The covering COP27 quandary

“Of the 1,156 publicly-listed companies, regions and cities that have so far made net-zero pledges … [more than half] are little more than vague commitments or proposals,” according to a new UN report. Even when proper promises to cut emissions are in the picture, “Audi, Volkswagen, Daimler – now Mercedes-Benz – and BMW commissioned Bosch to develop technology which they knew from the beginning violated regulatory compliance, Environmental Action Germany (DUH) said at a press conference, citing internal industry documents leaked to it this summer spanning 2006 to 2015,” Reuters reported two days ago. From cars to cities, one thing is clear: climate commitments are free, the follow-through is what matters. We’re experiencing the same thing with this year’s Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), i.e. COP27. It started off being called the “implementation COP” but looks set to end as a complete disappointment, thanks to developed countries’ reluctance to pony up for a ‘loss and damage’ fund and to adopt a framework to establish the ‘Global Goal on Adaptation’ (not to mention the suffocating conditions in which it physically took place). Within the limited context of COP27 itself, India has scored several brownie points – as it does – by pushing richer countries to up their commitments while the national government has progressively weakened environmental safeguards in India. Yes, economically developing and underdeveloped countries must have a longer runway to reaching net-zero than developed countries, but this doesn’t free any country – developed, developing or underdeveloped – from the responsibility to keep their growth and their green transition just. Many of India’s developmental tendencies are demonstrably not. A good example is its hydroelectric push in the north and the northeast, facilitated by the wilful oversight of public opinion, degrading land, more frequent floods, heightened erosion, disruptions to aquatic species and their combined consequences for the Indigenous people who depend on riparian ecosystems. But at multilateral fora, India cashed in with a 2019 policy change in which it declared large hydropower projects (>25 MW capacity) “as renewable energy sources”. This calculus obviously overlooks the lifecycle emissions of hydroelectric power and its ecological cost, more so when, as in India, the government has gone on a dam-building spree even on individual rivers. We need dams, sure, but why do they always have to be built by degrading their local environments? When the Union environment ministry submitted “India’s Long-Term Low-Carbon Development Strategy” report to the UN FCCC on November 1, India became the cynosure of many eyes at COP27 because fewer than 60 other countries had filed similar plans. Is this India cashing in again? Because, remember, commitments are free.

The actual point I wanted to make through all this was something else: spare a thought for the journalist covering the climate talks and countries’ commitments here. Do they report on announcements of commitments and therefore have lots to write about but also become part of the hype machine, do they ignore the announcements because without action they remain “blah, blah, blah”, or do they interrogate every announcement as such and become submerged in cynical thinking?