Environmentalists were alarmed a week ago by an interview India’s new environment minister gave to The New York Times, as it seemed to deal a serious blow to U.S. efforts to secure an international agreement on combating global warming.
Prakash Javadekar, the Indian official, declared his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and vastly improve his nation’s economy, which he said “would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation.”
Javadekar argued that the U.S. and other industrialized countries had built up their economies at the environment’s expense. He dismissed the suggestion that India should make cuts to its own carbon emissions as its economy is about to take off.
Moreover, while India ranks third in overall carbon emissions, its carbon footprint per capita is much smaller than that of China and the United States – a mere 1.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person compared to 6.2 metric tons for China and 17.6 metric tons for the U.S., according to the World Bank.
“What cuts?” Javadekar said, The Times reported. “That’s for more developed countries.”
Without India on board, however, any international effort to combat global warming would be meaningless. Without the involvement of third-world giants like India, future targets for emissions reductions would be riddled with holes.
With a new hard-charging prime minister vowing to elevate his country’s economy from third world to first-world status in the coming years, India stands at an important environmental crossroads: Its leaders must choose between continued reliance on coal-fired power plants and factories that will only add to the global climate woes or gradually turn to cleaner energy alternatives.
Fortunately, Javadekar’s statements last week, a day after a United Nations climate summit in New York attended by Obama, proved to be more bombast than substance.
On Tuesday, Obama and visiting India Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an important agreement in Washington that would do two things: First, greatly increase India’s use of renewable fuels – including solar power. Second, gradually reduce global emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, which are industrial chemicals that emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
As part of the deal, the U.S. Export-Import Bank (under attack by Republicans in Congress) and the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency will provide $1 billion of financing for India to purchase U.S-made solar panels and other clean energy technology.
“Recognizing the critical importance of increasing energy access, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving resilience in the face of climate change, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi agreed to a new and enhanced strategic partnership on energy security, clean energy, and climate change,” according to a summary from the White House.
The agreement capped Modi’s five-day visit to New York and Washington – his first high profile international trip since taking office in May as India’s 15th prime minister.
Obama and Modi declared they were committed to working toward a successful outcome in Paris in 2015 of the conference of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including the creation of a new global agreement on climate change. Without Modi’s involvement, the conference would be greatly constricted in what it could accomplish.
The Washington Post described the agreement as “a modest step” toward reducing hydro fluorocarbons but a “potentially significant victory for Obama’s climate strategy.”
Obama has been forced to go it alone without congressional support in devising ways to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. He has tried repeatedly to enlist China and India to join international negotiations to find ways to scale back HFCs – which The Post says are “up to 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping the sun’s heat in the atmosphere.”
Although Tuesday’s agreement received little fanfare, some environmental experts believe it may prove a vital turning point in the long international efforts to slow the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions that scientists have linked to adverse climate change.
Justin Guay, associate director of the Sierra Club’s international program, said in an interview that the announcement was important both for its “political symbolism” in putting climate change at the forefront and for the “quite significant investments” in clean energy technology.
“This is a reflection of demand coming from India,” Guay said. “They see solar as a critical part of their energy future to help them diversify away from all of the problems they’ve had in developing coal plants.”
He added, “It also shows there’s a significant opportunity for the United States to export this technology and to utilize the financing tools we have available to us to basically secure win-win: Our companies get to sell solar and countries like India get to achieve electrification goals.”
Anjali Jaiswal, a global warming expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the agreement “a significant outcome and a significant step forward on making progress on climate change.”
She noted that until yesterday, Modi had not “really showed his cards on climate change,” and that it was encouraging in light of Javadekar’s previous statement.
“As the two biggest energy consumers and the largest democracies in the world, the United States and India have a unique role to play in taking immediate joint action to combat climate change.”
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