[Commentary] COP26 opens doors for India to push for a just transition
- The decisions taken at COP26 insist on the need for a just energy transition which opens up opportunities for India.
- India’s coal industry already faces competition from electricity produced from renewable sources and from unprofitable underground coal mines.
- Diversifying the local economy, investing in new green industries to create jobs, take advantage of natural resources, reallocate land for economic purposes and eradicate poverty, underdevelopment and social exclusion in many coal regions are the characteristics of a just transition.
- The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.
As the dust begins to settle on COP26, there is a lot of talk about what the climate talks have really brought about and what should now be the course of action. While there are controversial phrases in the Glasgow Pact, such as on phasing out coal, it is nonetheless clearly recognized that a transition away from fossil fuels is inevitable, and that transition must be fair. The expression “just transition” therefore finds its place on several occasions in the Glasgow Climate Pact.
The Glasgow Pact builds on the deliberations on the just transition since the Cancun Agreement in 2010, then the Paris Agreement in 2015 and the Katowice COP in 2018. The pact while calling on the Parties to accelerate the transition towards low-emission energy systems through a combination of instruments (including technology, government policies and a plan to phase out coal-fired power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies), stressed the need to support a just transition in the process. It also highlights what a just transition must guarantee. It includes eradicating poverty, creating decent and quality jobs, and supporting pathways to sustainable development. For this to happen, the need to support developing countries was clearly recognized.
On November 4, a Just Transition Declaration was also drawn up, which was signed by some of the major fossil fuel-dependent northern countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union and a number of European countries. . The intention to support developing countries and emerging economies to achieve a just transition is becoming important for India. This will be done through the implementation of economic diversification and the transition to clean and resilient growth and development paths ”. Although there is no explicit mention of financial support, it does reinforce the possibility of mobilizing the necessary finance and technology to support a just transition in developing countries.
An opportunity for India to rely on
In Glasgow, India almost took the world by surprise by declaring a target of net zero emissions by 2070. The Prime Minister’s additional announcements of ambitious shorter-term energy and emissions targets ( 2030) demonstrated India’s willingness to accelerate action against climate change. While by insisting on phasing out coal on the last day (instead of a phase-out) India’s intention has now come under heavy criticism, this by no means means a transition to fossil fuels is a pipe dream, or a just transition is not an emergency.
Two factors on the domestic front already suggest the difficult situation of the coal industry:
First, coal-based energy faces strong competition from renewables for power generation. By 2030, the cost of electricity from solar energy is expected to be less than $ 0.027 per kilowatt hour (kWh), or half the cost of electricity generated from coal . This has a clear impact on investments in coal-fired electricity and on the future of the industry.
Second, while the coal industry is profitable overall, this profit comes only from the large surface mining operations of the coal companies, such as Coal India Limited (CIL). There are a large number of underground mines which are unprofitable given their low production and high labor costs. For example, the 180 operational underground mines (almost 40% of the total number of coal mines) produce less than 5% of India’s coal. Clearly, the prosecution of many of these mines has become a handicap for the coal companies, as CIL also acknowledges in its annual report.
The repercussions of this situation are already being felt in many coal states and districts. For example, in Jharkhand, 50% of the mines are closed (officially called temporarily closed), and low profit is one of the main issues plaguing them.
Therefore, India must take this reality into account and start planning for a just transition. A key objective should be to diversify the local economy, to invest in new industries to create green and well-paying jobs, to build on the natural resource base such as forests and agriculture, to reallocate land for economic purposes and to eradicate poverty, underdevelopment and social exclusion. which weighs on many coal regions.
Just transition should, in fact, be a major component of India’s energy transition plan for the next decade and beyond. At present, India’s investments in renewable energy are currently concentrated in the western and southern states of the country, neither of which is the major producer of coal. Therefore, if simultaneous green investments are not planned in coal mining states and districts, these areas will sink into a cycle of unemployment and poverty, exacerbating an already dire situation.
India’s disproportionate amount of informal labor in coal mining and related industries, and the low resilience of local communities in coal districts require early planning. A just transition plan must be in place well before the closure of coal mines and power plants. Any unforeseen and abrupt shutdowns will lead to enormous social disruption, which will undermine the gains of a clean energy transition.
Funding is certainly a prerequisite for this. While at the national level, public and private funds can be mobilized to initiate the transition process, support and cooperation at the global level will play a key role. The developments around the Glasgow COP have finally broken important foundations on this subject.
The announcement of (initial) $ 8.5 billion in support from France, Germany, UK, US and EU to South Africa, to help the countries to move towards clean energy and an economy resilient to climate change, is reassuring for the construction of just transition partnerships ”.
For India to accelerate its energy transition in a fair manner, this long-term partnership (s) and support will be essential. The UNFCCC can play the anchor role to seek such commitments from the Global North to support just energy transitions in the Global South, while ensuring time-bound action. However, to accelerate action in large fossil fuel dependent economies to maximize emission reductions, intergovernmental partnerships outside of the UNFCCC with targeted intervention goals will also be needed. The example of South Africa may be a lead for future collaborations.
There are challenges in every climate conference and Glasgow is no exception. However, it is essential to recognize the opportunities that have presented themselves.
The author is the director of the India Just Transition Center; International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST).
Read more: India offers guidelines for dismantling coal-fired power plants
Banner image: Coal transport in India. Photo by Suyash.dwivedi / Wikimedia Commons.