With the nomination of John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, the Biden-Harris Administration is signaling serious commitment to climate action in the United States and worldwide. Prioritizing the climate emergency by the new administration is an imperative to drive global ambition in the lead up to the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement. No other country presents a greater opportunity for climate cooperation for the Biden-Harris Administration than India.
Engaging on climate change with India should be an early move for the Biden-Harris Administration as it makes climate change a top priority of America’s foreign policy. Re-establishing a U.S.-India bilateral should happen in the first 100 days for the administration.
Tremendous damage has been done at the domestic level and to global relationships by the United States backtracking on climate action over the last four years. The international community has carried the weight of a U.S. government going in the wrong direction on climate change. Repairing these relationships won’t be easy. The Biden-Harris Administration has hard work ahead to revive climate cooperation and to work toward achieving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s call for the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
One promising place to start rebuilding trust internationally for the United States is with India. Despite the last four years, the connections between people, the private sector, civil society, states, and other actors between the world’s two largest democracies remains strong. Economic development, job growth, climate change, trade, and national security are urgent concerns for both nations.
During their first conversation following the U.S. election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated President-elect Joe Biden, conveying an openness to working with the new Biden-Harris Administration. Following the conversation, Prime Minister Modi reiterated India’s firm commitment to the Indo-US strategic partnership and shared priorities—“COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region.”
India’s energy demand and emissions in a business as usual scenario are projected to double if not triple by 2050, despite the current COVID-19 economic downturn. While per capita emissions are low at present, India is already the third largest single-country emitter of greenhouse gases and has the second largest population in the world at over 1.3 billion. India’s cities are rapidly urbanizing and bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, making sustainable cities with healthy communities a central priority.
The world cannot solve climate change without India’s active participation. The U.S.-India climate and clean energy relationship is critical to achieving that aim. Beyond the global climate impacts, a robust U.S.-India partnership is in each government’s national interest, including strengthening energy security and mitigating the climate crisis.
India is a leader in clean energy, especially solar and wind energy. India is on track to meet two of its Paris Agreement targets—to reduce emission intensity by 33% to 35% of its gross domestic product by 2030 from 2005 levels and achieve 40% of installed power capacity from non-fossil fuels by 2030. The country aims to install an ambitious 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030—20% more than India’s current electricity capacity of 372 GW. India is halfway toward meeting its 175 GW by 2022 goal, with renewables reaching 89 GW, representing 23% of India’s total installed capacity. On its third target, creating an additional 3 billion ton “carbon sink” by 2030, the Indian government recognizes the need to expand efforts.
India is a linchpin in international negotiations. India is effectively the lead representative among developing countries. Achieving meaningful U.S.-India bilateral cooperation can go a long way to moving toward a common approach to climate change, while respecting the pressures of global inequality. If climate solutions can work in India, they are likely to work in other developing countries.
The U.S. and India have long-standing scientific and research partnerships that have led to advances in climate science and clean energy development. Both countries represent an enormous market for clean energy technologies and investment opportunities. The people of the United States and India have a shared commonality from a large Indian diaspora in the United States as well as many knowledge-exchange programs, such as the Nehru-Fulbright program and the Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellowship. Therefore, India is an essential partner to the United States in making progress on climate change.
Top Five Priorities for U.S.-India Climate Cooperation
To accelerate climate cooperation with India, the Biden-Harris Administration should schedule a high-level US-India bilateral summit with climate change a central agenda issue in its first 100 days. Building on the earlier U.S.-India Joint Working groups and 2016 Joint Statement: The United States and India: Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century, the countries should evaluate the programs to revive and create new programs.
Key priorities for climate cooperation are (as we outlined in more detail here):
- Expanding clean energy programs, such as the prior Partnership to Advance Clean Energy, focused on energy efficiency and solar and wind energy, and potentially adding electric vehicles, battery storage and renewable grid-integration that align with India’s priorities.
- Developing new areas for cooperation, such as climate resilience, climate-resilient infrastructure, sustainable finance, air quality, electric mobility, among others.
- Strengthening global partnerships, including greater ambition under the Paris Agreement, ratification of Montreal Protocol’s Kigali Amendment to phase down dangerous hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), advancement of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), expanded USAID cooperation on energy, accelerating Mission Innovation, among others.
- Ramping up climate finance, investments and trade with India and emerging markets to support clean energy through the International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), U.S. Export-Import bank and other international platforms, such as the Green Climate Fund.
- Fostering subnational climate action at the state- and city-levels with meaningful funding create opportunities for cross-country learning, capacity building and implementation on the ground.;
The raging COVID-19 crisis in both countries intersects with key issues such as economic growth, public health systems, employment, and climate change. Potential programs on green stimulus efforts, climate resilience, and disaster management could help amplify a green and resilient recovery. Enhanced government action on climate change beyond climate-oriented agencies to broader whole-of-government engagement, including national security, economic governance, bilateral diplomacy, trade among others, can also be a part of a robust climate relationship between the U.S. and India.
At this critical time with the world facing multiple threats—COVID-19, economic despair, and the climate crisis—the world needs leadership, cooperation and action—especially from two of the world's top energy consumers. A robust U.S.-India strategic partnership on climate change is essential for advancing low-carbon economies, increasing energy security and preparing for the worst effects of climate change. Strong joint action can help put us on a path to a more sustainable future that expands economic growth, creates jobs and improves the lives of millions.
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A Biden-Harris Administration takes office with the stark reality that we would have been in a better position if the world had a stronger U.S. partner. We must be bolder, more innovative, and deliver action more widely and effectively if we are going to bend the curve of emissions quickly enough to prevent the most severe impacts of climate change to people and the planet.
President-elect Biden ran on a bold and comprehensive set of promises to rally the world to meet the climate challenge. At its heart, his vision includes a commitment to integrate climate change as a core U.S. foreign policy and trade priority.