Obama & Modi Link Zero Carbon and Zero Extreme Poverty

With the Paris treaty talks around the corner, there is a growing recognition that without addressing poverty, there is no way to address climate change.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Barack Obama/Credit: White House

At a news conference wrapping up President Obama's visit in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was asked whether he felt pressure from his guest to make a big pledge about tackling climate change, as China did a few months ago.

"India is an independent country," he replied, "and there is no pressure on us from any country or any person."

That might sound prickly, but what Modi said next might as well have come out of the mouth of Obama, a president who covets global warming progress as a jewel in his own crown.

India is under the same pressure as the rest of the world to defuse the climate crisis, Modi continued. And that means finding a way to achieve a global agreement on how to address the problem, not shrugging it off as someone else's responsibility.

"When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure," said Modi (through an interpreter). "Global warming is a huge pressure.  And all those who think about a better life and a better world for the future generations...it is their duty and their conscience...to give a better lifestyle to the future generations, a good life and a good environment. There is pressure for all those people. There is pressure on all countries, on all governments, and on all peoples."

Indeed, Obama could end his second visit to India with some evidence that his host country—the third biggest source of global warming gases behind China and the U.S.—is serious about confronting the problem, in partnership with the United States.

Fighting Warming, and Poverty

The two leaders said they made significant progress toward helping India, which has hundreds of millions of poor people without any access to electricity, develop its energy sector in ways that limit carbon emissions. This includes adding more nuclear power and renewables, especially solar. (They also promised to work on limiting emissions of refrigerant gases, or HFCs, a potent greenhouse pollutant.)

But nobody spoke of bringing carbon emissions down to some fixed target, or of setting a deadline for that to happen.

Instead, they talked of finding a path to achieve two things at once—fighting warming and fighting poverty.

"Global climate change is a profound threat to humanity and to the imperatives of sustainable development, growth and the eradication of poverty," they agreed.

Expect to hear a lot more language like that in the months ahead, as world leaders try to persuade the poorest countries—not just heavyweights like India—to join in pledging climate action along with the United States, China, and Europe, all of whom pollute more per capita.

The same UN advocates who call for a climate treaty are now calling for new steps beyond the anti-poverty Millenium Goals. The same people who are talking about a target of zero carbon emissions from energy are talking about a target of zero extreme poverty in the world.

Indeed, there is a growing recognition that without addressing poverty, there is no way to address climate change. At the same time, it is becoming clear to the poorest countries that countering climate change is not just a long-term insurance policy against flood, drought, disease and famine in the future. But holding down carbon emissions will also cut deadly air pollution from soot and smog that plagues the cities of all poor nations—a curse India's cities suffer every day.

The important thing about the Obama-Modi meeting was not that they solved either problem, pollution or poverty. It is that they linked the problems so that they could be worked on in tandem.

The kind of joint ventures that the U.S. and India are shaking hands on these days are meant to encourage the economic development of India and to offer opportunities for American investors. And they are meant to advertise to the world's poor nations the benefits of enlisting in the fight against climate change.

No India, No Climate Pact

Despite India's signals that it has no plans to back away from coal, Modi has dramatically increased its targets for solar electricity and other renewables. A White House fact sheet on the results of the summit emphasized some of the ways the United States plans to encourage what it called "India's ongoing efforts to create a market environment that will promote trade and investment in this sector."

It was a smorgasbord of task forces, forums and trade missions, including an alphabet soup of acronyms:

"USAID will install a field investment officer in India this summer, backed by a transactions team to help mobilize private capital for the clean energy sector," the fact sheet said.  "In February, The United States will host the Clean Energy Finance Forum and government-to-government Clean Energy Finance Task Force to help overcome strategic barriers to accelerating institutional and private financing.  The Department of Commerce will launch a trade mission on clean energy.  The Export-Import Bank is exploring potential projects for its MOU with the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency for up to $1 billion in clean energy financing.  OPIC plans to build on its existing portfolio of $227 million in renewable energy and continue to identify potential projects to support utility-scale growth and off-grid energy access."

All that helps set the table for Paris in December, where the UN hopes to complete negotiations for a global climate pact.

"I think India's voice is very important on this issue," Obama said at their news conference.

That's an understatement. No climate pact can succeed without India's full engagement. Of the many nations with millions of people living on $2 a day or less, India is the biggest. If it engages fully in the Paris process, others are more likely to follow.

That's why green groups welcomed anything the U.S. could offer that helps India move forward economically, without its greenhouse gas emissions vaulting ahead as well.

The new bilateral steps, said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, "will help contain India's carbon emissions in ways that also address its urgent development needs. These concrete projects will demonstrate on the ground that the climate and development agendas are fully compatible.

"At the political level, the pledge by the two leaders to stay in close touch through the year on the climate negotiations is very encouraging. This signals that India sees the Paris agreement as a priority, and establishes a direct channel that could prove absolutely essential to delivering the final deal."

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