Two weeks of the most crucial negotiations ever held on slowing the destructive warming of the earth in this century began in Paris on Nov. 30. The importance of the 21st Convention of Parties — COP21 — was evident in the attendance of more than 150 world leaders and other participants, a total representation of nearly 200 nations and territories. Moreover, the conference went on as planned although Paris was still in a state of emergency after terrorist attacks killed 130 people only a few weeks earlier.
President Barack Obama reflected on the juxtaposition of events in his opening remarks on the importance of the conference. “And we salute the people of Paris for insisting this crucial conference go on — an act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children,” he said. “What greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it?”
After more than two decades of bickering over which nations are to blame for pollution and who is to pay to help the poorest countries adjust, reports from Paris say that about 95 percent of governments represented at the conference had earlier submitted or brought with them concrete proposals for how they would act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon dioxide. If the global rise in the level of CO2 is not kept to 2 degrees Celsius or lower, scientists say, the effects on the earth could be catastrophic.
The conference, which is scheduled to close on Dec. 11, featured a succession of global leaders, beginning with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who, with only a year left in office, had hoped to make climate change his legacy issue, before the world erupted in conflict and humanitarian crises on an unprecedented scale.
“You are here today to write the script for a new future,” Ban said at the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, as it is formally called. “We have never faced such a test. But neither have we encountered such great opportunity. You have the power to secure the well-being of this and succeeding generations.”
There are some still-difficult issues to resolve. A major one is whether any agreement that emerges from Paris will be legally binding, as many nations demand. American analysts argue that this would be impossible for the Obama administration to accept because signing a binding agreement would mean the US Congress would have to approve it — an unlikely event, given the objections of Republicans, some of the most outspoken among them taking the position that scientists are wrong and there is no human threat to the global climate.
Other issues involve demands for funds from richer nations to developing countries to mitigate or prevent climate change. Developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, argue that their poor societies have contributed negligible amounts of greenhouse gases while facing environmental disaster caused by the emissions of industrial countries. There are also debates about carbon pricing, a system of assigning a monetary value to emitters within countries, who might then be fined for failing to meet emission standards or given the opportunity to “sell” emissions that they do not use to those who have crossed regulation limits.
While China, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, and the US, in second place, have made positive promises and expressed a willingness to cooperate in leading international action on climate change, large questions hang over India, which often stalls or obstructs global agreements.
India, the world’s third-largest emitter of CO2, submitted proposals that in many estimates fall short of what other nations expect from a nation that relies heavily on “dirty” coal with a high ash content for energy. The Indian government insists that it has the right to industrialize and therefore rely on coal while planning to add more nonfossil sources as well as nuclear power to its energy production. Those alternatives seem to be far off at this point, and reflect the paradox of India’s claiming a place among the world’s biggest economies while operating almost pre-industrial, hugely polluting mines and electrical generation.
The development of nuclear power in India, an industry that American corporations are eager to enter, has been stymied by Indian legislation making impossible demands on foreign companies, prime among them assigning all financial and other responsibilities for any accidents or malfunctions completely to those companies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who courts American investment, has made no serious effort to have this law, passed by an earlier government, overturned.
Rohit Chandra, who is studying energy policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, examined the inherent problems in India’s long-term reliance on coal in a report for the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. “India’s energy mix is not capable of dynamically reorienting towards non-coal alternatives in a 15-20 year timescale,” Chandra wrote. Meanwhile, a polluting industry continues to grow, and India will not say when emissions might peak.
“Coal will remain the dominant source of energy in India in the medium term, even as it makes investments to transition to other sources,” he wrote. “If this is the case, then much more research needs to be done on understanding India’s coal sector, its supply chains, and improving efficiencies in downstream uses of coal. Fortunately, there are some attractive options on this front.”
He mentions coal “washing” to remove the ash. “Indian coals on average contain 40 percent ash, which is much higher than the 25-30 percent ideally needed for the efficient burning of coal in thermal power stations. Burning ash leads to incomplete combustion, which releases many more airborne effluents than necessary.”
India also needs to improve boiler design, Chandra wrote. “Supercritical boilers are superior to conventional boilers because they function at higher temperatures and pressures, which results in more efficient combustion and less waste heat. Supercritical boilers also result in fewer emissions and lower operating costs over the lifetime of a plant, which make them an attractive proposition. However, buying them internationally is not cheap.”
Finally, Chandra concluded, India has “the perennial problem of coal transportation and power plant siting,” which combine to create “extremely ineffective methods of coal transportation.”
Over 20 percent of India’s coal, reflecting the outdated and often shambolic condition of India’s infrastructure and transportation systems, “still moves by road to power plants, which is much less efficient than railways-based movement,” Chandra wrote. “For a truly effective power infrastructure, India needs to move less coal and more power.”
This is the inadequate and often outdated system India is demanding the right to continue and defend in global talks, while its greenhouse gas emissions keep on growing.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.