With all its climate problems, South Asia will be a battleground for Cop28's success

The region is no stranger to climate catastrophes, but it is at odds with the world over how to address them

Climate scientists fear that Pakistan's intense flooding over the past year are a sign of worse things to come. AFP
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Cop27 was held last November in Egypt, but already intense preparations are being drawn up around the world by governments, activists and corporations for this year's Cop28 in the UAE.

South Asia, as a whole, has become an increasingly significant region at Cop, but it is also increasingly fragmented when it comes to policy at the global climate regime level, as divergences deepen between India and other states over whether to prioritise economic growth or address climate vulnerabilities. Despite these divergences, the region is likely to have disagreements with oil-producing states, which seek an energy transition that favours gas and other low-carbon fossil fuels over coal, a commodity that is plentiful and relatively cheap on the subcontinent.

Certainly, India has always played a significant role at climate negotiations, leveraging its extensive expertise in diplomacy and global governance as an advocate for the Global South. Right from the start of the first negotiations over the climate change framework in the early 1990s, India took on a role as defender of the rights of developing countries, ensuring that developed economies could not shift responsibilities and their attendant cost burdens on to developing ones.

But as India has itself steadily become wealthier and more powerful, its interests no longer match those of other middle- and low-income nations, but rather other giant economies such as China and Brazil, which share a determination to become high-income countries. For these new leaders in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, the main fear is that prioritising climate action will slow down economic growth, denying them that opportunity to vault up to the next level of prosperity.

Even as this has unfolded, other South Asian states such as Maldives, Bangladesh, and now most recently Pakistan, have emerged as leading voices for low- and medium-income climate-vulnerable states around the world. This is not surprising, as the combination of high population density and geography makes the subcontinent one of the most climate-vulnerable places on the planet. But facts don’t move people as much as stories, and these countries have been better placed to communicate the risks they face, including extreme weather events, than those in Africa's Sahel region, which face a similar level of threat. While these South Asian governments also value growth and development (as can be seen from the economic success of Maldives and Bangladesh), climate change is perceived to be the greatest threat of all; in these countries, it is seen as a current, rather than future, problem.

Following the cataclysmic glacier-fed flooding of 2022, Pakistan was able to push for a climate reparations fund intended to help poor, low-emissions countries cope with the huge disruptions brought on by the high-emissions economies that have fuelled climate change. This is something that Maldives and Bangladesh had demanded for more than a decade with only limited impact.

The overwhelming visuals from Pakistan, as well the undeniable link between global warming and glacial melting, helped push politicians in Europe to accept what their own experts were already telling them; that the Global North had to take moral responsibility for what their GHG emissions were doing. The EU was, in turn, able to bring the other big players on board after hard negotiations. However, China and India, now the largest and third-largest GHG emitters in the world, ensured that they would not be expected to contribute to this fund, which has not yet received pledges of funding from any states.

India continues to rely on coal as a source of energy. AP

Compensation funds are likely to be a major source of discussion at Cop28, but they are not the only area of contention.

The other is over how to make an energy transition that will sufficiently lower overall GHG emissions to avoid a 2°C temperature rise by 2050, the recognised tipping point from global crisis into global catastrophe. The push for renewable energy (wind, solar, tidal and hydro) is widely accepted and relatively uncontroversial, but these fuels cannot meet current or projected energy demands on their own, or even in combination with nuclear energy. The question, then, is whether the world can agree on which fossil fuels are to be used in the meantime, and in what quantity and quality.

Oil producers have been pushing for a "low-carbon" approach that emphasises the importance of a transition from coal to oil and gas as an interim step. This is something that oil-and-gas-poor, but coal-rich, India and China have resisted so far. Both countries, as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh, are in the process of expanding their use of coal, the most GHG-intensive fossil fuel of all. But the volatility of oil and gas prices, and their impact on foreign reserves and the economy as a whole following the Ukraine war, have reinforced an already strong commitment to increasing energy security at all costs.

Given the very close and growing economic relations between oil producers on the one hand and India and China on the other, these differences are being tackled quietly. The worry is that differences between economic great powers tend to produce deadlock, inaction and a loss of momentum – the very things that the planet can least afford as the clock runs down.

For Cop28 to produce results, among other things this deadlock must be overcome. It is essential that discussions acknowledge the interests and perspectives of all major groups of states – oil producers, growth-oriented recent high-emitters, historical high-emitters and high-risk low-emitters. That will allow participants to move towards finding creative and effective climate solutions that can appeal to emerging economies. The UAE as the conference host, with its truly global perspective, would write itself into the history books, as well as the future global architecture, if it can help broker such a solution.

Published: January 25, 2023, 5:00 AM