DH Deciphers | Phase-out vs phase-down: How a semantic dispute spooked climate talks

Two weeks of UN climate talks at Glasgow, UK, ended last week with a semantic dispute in the agreement's final text
Last Updated : 18 November 2021, 02:35 IST

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Two weeks of UN climate talks at Glasgow, UK, ended last week with a semantic dispute in the agreement's final text. Much of the developed world was disappointed by a last-minute change proposed by India and supported by China and other developing nations. India and China, the two largest producers and consumers of coal, succeeded in replacing the word "phase-out" with "phase-down" in the context of unabated coal power. This seemingly innocuous semantic change has now become the talking point around the world. Let's understand why it's such a big deal:

What does the climate pact say about coal power?

Under the Glasgow Climate Pact, 197 countries have agreed "to keep 1.5°C alive" and "urgently accelerate climate action". In order to achieve this, the initial draft of the agreement had called for accelerating efforts towards the "phase-out" of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and moving to cleaner energy options.

In the final text, the wording was changed to "phase-down", at the insistence of India, China and other developing nations.

Why did India change the wording?

We all know that greenhouse gas emissions are the single biggest source of pollution in the world. And fossil fuels — coal, crude oil and natural gas — are the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It is therefore essential that the world stops or minimises the use of fossil fuels. This would ensure that global warming remains under 1.5°C degrees Celsius above what it was before the industrial age, which had set off climate change in the first place.

India objected to phasing out unabated coal power for obvious reasons. Coal-based thermal power plants meet more than half of India's electricity demand. And phasing out (gradually discontinuing) coal power will badly hit India and other developing nations. India instead suggested phasing it down (gradually reducing its size or amount).

India argued, quite forcefully and effectively, that developing nations should not be asked to stop using coal power when they still have to improve their economies and lift their citizens out of poverty. For the past two centuries, developed countries had used coal power to generate electricity and industrialise their economies. They have found coal power polluting only now and want poor countries to stop using it in the name of climate action. India further argued that it would be difficult for poor countries to stop using coal power because they do not yet have equitable access to clean energy options such as wind, solar or nuclear power. Unless poor countries are able to switch to clean energy options, they should have the option of using coal power but minimise it gradually.

Will the phase-down of unabated coal power affect climate action?

Despite all the brouhaha about coal power, phasing it out is not the be-all and end-all of climate action. The world needs to do much more to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Discontinuing other fossil fuels such as crude oil and natural gas is equally important.

Last but not the least, developing countries should be given the funds and the technology to transition to clean energy options. The cat will have to be belled by rich nations.

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Published 17 November 2021, 19:35 IST

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