As Secretary Kerry travels to India for the Fifth India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, it is worth noting the prospects for cooperation in one of the five pillars of the dialogue: energy and climate change. This is particularly important because Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of India, will appear on a global stage in New York in September at a special UN Summit on Climate Change, called for by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
It turns out that this is a global issue for which Modi has been studying and preparing for at least five years – well beyond any other state-level leader in India. Modi’s efforts to bring electricity to every corner of his state, Gujarat, are relatively well-known in India (see my most recent blog post). That power push helped unleash an economic growth boom that propelled him to the prime minister’s office. But in the middle of that effort, he also went out of his way to get educated on climate change and to take early steps to try to do something about it.
India, Coal, and Greenhouse Gases
In my previous post, I described India’s challenges in taking advantage of its wealth of energy resources. That has been particularly true of efforts to access and use coal.
But in fact, not exploiting fossil fuels has had one positive benefit: it has been good for the global climate. India already is a greenhouse gas giant: it is the world’s third-largest national emitter. But if it had fully exploited its coal and gas resources, its emissions would be much greater. At 2 gigatons in 2012, its carbon emissions ranked far behind those of the United States (5.2 gigatons) and China (9.9 gigatons). When adjusted for population, the average Indian emits four times less than the average Chinese and ten times less than the average American. Of course, one of the reasons that the average Indian emits so few greenhouse gases is because hundreds of millions of Indians are still not connected to the grid.
That disparity in average emissions per person has dominated India’s position on global climate talks for two decades. Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, India has been the strongest voice for “common but differentiated” responsibilities. Those were enshrined in the famous 1997 Kyoto Protocol where developing countries avoided binding agreements to reduce their emissions until developed economies first dramatically slashed their own.
For over a decade after Kyoto, India refused to discuss any binding limits. Indians would only discuss binding targets when other countries had reduced their own emissions to the per-person level of the average Indian – which at current rates would not happen until sometime in the 2030-2040 range.
Growing Awareness of Climate Change
Still, India increasingly sees the local impacts of climate change and growing coal use. The biggest climate impact has been on changing weather patterns in South Asia. Over the last 50 years, rising temperatures have led to a nearly 10 percent reduction in the duration and rainfall levels of the annual monsoons that are vital to nearly all Indian agriculture. Moreover, the melting of Himalayan glaciers threatens the country’s other vital water supply. In addition, rising sea levels have put hundreds of millions of Indians at risk in low-lying population centers in the Kolkata and Chennai metropolitan regions—a reality brought home during the devastating 2004 tsunami.
So Indians now take climate change more seriously. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, has become a global spokesman for the cause. For a decade, he has headed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the UN-backed research body that collects and reviews the scientific evidence that human activity has been the main contributor to climate change. And little by little, his fellow Indians have begun to take notice.
Perhaps most surprising to Pachauri was the phone call he received from Narendra Modi in 2009, then chief minister of Gujarat. Like many in New Delhi, Dr. Pachauri had only heard of Modi because of his role in the infamous Gujarat riots of 2002. Modi called to request a briefing on climate change. Pachauri was suspicious, but he agreed to host Modi and several top advisors for a two-day seminar.
Modi returned home to Gujarat with the zeal of a convert. He launched the first state-level ministry to address the issue and promoted the use of renewables, especially solar. As he told me, “For me, this is a moral issue. You don’t have a right to exploit what belongs to future generations. We are only allowed to milk the earth, not to kill it.”
Modi and Global Climate Leadership
How will the new government proceed on climate change?
At the central level, Mr. Modi has already taken two dramatically important steps: he has streamlined energy decision-making, and also environmental decision-making. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests is now the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Domestically, he has put the experienced and effective Suresh Prabhu as the head of a high-level panel on reorganizing the various energy ministries — an “Advisory Group for Integrated Development of Power, Coal and Renewable Energy.” The new consolidated energy ministries offer the promise of an integrated approach to clean energy.
Internationally, the challenge for Modi will be the upcoming UN Special Summit on Climate Change – and India’s negotiating stance in the next Paris meeting of the UN climate negotiation in 2015.
Historically, India has held fast to “equity” – that is, an emphasis on the industrial world’s historic role as the greatest greenhouse gas polluter and contributor to global warming, and India’s still relatively low per-capita emissions. And as Jairam Ramesh pointed out, some Indians are suspicious of a “covert political agenda” among climate scientists. Indians have, as a result, been reluctant to lay down any national goals for greenhouse gas emissions that would sacrifice the nation’s international sovereignty in a legal sense, and that would inhibit its economic growth.
India can still be mindful of those objectives. Yet it now faces growing domestic attention to climate change impacts, as well as a more complex international picture. The United States has signaled that it will implement ambitious greenhouse gas regulations, and China appears to be doing the same.
If Modi wants to project an image of an India “that actively engages with the world” and which wants to lead, as he said in his inaugural address, he may be willing to go beyond old-line climate change talking points. The new environment minister Prakash Javadekar still uses the language of “common but differentiated responsibilities” – still a relevant concept when India’s level of economic development and per-capita emissions are well below the United States or Europe. Yet how those responsibilities are taken within India remains an issue of both Indian and global importance.
Internationally, Prime Minister Modi has an opportunity for India to step forward to lead a new low-carbon approach to development – and in the process to demonstrate that India can be a global environmental leader without sacrificing economic growth.