes a lot of pressure off India.


When evaluating the implications of India’s net-neutral promise, it is important to realize that, because they have made their goal contingent on the receipt of an extremely ambitious climate finance demand, they have a relatively easy out if they do not achieve this goal. This is of course because it is highly unlikely that the international community will pay this amount; there has not been an international fund set up like that associated with the Montreal Protocol, or any consolidated framework for the payment. Though India’s promise does seem ambitious given the country’s size and relative lack of infrastructure, it is somewhat weakened by its contingency on receiving climate finance. That contingency, rather, works to equitize climate change mitigation efforts, the efficiency of which is yet to be determined.

[1]  The White House, Remarks by President Biden at the COP26 Leaders Statement, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/11/01/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-cop26-leaders-statement/.

[2] Eric McDaniel, “Joe Manchin’s objections to a clean energy program threaten Biden’s climate promises”, NPR, October 16 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/10/16/1046778414/joe-manchins-objections-to-a-clean-energy-program-threaten-bidens-climate-promis

[3] Fabio Texeira, “Brazil seeks to burnish its climate credentials as COP26 nears”, Reuters, October 27 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/brazil-seeks-burnish-its-climate-credentials-cop26-nears-2021-10-27/

[4] Xi Jinping, Statement at COP26 Climate Summit, Xinhua News Agency, 2021

[5] Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Is India’s pledge of net zero by 2070 an ambitious target – or worthless words?”, The Guardian, November 5 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/05/is-indias-pledge-of-net-zero-by-2070-an-ambitious-target-or-worthless-words.

[6]  “India says it expects climate finance of USD one trillion ‘at the earliest’”, The Tribune, November 3 2021, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/india-says-it-expects-climate-finance-of-usd-one-trillion-at-the-earliest-333849

[7]  “Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer”, Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment, 2021, https://www.awe.gov.au/environment/protection/ozone/montreal-protocol

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