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Obama And Modi Talk Climate Change This Weekend

The big news we’re hearing about Barack Obama this weekend has nothing to do with climate change: it’s that he’s cutting short his trip to India to pay final respects from the United States to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah. He’ll also meet with Salman, the late monarch’s brother and former crown prince, who is now king.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi will talk with US President Barack Obama on the PM's radio show Tuesday, January 27, 2014.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi will talk with US President Barack Obama on the PM’s radio show Tuesday, January 27, 2014.

Most people probably didn’t even realize that the President was out of town, much less that he’s been visiting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the two leaders have had this planned since the Ninth East Asia Summit, a leaders’ forum founded for cooperation on key challenges facing East Asia, was held in Myanmar (Burma) last November 12–13. Then, reportedly off the cuff, Modi invited Obama to become the first American president to headline India’s Republic Day parade.

Many US business leaders are licking their lips about the Indian trip with Obama and Modi. Top CEOs, as diverse as Ajay Banga of Mastercard, Dave Cote of Honeywell, Bob Iger of Disney, Indra Nooyi of Pepsi, Arne Sorenson of Marriott, and Vivek Ranadive of Tibco Software are on their way to the world’s biggest democracy along with the President. They’re expecting large dividends in view of the Asian nation’s plans to invest $1.2 billion in 100 “smart cities” during 2015, various industrial corridors, and associated transport and power facilities. Since his election in May, Modi has been working hard to attract foreign investment with new incentives and regulatory reforms. Like Japan and China, which have already committed funds to infrastructure projects, American companies would like their own piece of India’s $2 trillion economy.

A meeting like this represents an important step in cadence for the two nations, which have had trade and policy differences for decades—most notably in the case of Pakistan—and several recent diplomatic skirmishes. Modi, a Hindu Nationalist and economist, first, not a humanist, won the Indian national election last May.

Obama and Moti walk around the Martin Luther King Jr memorial at Modi's Washington visit, September 2014 (newindianexpress.com/PTI)By September, at the time of UN Secretary General Ban’s broadly attended climate change meeting and the opening of the General Assembly, PM Modi was visiting the White House and taking a stroll one-on-one with Obama at the stunning white granite Martin Luther King Jr. monument on the National Mall. At that time, they committed to a new official mantra: “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go.”

From that meeting of Obama and Modi came agreements on energy security, clean energy, and climate change. Among these: joint initiatives to improve India’s urban energy infrastructure and integrate renewable energy into the country’s power grid, deploy Energy Star-type appliances, develop energy innovation centers, and boost American private sector investment. Obama and Modi also planned to reactivate a bilateral task force on hydrofluorocarbons prior to the next Montreal Protocol (CMP 11) meeting and launch a new U.S.-India Partnership for Climate Resilience.

Moti and Obama shake hands during their Washington visit (thinkprogress.org)

Moti and Obama shake hands during their Washington visit (thinkprogress.org).

Modi has also recently promised to boost funding for public transportation, including trains, enact new standards for power plants and, perhaps most importantly, greatly increase solar and wind energy. He and Obama met again on November 12-13 at the East Asia Summit, where Modi tendered his surprise invitation. (EAS comprises the ten ASEAN countries [Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam] initially linked in 1967, and other stakeholders: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United States, and Russia. Altogether, these member countries represent 55% of the world’s population and around 56% of global GDP.)

Obama and Modi also attended the 9th G20 Summit in Australia several days later. You may recall that top-level conference as the one where Australia initially declined to put worldwide climate on the agenda, the US contributed $3 billion to the worldwide Green Climate Fund, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with figurative Ukraine soil on his feet, won hugs from nobody but a cute koala.

Well, a week after the G20 meeting, India’s Power and Renewable Energy minister Piyush Goyal publicly jacked up the nation’s 2022 solar power generation target to 100,000 megawatts, which is five times greater than India’s former solar output. Anjali Jaiswal, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s India Initiative, characterized the mega-goal as “a huge opportunity for U.S. businesses in terms of both technology and finance. Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute think tank, recently noted that India’s promised increase in solar capacity “could be a total game-changer.”

The final COP20 session, which reached an accord (photo from UN broadcast)At early December’s COP20 climate meeting in Lima (right), practically all of the world’s nations, rich and poor alike, agreed for the first time to slow climate change by reducing use of fossil fuels. India was in an uncomfortable position there, being home to the lion’s share (13) of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, according to the World Health Organization.

The world's 30 most polluted cities (mcclatchydc.com)Air pollution is the country’s fifth largest cause of death. India’s regulatory agencies measure ambient exposure levels out of concern for public health, but the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based research group that monitors real-time individual exposure of people to air pollution, recently found exposure levels much higher than those published by the government.

Lima concluded with each nation pledging to write a plan outlining laws it will pass and emissions goals. Most of these draft “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” commitments should appear in time for December’s UN COP21 summit, if not in the coming three to six months. Indian leaders are not expected to offer a plan to cut emissions ahead of the Paris meeting, although they still have plenty of time to announce further progress before then.

Last weekend, at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in Gandhinagar, the state capital, US Secretary of State John Kerry laid groundwork for the President’s current visit. Gujarat lies in the 1,500-km (almost 933-mile) industrial corridor between Delhi, India’s political capital, and Mumbai (previously Bombay), its financial center. While serving as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi in 2002 mandated that the area to be greened, use solar energy, and have a cosmopolitan focus, and Japan and the US made large investments.

Global investors, heads of state, and both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Kim attended the high-level meeting as well as Kerry. The Secretary of State set the tone between India and the US there by saying the two countries “can do more together, and we must do more together, and we have to do it faster.” He reiterated the September quid pro quo of India transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy and providing a market for U.S. renewable energy exports.

Kerry also put to rest the notion that economic growth of India might be “a zero-sum competition where we have to fight exclusively” for what each nation might want, and added this about climate change:

“If we make the choices that are staring us in the face, the fact is that a solution to climate change is already here. It’s called energy policy. Sustainable energy policy. And in a sustainable energy policy comes a whole set of benefits to our economy, something many countries of the world are screaming for today.”

Obama and Modi in a Washington motorcade last fall (whitehouse.gov/Pete Souza)

Obama and Modi in a Washington motorcade last fall (whitehouse.gov/Pete Souza)

The bottom line here is clearly that Washington and Delhi view boosting clean energy business as key to adjusting to climate change. A blog in the Wall Street Journal today quoted President Obama as saying, “Part of being global partners means working together to meet one of the world’s urgent challenges—climate change…. Every nation is being impacted by climate change, and every nation has a role to play in combatting it.”

Big items on the January agenda of Obama and Moti, per the Times of India  (timesofindia.indiatimes.com)

Big items on the January agenda of Obama and Moti, per the Times of India (timesofindia.indiatimes.com)

So what should we expect from this weekend’s rather cordial get-together of Obama and Modi in India?

On climate, sure, both the White House and much of the international community would like the visit to result in carbon reduction targets like those Obama and Chinese President Xi put forward for their respective countries in last fall’s landmark bilateral agreement. Pundits are cautioning, though, that commitments of that magnitude aren’t as likely from this meeting.

“We won’t see a China-style deal, partly because India has spent the last few months separating itself away from the Chinese position on this,” said Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. (The India Project produced a briefing book for the current meeting called The Modi-Obama Summit: A Leadership Moment for India and the United States.)

India and China are at very different levels of development, a decade or so apart, although both stand with the US as critical players in the decisive climate change scenario of the next 35 years. China’s poverty rate has been steeply declining during this millenium, while more than 20% of India’s residents still live below the poverty line, and although access to electricity is nearly universal in the larger country, 300 million in India currently lack power.

However, India also lags behind the US and China in current and projected per capita greenhouse gas emissions. It has held developed nations, in particular the US, responsible for polluting the air while building their economies since the Industrial Revolution—a divide shared with other less developed and industrializing nations that nearly scuttled the Lima climate talks last month.

“India, like any other country, doesn’t want to look like it’s simply playing catch-up with what the U.S. and China did. They would want to make it their own, not a U.S.-China redux,” Peter Ogden, a senior energy fellow at the Center for American Progress and former National Security Council director for climate change policy, told Climatewire.

Madan suggests that improved agreements on clean energy may be a more likely outcome. If the US is lucky, intellectual property violations complaints may also find some resolution. And the World Bank’s Kim has noted that it expects to be closely involved in design and development of India’s new solar parks and farms, grid upgrades, and minigrid and off-grid solutions. He states that “because it can reduce the growth rate of the country’s burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions, a vibrant solar sector can also be a key element of India’s contributions to the Paris climate change conference” at the end of 2015.

The President plans another one-on-one walk with the Prime Minister during this visit. Mr. Obama will spend Monday observing India’s Republic Day celebrations for several hours. The parade celebrates the day that, after independence in 1947 from 200 years of British rule and a three-year period of religious turmoil that killed hundreds of thousands (including Gandhi), India adopted a democratic constitution. The Associated Press describes the festivities as “partly a Soviet-style display of India’s military hardware and partly a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day-type parade with floats from across the country highlighting India’s cultural diversity.”

On Tuesday, Barack Obama will sum up his talks with Narendra Modi and lay out a new vision for the future of U.S.-India relations. It’s too bad the Obamas have to postpone their first visit to the Taj Mahal because of stopping in Saudi Arabia. However, as well as helping to balance the powers of southern continental Asia, the one-on-one between Indian and US leaders in the Hyderabad House garden should herald some benefits for the sorry state of the world’s climate.

 
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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."

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