Climate Change

The challenge at COP28 really is to have clean language saying “phase out” all fossil fuels: Minal Pathak

Down To Earth talks to Minal Pathak, associate professor at Ahmedabad University and senior scientist of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Monday 27 November 2023

Representational Photo: iStockRepresentational Photo: iStock

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its 2023 Emissions Gap Report on November 20. The report concluded that Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) made under the Paris Agreement would put the world on track for limiting temperature rise to 2.9°C above pre-industrial levels this century.

With negotiations at the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change beginning in a few days on November 30, Down To Earth spoke with one of the authors of the report, Minal Pathak. 

Pathak is Associate Professor at Ahmedabad University and Senior Scientist of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She talked about her expectations from COP28 and the urgent need for a phasing-out of all fossil fuels. Edited excerpts:

Rohini Krishnamurthy (RK): Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to rise. The UNEP Emissions Gap Report also states that 86 days have been recorded with temperatures exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels this year. Given all this, what are your expectations from COP28 this year?


Minal Pathak (MP): Looking at the history of COPs, I would say there should not be any expectations. But on the other hand, given the state of the world, hopes are very high. The buildup of scientific information in recent years, and in recent days has been phenomenal. And now, there isn’t that much room for countries or organisations to make excuses. I am hopeful.

RK: What about equitable emission reductions? Developing countries like India have little historical responsibility for causing the crisis. Given the gravity of the situation, what should be the course of action?

MP: It is a big point of discussion. While we represent a large country, I am not one of the negotiators. And I would say, let us talk about the achievable or small wins. I agree that finance is an important element of the discussion, and so is technology transfer. All the points raised by developing countries are valid.

But there shouldn’t be any excuse to continue on the path of unsustainable development. If you look at current development patterns, whether it is urbanisation or buildings, or transportation, we are not developing equitably within India. There is a lot of inequity.

We are supporting car-based development, high rises, and concrete-based construction, all of which worsen the impacts of climate change. It is possible to take actions that have to be taken at the national level, and at the sub-national level, for example on the demand side which are not being taken.

Let the big-ticket items be discussed in big-ticket events. But if we are going to talk about the scale at which we can act, then there are enough options out there. There is the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) report, which lists down a whole lot of actions that are possible and not very expensive. The recent Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Webinar also highlighted sectoral actions that align with development. There are ways in which you can bring about reductions equitably.

RK: Do you also expect to see the inclusion of “phase out of all fossil fuels” included in the cover decision at COP28?

MP: We support a phase out of all fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas. So the challenge really is to have clean language saying “phase out” and not have a watered-down qualifier-laden language with jargon to leave room for inaction or lower ambition post-COP. We have to really watch out that doesn’t happen.

We are at this stage where there is no major evidence left to be uncovered. We know the intensity of the climate change issue. Sure, there are some uncertainties in the response of the climate system for example. But we have a much better understanding of the problem, the scale, who the big contributors are, and the mitigation and adaptation actions that can address the problem.

We have had success before with environmental agreements, including for ozone. We achieved large-scale behavioural change during COVID-19. Sure, phasing out of all fossil fuels is much more complex, but we have to do it.

I am hopeful that at least there will be a huge effort from some countries and groups to take climate action seriously and to have “phase out” inserted in the cover decision.

But I would also consider, for example, doubling energy efficiency or tripling renewable energy capacity as a win.

Even if a miracle happens and countries agree, we would still need language to say which countries are going to do so and by when. India can’t stop coal overnight or even immediately in the next few years. So maybe countries with the highest historic responsibility could immediately start the process of phasing out, whereas some countries would have to set their own timelines in line with what is possible.

RK: If “phase out” of all fossil fuels is included in the cover, what does it mean for India?

MP: Regardless of whatever happens at COP28, we know that a lot of Indian coal districts are extremely poor and suffer from severe air quality. A transition to lower demand, energy efficiency and clean energy supply will well align with sustainable development.

If there is political intent, it is possible for us to move away from coal gradually. India should progress on this pathway, regardless of the outcomes of COPs. I think India should work on removing the inefficiencies around coal, and inefficiencies around consumption.

RK: The Emissions Gap report has a separate chapter on Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR, in short, refers to technologies, practices, and approaches that remove and durably store carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere). What was the motivation behind it, given that CDR has polarised the scientific community and is controversial?

MP: We had discussions on CDR and there were polarised views among the authors on whether or not to include it. But the reason behind having a chapter on CDR was to say that these options are not ready; most are not proven to scale and are still very expensive.

On the other hand, there are sectors for which renewables cannot work. And we call them hard to abate. Also with renewables, there is the question of storage as well as intermittency. There will be some residual emissions, for which we will need a small amount CDR.

Therefore, the opinion of some experts is that we need to start thinking about these to look at the available options only where needed. We cannot sit back, continue to emit and wait for CDR technologies to mature. It is scientifically problematic because we will never have CDR to that scale.

RK: How should the UNEP emissions report feed into the global stocktake — an assessment of the progress of countries towards their climate targets — that which will conclude this year?

MP: The UNEP Gap Report provides an annual, independent science-based assessment of the gap between the pledged GHG emissions reductions and the reductions required to align with the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, as well as opportunities to bridge this gap.

The objectives of the COP28 closely mirror the objective of the Emissions Gap Report, and the report aims to provide findings relevant to the concluding discussions under the global stocktake.

To inform COP 28 — including on the outcomes needed from the global stocktake — and set the scene for the next round of NDCs that countries are requested to submit in 2025, which will include emissions reduction targets for 2035, this report looks at what is required this decade and beyond 2030 to maintain the possibility of achieving the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.

It underscores that maintaining this possibility hinges on relentlessly strengthening mitigation action this decade to narrow the emissions gap. This will facilitate significantly more ambitious targets for 2035 in the next round of NDCs, and pave the way for enhancing the credibility and feasibility of the net zero pledges.

As scientists, we have provided robust science, clear messaging and, graphics, strong, impactful messages, and outreach. We will need the group that assembles in Dubai, to say: we have now all this in front of us, what are we going to do with it and agree on some sensible conclusion that works for all parties.

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