India's Modi Poised to Make or Break Climate Talks in Paris

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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Photographer: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images
  • Paris talks shaping up to be Modi's biggest diplomatic test
  • India can meet emissions target without doing anything new

At the climate talks in Paris next week, all eyes will be on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Developing nations are looking for him to champion their interests in winning funds to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Richer countries including the U.S. are wary that India could end up scuttling any deal.

For Modi, it’s an opportunity to claim his spot among the world’s top statesmen crafting a solution to one of the biggest risks facing humanity -- and he’s unlikely to pass that up.

“He wants to project India -- and himself -- as a problem solver, not a blocker," said Sreeram Sundar Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs near New Delhi. “Modi realizes that issues like climate change, transnational terrorism and multilateral trade are the big questions of our times, the defining global-governance crises."

So far Modi’s approach has amounted to more style over substance. His top diplomat has called the talks India’s biggest negotiation of the year, a new website is providing round-the-clock updates on India’s green credentials, and Modi has cast himself as the standard bearer for developing nations.

Kerry Spat

Yet at the same time, Modi has set a target for reducing emissions that’s so low the world’s third-largest polluter will meet it without committing to anything new. That’s what most worries the U.S., which reached a breakthrough last year with China that increased pressure on India to take action.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Financial Times earlier this month that India poses “a challenge" to the negotiations, particularly regarding its desire to continue burning low-grade, domestic coal that’s especially dirty.

India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar fired back, telling reporters in New Delhi that the statement was “unfair and untrue." He said the U.S. uses triple the amount of coal that India does despite finding shale gas.

In September, Indian Power Minister Piyush Goyal said Western nations had “polluted the world for the last 150 years with cheap energy” and that India won’t pay for it.
Rhetoric aside, India sees the two-week talks as one of the best chances to strike a deal before a presidential election that may bring a Republican to power in the U.S.

“The other party waiting in the wings doesn’t believe in climate change," Javadekar told Bloomberg TV India this week, referring to the U.S. election.

1.3 Billion People

In Paris, some 130 leaders will attempt what a 2009 summit in Copenhagen failed to do: seal a climate treaty binding all nations to limit emissions and halt global warming.

India’s size makes it essential to any meaningful deal. The country now has 1.3 billion people, and it’s set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2022. It needs an enormous amount of infrastructure investment to raise the lowest living standards among the biggest emerging markets. That means abundant use of emissions-heavy steel, cement and aluminum.

In the run-up to the talks, India’s commitments have underwhelmed climate researchers. Four separate assessments show that India could reach its targets with previously announced policies, even though nations were asked to come up with more far-reaching goals in Paris.

“Hardly Ambitious”

“It’s hardly ambitious -- in fact, not at all," said Shakeb Afsah, a former World Bank environmental economist and founder of Performeks LLC, one of the groups that analyzed India’s submissions. “The expected rate of decline in emissions intensity that India is pledging is just business as usual."

The other assessments were from reports issued in the last month by the Brookings Institution in Washington, the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and the Climate Action Tracker.

India became a leader among developing nations after China broke ranks last year by agreeing to peak in 2030. Instead, India has agreed to reduce the intensity of its fossil-fuel emissions: the amount of CO2 it releases per dollar of gross domestic product -- an approach that leaves plenty of wiggle room.

India also irked many climate researchers by including “clean coal" -- an unproven technology -- as part of its target to get 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuels by 2030.

Coal vs. Solar

Currently, about 60 percent of India’s power comes from coal. By 2040, India will have the fastest-growing electricity demand among major economies and be the top driver of global coal demand, according to the International Energy Agency.

“Whichever way you look at it, India needs to limit the amount of coal-fired power generation," said Karlien Wouters, a quantitative climate policy analyst at London-based Ecofys, a research organization.

To his credit, Modi boosted India’s renewable energy target by nearly fivefold after taking office in May 2014. That commitment lies at the heart of India’s emissions pledge.

He’s also set to spearhead a solar alliance of 110 nations that aims to expand the use of solar in the tropics and bring power to non-electrified villages with the backing of rich countries.

“Modi has the potential for motivating the country,” said Durwood Zaelke, founder of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development in Washington. “He just needs to blend his vision of development with his vision of climate protection. They do intersect."

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