On Tuesday, the leader of one of the oldest democracies and the leader of the largest democracy discussed one of the world’s primary modern problems. President Obama and newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for over an hour in the Oval Office. While they announced agreements on a number of issues, climate change and clean energy were two of the foremost.
The two leaders released a detailed statement committing to future cooperation on energy and climate issues. This comes during a key turning point in global climate change discussions, and gives a boost of momentum for the two countries after India displayed wavering commitment during September’s United Nations Climate Summit. Modi didn’t attend the summit and his environment minister said India would not offer a plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions ahead of a climate summit next year in Paris.
The minister, Prakash Javadekar, placed the responsibility for mitigating emissions on developed countries, saying that India’s main priorities were alleviating poverty and growing the economy. He said that while the country is preparing to take domestic actions to reduce emissions, it would be around 30 years before they actually started to trend downward.
The tone at this week’s meeting was quite different as the leaders toured the MLK monument and shared a White House dinner at which Modi, observing a religious holiday, fasted. While the new partnerships are not game-changing they offer the promise of cooperating between the world’s second and third largest GHG emitters.
Termed a “New Era of Cooperation” the joint statement pledges to expand the U.S.-India Partnership to advance clean energy, work together toward a successful outcome of U.N. climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015, and to expand bilateral cooperation on climate change. This includes the Obama administration allowing $1 billion in financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank to help India purchase American technology for clean energy projects.
The fact that the Obama administration announced a cool billion for solar projects in India speaks volumes for the direction Modi is heading.
“The fact that the Obama administration announced a cool billion for solar projects in India speaks volumes for the direction Modi, and India is heading,” Justin Guay, associate director for the Sierra Club’s International Climate Program, told ThinkProgress. “For all the hand wringing over Javadekar’s statements about emissions growth, the truth is India’s U.N. stance and its domestic actions are 100 percent divorced. And that’s a great thing.”
The governments will focus on bringing power to the 400 million Indians still without access to regular electricity by accelerating the deployment of solar technology and using policies and business models to make clean energy an appealing commercial opportunity for investors. Shortly after being elected in May, Modi announced that his government wants every home to be able to run at least one light bulb by 2019. As India pursues this goal, solar could play an important role, especially in reaching those off the grid. But coal fired-power plants are expected to make up the bulk of the power capacity increase, and the resulting emissions could make India the global GHG leader — ahead of the U.S. and China — in coming decades.
“The silver lining here is that for all of Modi’s efforts to squelch dissent at home over coal expansion, he really is all in on diversifying to clean energy,” said Guay. “More than anything it is his demand for investment in solar that elevated climate change, and clean energy investment, to a priority in this historic meeting.”
The other agreements focused on improving Indian air quality, strengthening climate resilience in the face of extreme weather like droughts and floods that have recently wreaked havoc on the subcontinent, and building energy security by reducing the country’s reliance on imports.
Prior to this visit, and before he won election in the spring, Modi hadn’t been allowed to visit the U.S. for around a decade because State Department officials held him accountable for failing to curtail deadly religious riots in 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat, where he was in charge. With his landslide election, U.S. officials have had to put aside question marks relating to his human rights legacy in order to engage with the country on a number of other critical global issues, including security, peace, and economic growth.
“Modi’s effort to shrug off his troubling human rights legacy with a triumphant arrival in the U.S. was mixed,” said Guay. “He was greeted with a summons in a New York court and a New York Times Editorial Board piece questioning his controversial crackdown on civil society dissent, notably Greenpeace India, at home.”
In a joint op-ed for the Washington Post, Obama and Modi wrote that the “ties between the United States and India are rooted in the shared desire of our citizens for justice and equality:”
While our shared efforts will benefit our own people, our partnership aspires to be larger than merely the sum of its parts. As nations, as people, we aspire to a better future for all; one in which our strategic partnership also produces benefits for the world at large. While India benefits from the growth generated by U.S. investment and technical partnerships, the United States benefits from a stronger, more prosperous India.
One area that has been especially contentious is India’s reluctance to address the issue of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). A GHG that is up to 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide, HFCs came into broad use as chemical refrigerants for air conditioners and home appliances after CFCs were banned under the Montreal Protocol in 1987 for creating a hole in the ozone. While an updated global accord to address HFCs is yet to materialize, last year China and the United States reached an agreement to phase down HFC use. The Obama administration also recently announced domestic actions to significantly reduce the emissions of HFCs.
In meeting with Modi this week, the two leaders “recognized the need to use the institutions and expertise of the Montreal Protocol to reduce consumption and production of HFCs.” They pledged to arrange a meeting of their bilateral task force on HFCs prior to the next meeting of the Montreal Protocol to discuss the issues leading to the replacement of HFCs. India is the world’s fastest-growing producer of HFCs, though the U.S. and China are still far ahead.