No Deal in Delhi

What Obama’s trip to India meant for the country’s plans to combat climate change.

Expectations for President Obama’s trip to India were all over the map, much like the president himself. Some predicted major progress on climate change, while others said he was “going to India basically for a parade.”

We got a little bit of both. The parade got pretty heavy media coverage, since it gave the opportunity to publish lots of colorful pictures. Don’t you just love parades?

Photo: The White HouseSorry...we couldn't resist.

Anyway, what were we just talking about? Oh, right—climate change. President Obama and Prime Minster Narendra Modi announced enhanced “cooperation” on global warming issues, which will “expand policy dialogues and technical work on clean energy and low greenhouse gas emissions technologies.”

It’s not exactly what global warming activists were hoping for, but perhaps their expectations were unreasonable, given that an emissions agreement like the one struck between the United States and China in November takes months of talks and planning behind the scenes. Political insiders warned reporters before the India trip that Obama and Modi hadn’t been able to lay the necessary groundwork for a repeat performance.

Still, expanded partnership between the two nations is significant. Take solar power, for example. Shortly after taking office in May, Modi raised the country’s solar-power generation target from 20 gigawatts to 100 gigawatts by 2022. That’s an ambitious target. No country has ever produced that much solar power, and India currently generates only three gigawatts—about as much as California. But it also represents a major opportunity for U.S. companies like SunEdison, which recently announced plans to open up a huge solar panel factory in India.

There are many other reasons to remain optimistic about carbon reductions in India, currently the word’s third largest emitter. The politics, for example, are slightly less complicated than in the United States, where climate change has become—for reasons that continue to baffle me—a partisan wedge issue. According to Anjali Jaiswal, director of the India Initiative at NRDC (which publishes Earthwire), the country has very few climate deniers. Climate change is sort of in your face there. The swings are dramatic—going from hot and dry to cool and soggy with incredible speed—and most people admit to noticing shifts in the region’s historic climate patterns.

Many Indians also feel such climate swings more acutely than Americans. Despite rapid urbanization, approximately one in three Indians still work in agriculture, and extreme weather events like drought cause extreme hardship.

“If you spoke to a farmer, he might not use the words climate change, but he would still discuss the effects,” says Jaiswal. “He’d say, ‘I've been noticing more erratic monsoon patterns, and I really pray it's going to rain this year.’ ”

Even those Indians with livelihoods that don’t rely so directly on the land suffer the consequences of global warming more than the average American does. Heating and cooling technologies aren’t as widely available in the country, where electricity infrastructure and public services are less robust.

In smog-choked Delhi, where President Obama and Prime Minister Modi met on Sunday, air pollution is a constant visual reminder of the carbon sources that fuel climate change: cars and coal-fired power plants. The air pollution in the Indian capital is widely regarded as the worst in the world among major cities, and levels of particulate matter have quintupled in just eight years. “The sounds of Delhi are coughing, sneezing, wheezing,” says Jaiswal. Under those conditions, ignoring the amount of fossil fuel combustion the country is undertaking is difficult.

The main obstacle to India’s progress on climate change is poverty. A majority of locals still live on less than $2 per day, so it’s not surprising that the nation’s leaders prioritize development over carbon reductions. Things are a little bit easier for China, where fewer than one in five live at that poverty level. The trick will be to convince India that building a low-carbon economy will not slow its economic development.

“Many leaders in India already recognize it’s in the country’s own interests to build an economy fueled by solar, wind, and improved efficiency,” says Jaiswal. “What they’re working on is how to get there.” A successful global partnership, she says, will bring in the financing, technology, and policies that can really drive a clean energy industry.

The biggest question now is whether India will make a carbon-reduction commitment before the Paris climate summit begins in late November, and what that pledge will look like. The good news, though, is that the country has taken the first step by admitting it has a problem. (And that puts them ahead of at least 40 U.S. senators.)

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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