The U.S.-India climate change deal: President Obama is on a roll

Two cheers for the U.S.-India climate deal

(Image credit: (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster))

On his second visit to India as president, Barack Obama scored yet another diplomatic victory, agreeing with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a series of steps that will cement the commitment by both governments to tackle climate change. While the steps outlined are not sufficient on their own to avert the worst effects of global warming, this weekend's visit is a success, especially when seen in the context of the blockbuster U.S.-China agreement that Obama was able to secure in late 2014. The world's three largest polluters are on the same page in recognizing the seriousness of the climate crisis, even if they are approaching the issue on their own terms and at their own pace.

The specifics outlined in the joint statements coming out of the meetings between Obama and Modi are mainly continuations of prior initiatives. The central conclusion one should draw from the agreements is that both countries got a great deal of what they wanted. For Modi, India received recognition of its admirable efforts to deploy solar power, while avoiding pledges regarding a peak emissions year (which the Chinese agreed to in November) or a future schedule of emissions reductions. With promises by the U.S. to expand its Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) program, India can be assured that it can count on its relationship with the U.S. to unlock the kind of financing necessary to reach the goals the government has laid out for renewable energy growth.

For the U.S., Obama received assurances that India would participate constructively in building consensus toward a strong agreement in Paris later this year (where the global community will try to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol), though what that would actually look like remains to be seen. What matters is that, in the wake of the U.S.-China agreement, India is responding to shifting norms by trying to appear proactive and refraining from going out of its way to highlight historic divides between developed and developing countries over responsibility for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. While it maintains its prerogative to place economic development on a higher pedestal that environmental sustainability in the short term (meaning it will still exploit its domestic coal reserves), over the long term it realizes it has a significant role to play in being some kind of a model of de-carbonization. Hopefully the fruit of this progress will be seen in its intended nationally-determined contribution (INDC) — the master plan for fighting climate change, which India is required to submit by this spring.

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The much more significant development appears to be on the nuclear issue, though some specifics are still pending further discussions. U.S. companies have long been reluctant to develop projects in India, because the country's liability laws are so onerous. Individual companies would still have to scrutinize the specific mechanisms underlying the insurance program that is meant to neutralize the bite of the liability law and make decisions about whether it would still be a good idea to move forward on projects, but Obama and Modi have lifted a significant hurdle. Accelerating the deployment of nuclear power in India would have a great deal of climate benefits, since it could, over time, displace coal as the principal source of baseload power, acting as a complement to India's initiatives on solar power, which, absent significant advancements in battery storage, are much more intermittent.

On the larger context of the commitment to do more on climate change, much remains to be seen over the course of this year. The next major raft of announcements will come this spring, when the 195 countries that are party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are due to submit their INDCs for tackling greenhouse gas emissions, a commitment that grew out of the Lima conference in December. This process has been strengthened immensely by what the Obama administration has done in Beijing and Delhi over the past three months.

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