President Obama, India’s Prime Minister Modi, and the Opportunity to Cooperate on Climate Change

January 23, 2015 | 4:00 pm
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

When I was growing up in New Delhi, the annual Republic Day celebrations were always cause for great national pride. They commemorate the day this large, vibrant democracy’s constitution came into force, after India secured its independence from British colonial rule. This year President Obama will be a special guest for the Republic Day parade, a spectacular display of India’s rich cultural heritage and military might. What I am keenly interested to hear are the ways in which Prime Minister Modi and President Obama plan to cooperate to address one of the biggest challenges facing the world today: climate change.

Climate impacts hit close to home in India and the U.S.

Here in the U.S., we are growing increasingly aware that climate change is already having significant impacts – including increasing the risks of coastal flooding because of sea level rise; contributing to hotter, drier conditions, which in turn leads to drought, water shortages, and wildfires; raising the risks of heat waves and their health consequences; and raising economic risks.

PM Modi and President Obama

Prime Minister Modi and President Obama, September 2014. Photo: narendramodiofficial/Flickr

India is no stranger to climate impacts either. A recent report commissioned by the World Bank finds that India is already facing warming temperatures and increased risk of heat waves and water stress. Sea level rise threatens major population centers like Mumbai and Kolkata. Rising temperatures and potential changes in the monsoon rainfall patterns, as well as the growing water needs of a larger population, could create water scarcity and pose significant risks to crop yields and food security.

Because we know that these impacts will only worsen if we fail to take strong actions to limit our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and to prepare for future risks, these two great nations must show leadership in addressing climate change.

India’s renewable energy push: Affordable, clean energy for all

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, announced in June 2013, and follow-on actions to implement it such as the Clean Power Plan, are probably familiar to the American public. The recent joint climate change announcement with China also made big news. What may be less known are the major strides India is taking to ramp up renewable energy and how it too can contribute to global climate solutions.

India’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission is an ambitious plan to deploy 20,000 MW of grid-connected solar power by 2022, and reduce solar costs to achieve grid parity in that same time period through policies and R&D investments. In January, U.S.-based SunEdison and India’s Omnigrid Micropower announced an agreement to develop 250 MW of rural off-grid solar power projects. SunEdison and Adani Enterprises also announced a joint venture to build the largest solar PV manufacturing facility in India, with an investment of $4 billion.

India is the world’s fifth largest producer of wind power, with 20 gigawatts of installed capacity in 2014. The country has also recently proposed a National Wind Energy Mission, although its goals are yet to be announced. The country has significant wind energy potential, and could reach up to 100 GW of capacity, but scaling up these resources will require strong policies, including state feed-in tariffs, renewables purchase obligations, and national tax and investment incentives. Just as in the U.S., these types of renewable energy policies can be a significant driver of growth, while policy uncertainty can be a significant impediment.

Significantly, India also has a tax on coal which it recently doubled. Revenues from the tax, which stood at $2.85 billion at the end of last year, go toward a National Clean Energy Fund.

India has the potential to go much further. Some Indian experts think an announcement of a strong renewable energy target could be in the offing. This could be a target of 15 to 20 percent, or higher, from zero-emission sources, including renewable energy and nuclear energy, by 2030.

solar cooker

Solar cookers designed by engineers of the Barefoot College, Rajasthan, India. Photo: Knut-Erik Helle

There are many good reasons for India to expand renewable energy. It can help advance economic growth, which depends on access to reliable, affordable energy. It can be part of the solution to help provide clean power (including through off-grid technologies) to the many millions of Indians who do not currently have access to electricity. It can help cut pollution from coal-fired power plants, a major public health challenge for the country. And it offers new opportunities for Indian wind and solar companies to grow and create jobs.

Opportunities for U.S.-India cooperation on climate action

The U.S. and India face many of the same climate and energy problems and are already starting to invest in similar solutions like renewable energy and climate resilience. At the same time, they have very different economic challenges and domestic policy environments. When President Obama and Prime Minister Modi met in September 2014, they announced a shared energy and climate vision. Now they have an important opportunity to advance and build upon that by reaching agreements that:

  • Help ramp up renewable energy more rapidly and cheaply, including through technology and policy cooperation, ramping up public (and public-private) finance, enabling B2B opportunities, and advancing beneficial trade deals.
  • Advance shared R&D, particularly related to solar PV, offshore wind, and battery storage technologies.
  • Advance and share scientific understanding of climate impacts, particularly in the context of a relatively poor, densely populated, and very exposed country like India.
  • Share best practices to help build resilience to climate impacts.
  • Increase cooperation on cutting conventional air pollutants from fossil-fired power plants and vehicles, as well as reducing short-lived climate forcers like methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons (including opportunities for using the Montreal Protocol framework).
  • Commit to a good faith partnership to help overcome significant differences between developed and developing countries in the UN climate negotiations, particularly around the issues of an equitable deal and differentiation in country obligations (which my colleague Alden Meyer called the ‘elephant in the room’).

These steps are in the best interests of both countries, and they are as important as any other agreements that may be reached related to trade or security.

In two weeks I will be making my own trip to India. As I enjoy the sights, tastes, and smells of my childhood home, I know I’ll also be happily noting all those rooftop solar water heaters and compressed natural gas-fueled auto-rickshaws. And I’ll be sure to report back on how Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Obama changed the conversation about global climate action.