In The World’s Most Polluted City, Obama Seeks Climate Ally

Indian soldiers practice ahead of Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. U.S. President Barack Obama will be the chief guest at this year’s parade. CREDIT: AP/SAURABH DAS
Indian soldiers practice ahead of Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. U.S. President Barack Obama will be the chief guest at this year’s parade. CREDIT: AP/SAURABH DAS

What city is more heavily polluted, Delhi or Beijing?

The answer: Delhi, which according to the World Health Organization suffers from the worst air pollution in the world.

Having visited Beijing in October, President Obama will be able to answer this question with an anecdote after his trip to India this weekend to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The outcome of their meetings will not only substantially impact the future of India’s air quality, but could also sway the direction of the next international climate talks.

As of January 20th, New Delhi’s air quality readings were “very unhealthy.” According to data from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, PM2.5 readings for the last three years in Delhi during this time have been at least eight times the standard of the EPA and twice the Indian standard for safe. Not only can this make the festivities hard to see — is has been rumored Obama will sit behind a bulletproof enclosure that limits pollution — but it creates bad optics. When Obama visited China, the government shut down factories and limited traffic in an effort to curtail the noxious air that regularly debilitates Beijing residents.


Aside from growing concerns over air pollution, India is grappling with the best way to ramp up energy supply, especially to the hundreds of millions of rural poor. At the same time, Obama is looking for international support for his efforts to address climate change and to add another boost of momentum to the Paris climate talks at the end of the year.

There is very little expectation of a final result approaching the same import as the U.S.-China bilateral deal that emerged during Obama’s visit to China in October. In that pledge, the U.S. committed to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025 and China agreed to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030 and to peak greenhouse gas emissions that same year.

This is a fairly unprecedented moment with Obama taking his second trip to India.

Analysts paying close attention to the global negotiations say that not only is it unfair to expect India to announce a similar target or standard, but it’s also unproductive. Even compared to China, India is far behind developmentally. India’s GDP per capita is less than half of China’s and the carbon emissions per capita are also significantly lower. More than 300 million Indians do not have access to electricity. By 2017, it is predicted India will outpace China in economic growth. All of these realities need not be weighed against climate and environmental action, but placed beside them. In this way rapidly rising GHGs and crippling local environmental problems can be addressed in tandem with energy and economic targets.

“This is a fairly unprecedented moment with Obama taking his second trip to India,” said Manish Bapna, managing director of the World Resources Institute. “Often in broader discourse China and India get lumped together, but India is in a very different space.”


Bapna said that despite all of India’s handicaps, there are signs that the new prime minister Modi sees a low-carbon future for India as important. Modi recently increased India’s solar target by around five times to 100 gigawatts by 2022, though the government has embraced an all-of-the-above strategy that includes coal, gas and nuclear. Coal and power minister Piyush Goyal said in December that Coal India could more than double current annual output to one billion tons by 2020.

Air Pollution

A recent World Health Organization report found that India has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world with the capital, Delhi, being the most polluted of all. The WHO report found that Delhi had six times the level of airborne particulate matter considered safe, but a recent on-the-ground investigation found that the levels could be up to eight times higher in heavily trafficked corridors.

Air pollution is very rapidly emerging in Indian discourse.

According to a World Bank report, urban air particulate pollution is estimated to cause around 109,000 premature deaths among Indian adults annually. It also found that shortened life spans of the urban populations due to severe air pollution are costing India $18 billion annually.

Bapna said that the issue of air pollution is “very rapidly emerging in Indian discourse.” As has been shown in China, public outcry over unbearable pollution levels can lead to government intervention. As developing nations like China and India grow their middle classes, citizens become more engaged and expect a higher quality of life. A first step in addressing the issue would be to increase monitoring stations and improve data collection.

The Details

Obama and Modi will probably put a lot of issues forward in order to see which ones have traction, according to Bapna, who said a clean energy investment announcement is likely. He also noted there may be progress on the long-running “stumbling block” negotiations over reducing the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), greenhouse gases that are up to 1,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. They came into widespread existence as a replacement for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFS) that were phased out of use as refrigerants as part of the Montreal Protocol.


People familiar with the negotiations told ThinkProgress that proposals for air quality and heavy duty vehicles have been put forward by the U.S. If India does make a commitment, it is likely to be increasing its percentage of non-fossil fuels, with something around 25 percent by 2030 being on the ambitious side. An emissions peak by 2030 would be more challenging, in part due to the fast growing population.

Wind power currently contributes around two-thirds of India’s renewable energy capacity at around 22 gigawatts. In the last decade India’s renewable energy capacity has gone from just under four gigawatts to over 27 gigawatts, much of it wind or hydro. When Modi visited the U.S. last September, the Obama administration opened up $1 billion in financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank to help India purchase American technology for clean energy projects.

Navroz Dubash, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, said that while “India is not yet on a low-carbon path, the wheels are turning.” He said Modi won the election on the basis that he will usher in an era of booming infrastructure and job growth, most likely in the manufacturing sector. The question then becomes how to achieve these ends while keeping in mind the larger context of climate change and domestic energy security. India is a major importer of oil and coal, and transitioning to renewables would help wean the country from the whims of the global energy market.

According to Raymond Vickery, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Trade Development during the Clinton Administration and an India expert, it’s going to take a strong public-private partnership and a lot of money. Vickery said that in order for India to reach its ambitious solar goal it will need around $100 billion in financing by 2022. “This is not going to come from governments alone,” he said.

There is evidence that the private sector is up to the challenge. Last week, U.S.-based solar firm SunEdison announced two major deals with India: to develop five gigawatts of renewable energy within five years in the southern Indian state of Karnataka and to build a $4 billion solar manufacturing facility as a joint venture with Adani Enterprises, a large Indian power operator. According to the press release, it will be the largest manufacturing facility of its kind in India, with an annual production capacity of 7.5 gigawatts and 20,000 direct and indirect jobs.

India and the U.S. also have a lingering World Trade Organization dispute over solar supplies regarding India’s domestic content requirements. The two countries may be able to reach an amicable agreement that relaxes these requirements while also guaranteeing solar investment in India. Getting this WTO dispute resolved would generate valuable goodwill.

Nuclear power is another resource India is actively pursuing. While the risks are high and well-known, the low-carbon, low-air pollution benefits are also appealing. Vickery said that progress on the civil-nuclear agreement between India and the U.S., which has been in limbo since it was finalized in October 2008, could be a big part of the picture. The crutch of the negotiations is over who is liable in the case of an accident. India has a law making suppliers liable while globally it is accepted that liability lies with the operator, which in India would be the government-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India.