Obama visit to India unlikely to deliver US-China climate pact repeat

Washington and Delhi likely to agree pact on renewables and HFCs, but little chance of any major climate deal say insiders

(Pic: White House/Flickr)

(Pic: White House/Flickr)

By Ed King

Smart grids, air pollution and access to green technologies could be on the agenda when US president Barack Obama visits India in two weeks.

The US leader’s meeting with prime minister Narendra Modi is expected to cover a wide range of issues including security, economic growth and civil nuclear cooperation.

But Obama and secretary of state John Kerry are understood to have agreed with India to make climate change a priority, ahead of a proposed UN deal later this year.

The recent US-India Track II Dialogue, a meeting between 30 prominent US and India climate and energy experts in Delhi, highlighted a number of areas where the countries could converge.

These include the creation of a joint US-India research programme on micro grids, funding for a network of monitoring stations to track Indian air pollution and closer cooperation on developing alternatives to climate-damaging coolants known as HFCs.

“It is essential that our countries move quickly to launch the partnerships and carry out the actions agreed to during Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Obama in September 2014,” a statement from the meeting read.

“In so doing, we will not only be able to achieve more at home, but we will improve our capacity to engage effectively with one another in a multilateral context, including the critical negotiations under the UNFCCC [UN climate body].”

India is the world’s third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, behind China and the US. But the average Indian is responsible for less than 2 tonnes of CO2 a year, compared to 7t a head in China and 16t in the US.

Experts predict its levels of carbon pollution will radically increase as its economy expands in the coming decades.

Critical partnership

The Dialogue’s findings are significant given those who took part in its creation and their links to governments in Washington and Delhi.

These include PR Menon, head of Tata Consulting Engineers, Jairam Ramesh, former India environment minister and Pete Ogden, an ex-White House official now leading the climate portfolio at the Center of American Progress think-tank.

And while the meetings are not government-sponsored, they offer a sense of types of policies leading civil society groups and climate experts are pushing for.

“The way to really think about the US and India is as a partnership,” Ogden told RTCC. “It’s a question of figuring where interests align, where there are barriers and where we have the capacity and potential to mutually benefit from a relationship.

“People have recognised there is unrealised potential. India clearly wants to grow its solar sector – and they want to broadly attract investment.”

The US and India already have extensive climate and energy links, notably a US$125 million Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Centre, set up in 2009, along with initiatives focused on forests, oceans, HFCs and energy access.

US multinational SunEdison and the India-based Adani Group revealed this week they are collaborating on a US$4 billion solar factory in Gujurat, Modi’s home state.

The Indian government wants to boost solar capacity from 2.7 to 22 gigawatts by 2022, but coal power is currently 50% cheaper.

“This facility will create ultra-low cost solar panels that will enable us to produce electricity so cost effectively it can compete head to head, unsubsidised and without incentives, with fossil fuels,” Ahmad Chatila, SunEdison CEO said in a statement.

John Kerry was in Delhi over the weekend, tweeting that he had discussed climate change with Modi.

“The choices of climate change offer an unprecedented number of plusses, and frankly, almost no downside,” he said.

“If we make the choices that are staring us in the face, the fact is that a solution to climate change is already here.”

A senior State Department official told Reuters they wanted to deliver “concrete and tangible things” at the summit.

The two heads of state last met in October, a week after the UN’s climate summit in New York. Then Obama extracted a promise from Modi that he would back efforts to tackle HFCs under the UN’s Montreal Protocol, a line India previously said it was unwilling to cross.

But despite growing anticipation, it seems unlikely any US-India deal will be on par with last November’s historic US-China pact, which saw both countries agree long term carbon cutting targets.

Managing expectations

Lead US climate envoy Todd Stern was at pains to dampen expectations when he spoke to the press at the end of the UN’s Lima climate talks in December. “We don’t have that kind of process with India,” he said.

And contrasting emission trends, air pollution challenges and the scale of urbanisation make the two countries distinctive cases, said Ogden.

“It will be different to China,” he said. “China and India are very different countries and think of themselves as different. It shouldn’t be looked as a US-China redux.”

Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based think-tank, agreed that any major deal was unlikely.

Progress on HFCs and financing for renewable energy projects are two areas he said the meeting could deliver, although Indian manufacturers were still smarting after US solar panels were dumped on their domestic market in 2012, he said.

“The US played a role in killing manufacturing, and the US-India solar relationship has not been very good,” he said.

“The value [of this meeting] is more to the US and India, it’s about the legacy of Obama. The agreements will be more headlines than substantive issues.”

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