Renewable Pledge At COP28

India and China in the Same Boat

Sagar Dhara

India and China refrained from signing the Global Renewable and Energy Efficiency Pledge, a document endorsed by 123 nations in the COP28 held in UAE in the first half of December 2023. The pledge was inspired by an International Energy Agency document titled Net Zero Emissions by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector first published in 2021 and updated subsequently.

The pledge states that “to limit warming to 1.5°C, the world requires three times more renewable energy capacity by 2030, or at least 11,000 GW, and must double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency  improvements from around 2% to over 4% every year until 2030 … and the phase down of unabated coal  power, in particular ending the continued investment in unabated new coal-fired power plants.”

India and China have little quarrel with the COP28 pledge’s recommendations to treble renewable power generation capacity and improve energy efficiency. The growth of renewable power generation capacity (without hydro) since 2015 in India (18.1% pa) and China (23.4% pa) outperformed that of developed economies (10.3% pa) and exceeded the 18% growth rate pa recommended by the renewables pledge. And further investments can be made to fulfil the pledge’s energy efficiency requirement. What vexes India and China is the pledge’s recommendation to phase down unabated coal power.


India and China are among the top five major economies of the world and aspire to join the ranks of the developed countries in the coming decades. As energy use and GDP have a high correlation, both countries must expend increasingly large amounts of energy to boost growth and increase their per capita GDP.

India and China have vast coal reserves and exploiting them is the easiest and most secure way to maintain a high growth rate. Consequently, large investments were made in thermal power to provide the bulk of the electricity generated in India (77%) and China (65%). It is no surprise that both countries were reluctant to sign a pledge to phase down unabated coal power.

India and China’s energy trajectories have serious implications. If these countries use unabated coal till their stated net carbon neutral dates of 2070 and 2060, respectively, they will cause a carbon emission overshoot, unless other countries compensate by becoming net carbon-negative well before 2050, the year that the world must become net carbon neutral to remain within a 1.5oC warming. But no major emitter country has committed to doing this. A significant carbon overshoot will warm the earth beyond the 1.5oC redline, making India one of the severest climate-impacted regions in the world, with frequent extreme weather events, floods, sea rise, crop yield losses, water stress, and glacial lake outburst floods.

If global warming is to be restricted to 1.5oC, India and China cannot become developed countries in the near future. Since the Industrial Revolution began 300 years ago, European and North American countries powered their material development with fossil fuels and notched up a per capita cumulative emission of 1,200 tCO2. In contrast, India and China have per capita cumulative emissions of 42 and 178 tCO2, respectively. If the remaining carbon space  of about 100 GtCO2 for remaining under 1.5oC warming were given entirely to India and China, it would increase their per capita cumulative emissions to 78 and 214 tCO2, respectively. That is far short of the cumulative emissions (a good surrogate for the amount of fossil fuel used) required to achieve the living standards of the developed countries. Additional renewable energy expected to come into line shortly is insufficient to propel India and China to become developed countries.

Another Fallout of India and China’s development policies, driven by the Trickle-down theory, is the increase in inequality over the last four decades. The income share of the top 10% of India’s population increased from 32% to 52%, and that of the bottom 50% dropped from 21% to 13%. China’s story is similar. India and China’s reluctance to endorse the COP28 renewables pledge so that they may use fossil fuels to power faster growth will further exacerbate inequality. This has the potential to increase social conflict between the poor and the rich in these countries.

India is in a Catch-22 situation. If it accelerates its development by burning fossil fuels the downsides are severe climate impacts and increased inequality without making India a developed country. On the other hand, if India reduced fossil fuel use, its relatively high GDP growth rate will decrease and it will continue to lag behind the developed countries’ material standards.

Intergovernmental meetings—COPs, G20, etc., have not helped India resolve its dilemma regarding sustainable development. Indian stakeholders who will be impacted by climate change—working people, farmers and farm workers, Adivasis in forests, fisherfolk, and youth, along with other vulnerable sections of the world’s population, must form their independent platform to discuss programmes that can deliver climate justice, just transition, and global sustainability. They must determine benchmarks for the quantity of energy use, its mix, its equitable distribution, and emissions allocation based on the principles of responsibility (cumulative historic emissions contributing to the climate problem), capacity to contribute to solutions (measured by financial resources above and beyond what is needed to sustain a modest but decent standard of living), and equity.

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Vol 56, No. 30, Jan 21 - 27, 2024