India’s Modi Aims for Energy Efficiency, Not Obama CO2 Cuts

With U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India just days away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is focused more on boosting the use of renewables in his country than committing to cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Obama announced a pact with China two months ago for capping emissions, raising the pressure on India, the third-biggest greenhouse polluter behind those two countries, to follow suit. Instead, Modi is likely to cite a 90 percent success rate in a program aimed at forcing companies to conserve power, and there are hints he may boost clean-energy goals.

Modi this week met with his government’s top council of climate advisers and, in a two-hour session, asked for more ambitious renewable and energy-saving targets, according to two people who attended the meeting but aren’t authorized to speak publicly about it. Modi also told the panel that India needs a more constructive image in talks seeking a global climate-change treaty, the people said.

“India is hugely important -- you don’t get a global climate deal without them,” said Anjali Jaiswal, an analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. “India can be a bridge, really a man in the middle, to reach the whole developing world on this issue.”

Obama and Modi are scheduled to meet Jan. 26. Any climate deal they reach is likely to be incremental, building upon the clean-energy package announced in September when the two met in Washington. That 11-point plan included $1 billion in U.S. financing for renewable projects, support for upgrading India’s electrical grid and efforts to improve air-quality monitoring in the subcontinent’s smog-choked cities.

‘Politically Sellable’

Such initiatives are “more politically sellable” for Modi than a strict emissions pledge, said Sabina Dewan, the Delhi-based executive director of JustJobs Network Inc. who advises Modi’s office on clean-energy jobs. The prime minister swept into power last May on a platform promising economic growth and providing power to the roughly 300 million Indians who still lack daily access to power.

Development and electrification remains Modi’s priority, not fighting climate change, said Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer at the Council on Energy, Environment & Water, a research group in New Delhi. Still, the goals aren’t incompatible.

Relax Restrictions

“If we removed climate negotiations from the picture, we’d still be making these changes,” Ghosh said. “So just because we’re not prepared to commit, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to do anything.”

One area of potential compromise at the summit: a deal to relax Indian restrictions on using American solar panels in exchange for more U.S. financing for renewables. The two countries will also try to address a long-stalled effort to allow U.S. nuclear companies to build reactors in India.

Obama and Modi could also make progress on a global effort to phase out HFCs, industrial refrigerants now recognized as a potent contributor to warming in the atmosphere. Both nations are leading producers of the chemicals, said Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, a conservation group based in Washington.

The meeting comes amid international talks that aim to conclude in Paris in December with an agreement requiring all nations, rich and poor, to help reduce greenhouse-gas pollution.

Energy Consumption

For Modi, “the question is what does he think is going to be acceptable for his economy?” Zaelke said by telephone. Without a “substantial” climate pledge, “he will lower the ambition of everybody else in the world and he knows that will hurt India.”

India is expected to surpass China as the world’s fastest-growing energy user in the next decade. It’s vowed a 25 percent cut in its carbon intensity: the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide released per unit of gross domestic product. Developed nations have pushed for a more stringent commitment of capping total emissions -- something China, the world’s top emitter, agreed to do in its November pact with the U.S.

The U.S., the No. 2 carbon emitter, said it would cut emissions by more than a quarter by 2025.

Since that announcement, India and U.S. officials have taken pains to lower expectations. A China-like deal isn’t likely, given India’s differing economic circumstances, Todd Stern, the U.S. envoy to the global talks, said in an interview.

Solar Power

Still, he said, India needs to be “animated by the understanding that you can have a strong imperative for development but the development has got to be sustainable.

‘‘What you’re looking for is for them to take action that is not going to run counter to their imperatives of growth and development and poverty eradication but which is also strong and forward-looking.’’

Modi in November promised to raise India’s solar capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2022, five times the previous goal. India’s also taken advantage of falling oil prices to lower diesel-fuel subsidies, removing one advantage that fossil fuels have over cleaner forms of energy.

Modi can also cite early success from a three-year-old energy efficiency program that’s projected to save the nation $5 billion in oil imports by the end of March.

Three years ago, India gave its most energy-intensive industries a deadline of March 31, 2015, to reduce the amount of energy they consume for every unit produced. More than 90 percent of the companies are on track to meet their targets after investing in new equipment and technologies, according to Ajay Mathur, head of India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency.

‘Most Efficient’

‘‘Our cement and fertilizer factories may end up being the most efficient in the world,” Mathur said in an interview.

Under the program, the government awards companies that surpass their targets with credits they can sell to others falling short. While states in the U.S. and Australia set up similar market-based mechanisms to save energy, India will be the first to do it nationwide, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This first three-year cycle is expected to have led to reductions of 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and 6.6 million tons of oil equivalent, according to government calculations. That means it saved about $5 billion in oil imports, based on average Brent crude prices during that time, and also eliminated the need for electricity roughly equivalent to the output of five coal-fired power plants.

Climate Talks

“This is definitely one of those things that India can tout,” said Aditya Bahadur, a climate researcher at the London-based Overseas Development Institute. Energy efficiency is an area both leaders can agree to support because it’s “not as politically contentious” as discussions over whether India should commit to a finite cap on its emissions.

India has touted the program as a model for developing nations to wrestle with climate change.

“It’s a unique and innovative program with no precedence anywhere else in the world,” said Sushil Shinde, who was power minister when the campaign began in 2012. The trading program shows “that emerging economies can achieve energy savings in a cost-effective way that boosts economic growth.”

India’s intentions in the global climate talks haven’t always been clear. Modi has pledged to increase solar and wind power and warns of the dangers or rising sea levels and swelling temperatures. Yet India has so far refused to commit to cut greenhouse gases and it’s been a vocal advocate of a principle that’s long tripped up the talks: the idea that rich nations that profited off the fossil-fuel economy should bear most of the burden for cleaning up emissions.

Yet Modi, at his meeting with climate advisers this week, said he’d been moved by a visit last year to Fiji, and the Pacific island nation’s fear of rising sea levels, according to the people who attended.

With 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) of its own coastline and a water supply dependent on glaciers, India too faces “the searing impact of climate change,” Modi said in a November speech in Fiji. “We cannot stand aside.”

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