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India and US advance on climate cooperation

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets spectators with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Creative Commons: US Embassy New Delhi, 2015

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets spectators with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Creative Commons: US Embassy New Delhi, 2015

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama announced continuing steps to combat climate change on the first day of Obama’s visit to India. Sunday’s discussions on climate action between the world’s second and third biggest emitters indicate growing global momentum toward a climate deal in Paris at the end of the year.

With Modi acknowledging that climate change is a “huge pressure,” the two leaders agreed to increase cooperation to tackle the issue and pledged to “work closely” on a climate deal at the UN summit in December. They committed to investment that will encourage a massive deployment of solar electricity in India and to boost research into other renewable energies and energy efficiency.

Climate resilience was also on the agenda, with the two nations agreeing to develop a tool to help India better assess and manage the consequences of global warming.

And the US said it would help India tackle the growing problem of deadly air pollution in its cities. New Delhi is among the most polluted cities in the world, and 13 of the top 20 cities with the worst air are located in India.

These announcements are positive developments in the fight against global warming, but as some commentators highlighted, the deal did little to tackle India’s growing reliance on coal. It also gave renewed support to India’s plans to significantly increase its share of electricity generated from nuclear sources.

Modi wants to bring power to the more than 300 million people in India still living without electricity. If the Indian government is to achieve this goal, it must weigh the health and environmental costs of coal and nuclear power, and think carefully about how to electrify the nation while ensuring that development, climate and clean air goals go hand-in-hand.

Since coming to power over a year ago, Modi has suggested that climate change is an important issue for India and this latest agreement seems to confirm this. However, as commentators have highlighted, there is still much to do before India can be considered a climate leader.

Questions remain over the nation’s rising reliance on coal and its willingness to tackle its worsening air quality problems. There are also concerns about the fact its sights remain set on seeing nuclear as significant source of future energy rather than focussing on massively ramping up renewables and energy efficiency to allow them to reach their maximum potential.

According to consultants E&Y, India has “abundant untapped energy resources” that include solar, wind and water power. This would also make financial sense given that new research shows that as early as 2020 the costs of coal imports could be as much as 50% higher than those of home-grown renewables.

In the lead up to the UN climate summit in Paris, it is vital that major emitters, from both developing and developed countries, keep talking if a meaningful climate deal is to be reached.

Although this deal has widely been described as less significant than the landmark climate agreement announced by the US and China last November, it provides new opportunities to accelerate the growth of India’s renewables sector while linking up strategies on climate action with strategies to expand energy access and boost India’s economy.

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