Rachel Kyte: ‘India should be a hugely investable proposition for the rest of the world’

According to Rachel Kyte, Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and a member of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level advisory group on climate action, the answer to the question of what the world achieved at the 2021 Glasgow climate talks, and what happens from here on, depends in large part on where you live. While going into the Glasgow summit, countries’ commitments had put the world on a trajectory of warming about 2.9 °C this century, well beyond the 1.5 °C goal, India’s announcement in Glasgow on reaching net zero emissions by 2070 and generating 50 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2030, has helped lower that trajectory.

She tells Anil Sasi while that may not be enough, as evidenced by the bleak outlook in the latest IPCC report, countries are likely to return for the next round of climate talks in November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, with stronger commitments to put the world on track for 1.5°C, she adds. Edited excerpts:

The latest IPCC report projects that without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach. How do you read the predictions?

Well, we’ve been warned… and still we put our hand in the fire. The cost of not doing anything is way higher… But the problem is, we’ve been told that a lot of the solutions can be deployed, that they can be deployed more cheaply than we think they can. That to not deploy them would be more expensive. And we still don’t do anything. And, and yes, it’s difficult. I mean, these are massive transitions. But that’s what we have to focus on… But I think the other thing that’s evident is that we left it for so late…

This is the first time that carbon removal has been so centrally discussed. So that means changing our relationship with nature, because it means paying farmers to keep the carbon in the soil, it means stopping deforestation, reforesting landscapes, and all of the technologies on (carbon) capture… So at the moment, those are very expensive. They’ll get cheaper, but we’ve left it to the point now, where we have to use all technical expertise and a lot of cash to pull this stuff out of the atmosphere, because we’re having a political debate. About whether or not, we go to renewables quickly enough. And it’s a political debate, because the opposition to that is note from ordinary people. The opposition to that is the oil and gas lobby. So these people are in the system, and are allowed this kind of stranglehold on political decision making, and it’s going to cost us therefore more than it should to make the transition.

There seems to be deliberation on the mitigation and adaptation strategies, but when we look at the third leg of the climate action – of loss and damage – there’s very little to show in terms of commitments. Why?

This is a very emotive issue… So there is this righteous indignation, which is entirely correct, from developing countries, that there should be loss and damage… And there should be significant money behind loss of damage, right? That the global north should hold it stand up and say we caused the problem. We’re going to put a bunch of cash, separate from everything on mitigation and adaptation, to one side. And we’re going to use that as payments for loss and damage.

You can’t really argue with the facts of the matter…

We’ve got this stalemate between the developing world and the US and the EU… How do we generate additional funds, you know, and into a loss and damage facility, who’s going to put the money in and how are we going to do it? Some people have suggested that perhaps we need to stop trying to solve it at the global level, and start having regional conversations where it becomes a neighbourhood conversation, not a reparations and liability conversation… So could you imagine that the United States can reconceptualise its strategic interest in supporting its neighbours, the Caribbean, Central America? Could you see a world where the French can reconfigure, you know, in the Mediterranean and North Africa, whatever, that is not going to satisfy the political narrative of loss and damage, but it might allow for, you know, some kind of movement because at the moment, we’re just like this.

And the United States, whether it’s a Biden administration or Republican administration, you know, it’s not going to accept international liability on anything. I mean, it’s not just climate, they don’t belong to the International Criminal Court for the same reason. And then also and then I think there’s an emotive issue around reparations in the United States because of its history… We’re in a world where there’s low social trust and as low trust between countries.

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There are lots of things which are global goods, which needs to be protected and invested in and we have to find ways to pay for that… And then there’s loss and damage within countries. Even in rich countries, people on low incomes are highly vulnerable to climate change. They did nothing to create it either. This year is certainly not going to be one where there’s a diplomatic breakthrough on loss and damage, so I don’t think we’ll go to Sharm el-Sheikh with a breakthrough. And what we need to do is find a way to move the conversation of the place where it’s stuck…

Your views on India’s approach at Glasgow, the early commitment on renewables and the subsequent intervention on phasing down coal?

I think what was really very strong about Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi’s announcement in Glasgow was the 50% of energy coming through renewables by 2030. Because that is really ambitious… On the debate over the phased out or phase down (of coal), that I understood very much to be the China and India perspective: look, we’ve made our commitments. How we get there is our business.

So you’re not going to micromanage us. I mean, that’s what I saw… Now, of course, India wants a lot of investment coming in as well.

And it needs that investment in order to make sure that the grid is smart enough to absorb all the renewables to speed up the transition and to help with the social disruption of the transition and to help establish scale and speed perhaps in green hydrogen or whatever.

And India should be a hugely investable proposition for the rest of the world. Because I think we’ve got to make sure that India meets its green targets. And then we’ve got to make sure that India becomes a green powerhouse…

But I think there’s this general understanding of the country like India, you can’t get out of coal tomorrow, right? And that has to be a managed transition with huge social implications, and that India should get help with that. So the South Africa deal is important… Then as a community, the focus can be on how to replicate South Africa in other coal dependent economies (the United States, the UK, France, Germany and the European Union have pledged upwards of 8.5 billion dollars to help South Africa finance a quicker transition from coal). So there’s a coalition being built to support Indonesia and then Vietnam. India is a little different. India doesn’t need an international coalition… but India wants the support to come alongside. And that’s what John Kerry and everybody has got to do.

There are multiple paradoxes in the transition itself. For instance, the wind, solar and wind have gotten cheaper, electric vehicles are being pushed, but all of the minerals that are needed for these transitions are expensive and their exploitation degrades the environment. Be it copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt or silicon. And the war in Ukraine has complicated supply chains further. Also, India’s EV push is not the same as in Norway, where 99per cent of the electricity is hydro?

So first of all, the solar supply chains are highly dependent on one region in China. The war in the Russian invasion of Ukraine has also brought all the way to the top of the agenda, people’s nervousness around sovereignty of supply chains, right and having supply security.

That supply chain is also disrupted. Because of COVID, and because of events in China, and now the war. So just at the time when we want to ramp up, we’ve realized that we’ve got this highly dependent supply chain with problems added, which is entirely disruptive. You’re beginning to see effects of inflation on the renewable energy market as well.

We’re just starting to see prices of solar PV and wind go up again, for the first time in 10 years like this. Then you’ve got the commodity supply chains into the electric mobility revolution. And then I think, again, there’s a security of supply issue, the dominance of China.

Also, the very vulnerable and weak governance regimes in some of the places that we depend upon (for supplies). Yeah, so of course, the answer to all of this is innovation. So in innovating, you need less lithium or whatever. And you’re obviously recycling the circular economy, the extent to which you can recycle. As we discover a strategic dependency, then, you know, how do you get around that? So, I don’t think it’s easy at all. And the frustrating thing from the point of view of the scientists is that they’ve been warning us for 30 years. We didn’t do anything. So now we’ve got to get our act together really quickly to get out of this mess…

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