Fuelling the flame?Just before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his US visit this week, his foreign ministry brought out on social media some infographics on the “global strategic partnership” between the two countries. Topping the list was defence, followed by energy and climate change.
Just before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his US visit this week, his foreign ministry brought out on social media some infographics on the “global strategic partnership” between the two countries. Topping the list was defence, followed by energy and climate change.
The second on the list, particularly climate change, was “interesting” given that Washington had just pulled out of the Paris climate accord and India had initially refrained from making any comment. While announcing the withdrawal, US President Donald Trump had criticised how India was getting millions of dollars in climate aid, while his own citizens, he said, were in need of the money. Under these circumstances, the curiosity was what exactly their partnership would be, particularly in regard to climate issues.
That still remains largely unanswered because the US-India joint statement at the end of Modi’s visit had just this to say on climate change: “The leaders called for a rational approach that balances environment and climate policy, global economic development, and energy security needs.”
The statement was remarkably silent on carbon cut targets—the key thing, according to scientists, to keep climatic changes under control. And even if the statement has mentioned “climate policy”, it comes at a time when environmentalists are concerned about the “undoing” of the US’s carbon-reduction rules and regulations introduced by Obama. They remember that one of the first things Trump’s administration did was to get rid of all references to climate change from the White House website.
So, it was no wonder that even if India had “prioritised” climate, it was hardly accorded any importance in the joint statement, while details of areas of cooperation ranging from defence and terrorism to trade were included. And New Delhi, whose climate negotiators are always elaborative on how climatic changes are affecting almost all parts of their country, appeared to be fine with the way climate was treated in the joint statement.
That said, there was at least one climate-related area that the two countries covered quite comprehensively: energy. “Surveying United States-India energy ties and the two countries’ respective energy strategies, the leaders affirmed the continued importance of their Strategic Energy Partnership and of leveraging new opportunities to elevate cooperation to enhance global energy security,” the joint statement reads.
For a region that still has much of its population living without electricity, energy security is certainly a key issue. But the challenge is how we address it without further deteriorating the environment and by minimising carbon emissions that scientists blame for climate change. One thing India has always been clear about is that its energy mix, for some time, will have significant portions of fossil fuels, mainly coal. But India has also stressed that it would sizably scale up renewables and has launched ambitious plans building like mega solar parks and replacing fossil-fuelled cars with those running on electricity in future, among others.
In recent years’ climate negotiations that culminated into the Paris agreement in 2015, major emerging economies like China and India were under pressure to make significant carbon cuts. Although these fast developing countries always argued that it was now their turn to pursue development works—much of it with energy from fossil fuels—and it was for the developed world to cut down their emissions, they had started recognising that they could not just stay out. That compromise was a key factor that had led to the signing of the Paris deal—because developed countries would not sign it if rapidly rising economies did not step up to the plate.
It took more than 20 years of negotiations to agree to the historic deal. Its rule book was yet to be prepared, when US President Trump announced on June 1 that his country was pulling out. His move was widely criticised amid fears that other major polluters might not be as serious now as they were about cutting down their emissions.
Striking a balance
Just when clouds of that worry hovered above global climate governance, the US-India partnership on energy has found an important space in their joint statement. But is it for better or worse? “President Trump affirmed that the United States continues to remove barriers to energy development and investment in the United States and to US energy exports so that more natural gas, clean coal, and renewable resources and technologies are available to fuel India’s economic growth and inclusive development,” the statement says.
Technology transfer will however not be limited to renewables only. It will also be for fossil fuels, although the statement calls it “more efficient”. “Both leaders welcomed upcoming visits between India and the United States that will expand energy and innovation linkages across the energy sector and deepen cooperation, including on more efficient fossil fuel technologies, smart grids, and energy storage. They supported financing of energy projects, including clean coal projects, by Multilateral Development Banks to promote universal access to affordable and reliable energy.”
Note the mentions of clean coals—twice—and more efficient fossil fuel technologies. Even if they are really “clean coals” and “more efficient fossil fuel technologies”, it still means India will be getting fossil fuels from the US. That will be in addition to New Delhi’s own plan to double India’s coal production in the next few years.
What could all this mean in terms of carbon emissions? And what could happen to local pollution in the region? Even if the US actually transfers “clean technologies” to India, how will it be verified that they are indeed clean and that they have resulted in carbon reductions?
Of course this is also about making energy accessible to people who want them the most, but they are also from the same communities that are the most vulnerable to extreme weather events and environmental degradation.
How will that balance be struck, if at all? Particularly when questions are being asked if the US itself—under the new administration—will be able to achieve such a balance.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London