Obama Puts Climate Change High on the Agenda With Indian PM Modi

Meeting outcome highlights how tricky it will be to bring India on board a climate regime that calls for deep cuts in fossil fuel burning.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India travel by motorcade in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 30, 2014. Credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza

Perhaps nowhere in the world is the intersection between economic development and environmental responsibility more apparent than in India.

Like Africa, India needs to provide electricity to its impoverished villages in order to give its people opportunity to prosper. And India is already the third-highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, behind only China and the United States. As its power supply grows, won't its greenhouse gas emissions?

Not necessarily. But it won't be easy to achieve development and decarbonization at the same time, a key to enlisting India in the global fight against the climate crisis.

So as President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for the first time in Washington, climate change was high on the agenda.

The two administrations highlighted several areas of agreement, in seven succinct paragraphs of an end-of-summit communique. Two sentences sufficed to outline the highlights of the meeting:

"Recognizing the critical importance of increasing energy access, reducing greenhouse gas omissions, and improving resilience in the face of climate change,  President Obama and Prime Minister Modi agreed to a new and enhanced strategic partnership on energy security, clean energy and climate change."

This partnership, they said, would include promoting more efficient buildings, transport, and other infrastructure in cities; spurring larger green-energy projects connected to India's ramshackle grid; and ratcheting up investment and finance to support the cause.

"Both leaders are committed to working towards a successful outcome in Paris in 2015 of the conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, including the creation of a new global agreement on climate change," the communique also noted.

Here they did not elaborate, however. That's because it will be especially tricky to bring India— a country so desperate to develop—on board a climate regime that calls for deep cuts in their use of burning fossil fuels like coal. Coal is India's most common fuel, responsible for nearly 70 percent of its electricity generation.

The focus, therefore, has fallen squarely on the practical—making clean energy a bigger part of the new energy mix. In an op-ed published under a joint byline in the Washington Post, the two leaders promised to "expand affordable renewable energy, while sustainably securing the future of our common environment."

Following a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Modi said during the question-and-answer session:

"Today electricity has become an important part of our lives. Electricity is no more—no longer a luxury. It's a requirement of our lives. And 24/7, we are committed to get 24/7 electricity for everyone.

"We have said...that in the next five years, each village in India will get electricity, power supply, 24/7, and this is possible. And the way we have worked in the energy sector, we are emphasizing on clean energy."

At an annual conference on the US-India relationship on energy and environment, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said "there is no other market in the world that has the upside of the India energy sector in the short term."

If India follows up on its commitments, he said, "there is no reason why a year from now you shouldn't be sitting here talking about $20 billion to $30 billion of increased renewable energy investment."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in a new issue brief, also spoke of the promise of renewable energy in India.

"India is struggling with skyrocketing energy demands, declining energy supplies, and peak load blackouts and shortages that limit energy access," it said. "Harnessing clean and renewable energy sources can help meet energy needs in a sustainable way and the growth of wind and solar power in India can be an important driver of job growth."

There is another huge opportunity in India, however: efficiency. It won't be feasible to shift to alternative supplies of electricity until the nation stops wasting it in the first place. That means modernizing the grid, replacing decrepit buildings and the like.

Here, too, the obstacles are daunting—especially providing the capital, since no government can pay for this without the private sector's involvement. Still, experts see India as a land of opportunity. And so does its new leader.

"Development and climate are not enemies," Modi told the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you think so, that's wrong."

Facebook Twitter Google Plus Email LinkedIn RSS RSS Instagram YouTube