Friday, October 29 2021

Dive In


NSO—very simply and I will not go into more details—is a private Israeli company. Every export of NSO needs a licence from the Israeli government. We grant the export licence only for exporting to governments. This is the only and the main requirement, they cannot sell it to non-governmental actors. What is happening here in India is a really internal thing of India, and I would rather not go into your internal affairs.

That’s what the Israeli ambassador to India Naor Gilon said to reporters when asked if his country will cooperate with the Supreme Court-appointed committee—which is investigating the use of the spyware Pegasus (explained here). The key bit to note: Pegasus can only be sold to governments. Now which government would be interested in spying on Mamata Banerjee’s political advisor Prashant Kishor? Hmm.

Stuff to check out: The latest episode of the splainer podcast ‘Press Decode’ offers an analysis of the many failures of the law—be it on a Hollywood set or with a Bollywood star’s son. Be sure to head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to listen to it.

Big Story

COP26: A critical climate conference in Glasgow

The TLDR: This weekend, leaders from 197 countries will assemble in Scotland to decide on a plan to avert catastrophic climate change. India has now declared that it will not commit to a net zero emissions target. So does that make us the bad guy? The answer: It’s complicated.


First, some background

What is COP26: COP is shorthand for the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change—an annual meeting of countries which meet to craft a shared strategy to save the planet. One such meeting—COP21—resulted in the Paris Agreement—which was the first to set the goal of limiting global warming to below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C. 


Why it matters: A number of big reports released this year show that the world is on a catastrophic path. For example, a key UN assessment report (explained here) issued this warning:


“With every additional amount of global warming, we will see greater changes in the climate. Every additional half degree of warming will cause [an] increase in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, heavy precipitation and drought. At 2 degrees of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and human health.”


Right now—given the current pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions—we are on track for an average 2.7°C temperature rise this century! So there is immense pressure on this conference to come up with a plan for immediate and drastic action.


NDCs defined: This shared strategy requires each country to define and commit to their Nationally Determined Contributions—their individual national plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris Agreement goals.


Aiming for net zero: The term ‘net zero’ refers to the difference between the amount of greenhouse gases produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. We reach net zero when what we add is equal to what we take out. And if the world hits that target by 2050, we can restrict global warming to 1.5°C.


Taking the pledge: In response to climate change concerns, governments have stepped forward with promises to achieve net zero emissions. Most of the advanced countries like the US, UK and Australia aim to do it by 2050. China made a big splash when it finally agreed to achieving net zero by 2060. And there is huge pressure on other countries to do so—especially India which is the third-largest emitter of carbon in the world.


Ok, so did we take the net zero pledge?

Nope. Yesterday, India flatly refused to do so—saying we are a “victim” of global warming, and “not a contributor.” New Delhi’s emphasis at COP26 will instead be on “climate justice.” Here’s the Indian government’s argument:


One: History matters: “We feel historical responsibility must be taken in a serious way”—pointing to the fact that developed countries have been the biggest contributors to climate change. And we are right: Less than a fifth of the world has been responsible for three-fifths of all past emissions. The US and the EU alone have contributed a whopping 45%. As for India, we are only responsible for 4.37% of past cumulative emissions—and our per capita emissions are 1/8th of the US.


Two: Your 2050 pledge sounds nice, but what about your emissions before that? China, the US and the European Union will emit more than 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide before hitting net zero—which makes achieving the 1.5°C target already impossible. As the Power Minister told his Western counterparts:


"What we hear is that by 2050 or 2060 we will become carbon neutral, 2060 is far away and if the people emit at the rate they are emitting the world won't survive, so what are you going to do in the next five years? That's what the world wants to know."


Big point to note: Even if India were to commit to net zero, it will have little impact on the overall global carbon budget:


“India’s contribution to global emissions, in both stock and flow, is so disproportionately low that any sacrifice on its part can do nothing to save the world. Nor can it proceed with the expectation that the developed world and China would limit their emissions further in the future. If such expectations were belied, it would endanger the future of its own population, subjecting it to unprecedented hardship.”


Here’s a telling bit of data: Even theoretically committing to net zero by 2050 would require India to retire its coal plants and fossil fuel use overnight. But it wouldn’t guarantee that the world will achieve 1.5°C by the end of the century.


Three: Show me the money: “We can't do it on our own as we need to think about our economy as well.” As part of the Paris Agreement, developed countries promised $100 billion a year in financial assistance to less advanced nations to help them cut emissions—which will impose a staggering price on their economies. But they have not delivered. For example, according to Oxfam, they only gave $19 billion-$22.5 billion in 2017/18. The biggest culprit: The United States—along with Australia, Canada and Greece.


Point to note: The US, Germany, Canada et al announced that COP26 will ensure “significant progress” toward the $100 billion goal in 2022—and are confident it will be met in 2023. But it will be too little, too late for developing countries and climate change activists: “Making good on a promise made more than a decade ago is setting a pretty low bar for a successful COP26.” 


Also this: $100 billion a year is nowhere enough to “adapt to the damages brought on by climate disruptions, let alone pivot the energy systems of poor countries away from fossil fuels.”


Surely, we should be doing something?

Yes, for our own sake, we must. And the environment minister has indicated that India is open to setting more ambitious goals—but will almost certainly tie it to developed nations delivering on their climate finance pledge. That said, we cannot cut our own nose to spite the rich countries—as two new reports show:


One: The G20 Climate Impacts Atlas shows that India will be among the worst hit by climate change among the G20 countries. And while we may be resisting net zero to preserve our development goals, these may be derailed entirely by global warming—which will bring severe and prolonged heat waves, drought, and flooding. The report warns:


“[W]ithout any mitigation, climate change could severely undermine the development gains made in India in recent decades. In a moderate climate-change scenario, India is projected to potentially lose between 0.8 and 2% of its GDP by mid-century… By the end of the century costs could double, reaching up to almost 10% of the GDP (or 237 billion) under a high emissions scenario.”


Two: An environmental think tank released a first-ever assessment of India’s climate vulnerability—based on an analysis of 640 districts. It found that we are the seventh-most vulnerable country in the world in terms of experiencing extreme weather events. The assessment found:


  • 27 Indian states and union territories—and 463 out of 640 districts—are vulnerable to extreme weather events.
  • More than 80% of Indians live in districts vulnerable to climate risks—and five out of 20 Indians live in areas that are extremely vulnerable.
  • Most importantly: 60% of Indian districts don’t have plans in place to deal with the impact of climate change. 


FYI: A 2019 report found that we are the seventh most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. 

The bottomline: Even Indian climate change activists agree that committing to a net zero target is a bad idea for a country struggling to lift its people out of poverty—and meet basic needs like electricity and housing. That said, the government’s record on the environment has been dreadful, to say the least. And its development policies pay little heed to the most vulnerable Indians—who will experience the brunt of climate change. It’s all very well to scold the rich while doing very little for one’s own poor.


Reading list

  • CNN has a good explainer on COP26. 
  • BBC News looks at the increasing pressure on India to commit to net zero—and this older report does a good job of laying out New Delhi’s view.
  • Nature looks at the broken $100 billion-a-year pledge, and analyses what went wrong.
  • New York Times reports on the looming fight over climate finance at COP26.
  • IndiaSpend via BloombergQuint does an excellent job of explaining why it is hard for India to aim for net zero—but also identifies sectors where we can and should significantly cut emissions.
  • Climate change researcher T Jayaraman makes a strong case in The Hindu as to why India should not commit to net zero. TK Arun in Economic Times offers a persuasive counter-argument.
  • Mint specifically looks at the coal industry to lay out the challenges.
  • The Telegraph has more on the G20 report, while Indian Express explains the Climate Vulnerability Index.

Headlines that matter

More bad news about your burger

Phthalates are chemicals that disrupt your hormones and are linked to fertility, asthma and other health problems. And they are typically used to give plastic and other substances flexibility. A new US study has detected certain dangerous phthalates in 81% of fries, burritos, and cheeseburgers sold in fast food restaurants. How do they get there: plastic packaging and also gloves used by employees. Gizmodo has more details.


Chinese influencers satisfy their wanderlust

Chinese influencers stuck in the country due to Covid restrictions have found an amusing way to satisfy their wanderlust: Posing outside a Costco in Shanghai—”the pictures taken there really have the vibe of being in LA!” The totally-serious photos are even funnier. (Quartz)


Sabyasachi v/s the Hindutva brigade

One: This time, it’s designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s turn to face the wrath of the Hindutva brigade. The crime: Ads for the Royal Bengal Mangalsutra collection feature both same-sex and heterosexual couples wearing a mangalsutra. To add insult to anti-sanskriti injury, some of the ‘straight’ models were photographed in a bra. No, he has not withdrawn the campaign or apologised… as yet. Example #1:


Example #2:



In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • 'Witchcraft': an art history book that captures ‘joyously subversive’ depictions of witches through the ages


Weekend Advisory

  • Good stuff to watch this weekend
  • A list of good reads

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