The Modi-Obama Summit: What This Means for Climate Change

After their summit at the end of September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post, and their two governments issued a robust “U.S.-India Joint Statement.” The statement was surprisingly ambitious about a broad, strategic and global partnership across a diverse range of issues — from trade, manufacturing, maritime security, e-governance, to even sanitation.

Both leaders paid particular attention to energy and climate change. In fact, both sides seem to embrace their responsibilities for dealing with climate change, while acknowledging the different responsibilities that each country holds.

From the perspective of those responsible for these issues in each country, there was some urgency to this meeting of the minds.  There is just over a year to go before all nations come together in Paris for the next UN Climate Change Conference.  Although China has surpassed both the United States and India combined in total emissions, the U.S. and India rank second and third in annual emissions.  The world’s oldest and largest democracies will need to step forward and demonstrate leadership in Paris. 

The central question ahead, in the run-up to the Paris meeting, is how rich and poor nations will see their obligations.  The most pressing version of this question is whether to revise the technical definition of “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities.” That term, coined in the early 1990s and enshrined in UN treaty language prior to the Kyoto Protocol, has become a major sticking point in the negotiations.  Many in India stick to an old definition that means that developed countries are the only ones that have to take on obligations to limit emissions, where developing countries can still wait until they have become wealthier before accepting any constraints on their emissions growth.  Developed countries – especially the United States – are pressing rapidly developing nations to take on a common framework for the obligations, even if the level of cuts are very different for rich and poor nations.

That would still leave much more work for negotiators. In the Paris talks – as in all previous agreements – each nation will need to determine for itself what is an appropriate level of emissions cuts. They will then subject that level of ambition to international scrutiny.

Beyond that, countries will need to determine the legal nature of the agreement.  Will it be “legally binding”, and administered by a central, UN organization?  That was the design of the Kyoto Protocol – which was adopted by some nations, but ignored by others, like the United States.  Or will it be a bottom-up, self-enforcing “agreement” like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade? That agreement gained support in the United States, and became the basis for over fifty years of reductions in barriers to trade.

While Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi – or their teams – did not resolve any of those issues, it is certain that they are now aware that they will need to work closely together over the coming year to come up with a common framework for action.  That is what the new U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Combating Climate Change will likely spend considerable time on.

Tangible, Positive Steps Forward

Too often, international discussions about climate change only address the global climate talks.  That is unfortunate, since the talks tend to be about long-term commitments and abstract legal frameworks, rather than concrete steps nations can take to cut greenhouse gases.  Fortunately, the Obama-Modi meeting also paid attention to a few critical areas.

One specific area where both sides made progress is on beginning to reduce the impact of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These are very potent man-made greenhouse gases found in household products such as air conditioners and refrigerators. HFCs trap far more heat than carbon dioxide does. They were created as a replacement for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which had been depleting the ozone layer. When the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, it greatly reduced CFC production, only to replace it with increased HFC production. While this switch helped to restore the ozone layer, the increased use of HFCs means that this potent greenhouse gas has been emitted in growing quantities. The joint statement from the Modi-Obama summit recognized the Montreal Protocol as the right forum for reducing HFCs, but with reporting and accounting under the UN body responsible for addressing climate change – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Under the previous government, this had been a point of disagreement between the two sides since India opposed any action on HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. The Modi-Obama statement was an encouraging first step.

A second promising development was on nuclear cooperation.  When done in a safe and secure manner, of course, nuclear power has one major positive benefit: it produces no greenhouse gas emissions.  In that regard, the Obama-Modi meeting suggested promise on greater U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation.  The U.S. and India had agreed nearly a decade ago to greater cooperation in an effort to bring more nuclear power to India.  But those efforts have been stalled since the two sides differ on whether nuclear power-plant manufacturers or operators bear liability in the case of an accident or malfunction.   The Obama-Modi summit was encouraging in that regard, as it called for the establishment of a nuclear energy contact group that will address implementation issues, including administrative issues, technical issues, licensing, and in particular, liability.

Beyond those concrete areas, both parties agreed to a “new and enhanced strategic partnership on energy security, clean energy, and climate change” that includes cooperation on developing “Energy Smart Cities” (with an emphasis on energy efficient infrastructure), cooperative efforts to scale-up renewable energy in India’s power grid, steps to promote investment in greater efficiency and innovation, and other clean power projects.  They even signed a Memorandum of Understanding to make $1 billion available through the Export-Import bank for exporting US renewable technology to India.

Mr. Modi and President Obama have pledged to cooperate in a set of crucial areas– economic growth, energy and climate change, defense and security, high technology, and global and regional issues.  In the area of climate change, bilateral cooperation has an opportunity to deliver.