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Dispelling Myths About India and Climate Change

Leaders must overcome the mistrust that has characterized recent U.S.-India relations on climate change and energy.

On November 24, President Obama will host the first state visit of his presidency, rolling out the red carpet for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. Climate change will be high on the agenda for the leaders of the world’s two biggest democracies. And the timing is auspicious, coming only two weeks before the start of the high stakes global climate summit in Copenhagen.

With some trying to dampen expectations that the world will seal a new climate agreement in the Danish capital, a U.S.-India breakthrough on action to reduce greenhouse gases could provide the negotiations with much needed impetus.

But for this to happen, the two leaders need to overcome the mistrust that has characterized recent U.S.-India relations on climate change and energy.

For Americans, this requires dispelling three damaging myths.

The first myth lumps India in with China as a global economic player and U.S. competitor which does not need industrialized country support to switch to a low carbon economy. In fact, while India is not Chad, neither is it China. Within its borders, mostly in small villages, live a third of the world’s poor. Some three hundred million Indians – more than the entire population of the United States - survive on less than a dollar a day. Four hundred million lack electricity. They are seeking to switch lights on, not turn them off. While a few rich Indians now boast the same carbon footprint as the average American, India’s slum dwellers still vastly outnumber its middle class.

The second myth casts India as the rogue of the UN negotiations, refusing to curb its spiraling greenhouse gas emissions without rich country handouts. In fact, while India talks tough, its actions speak otherwise.

India has made investments in a low carbon economy despite using less energy than either the U.S. or China to produce each dollar of GDP.

In recent years, New Delhi has deployed wind power incentives and high industrial energy prices to foster an impressive nationwide shift to clean technologies. Almost a tenth of India’s installed electricity capacity now flows from renewable sources, according to India’s Prayas Energy Group, compared with a paltry 3.8% for the United States. Not content with seeding a renewables revolution, India’s government has implemented strong energy efficiency standards for new appliances and buildings and launched an efficiency-based “cap-and-trade” scheme involving 700 large industrial companies. Huge subsidies for solar technologies are also in the pipeline. What’s more, India has made this investment in a low carbon economy despite using less energy than either the U.S. or China to produce each dollar of GDP.

The third myth is that India is looking for massive cash handouts. In fact, it seeks assistance primarily in the form of a technology partnership and strategic climate and energy relationship with the United States, one which aligns with America’s own interests. Technology partnerships with U.S. federal agencies and companies are a priority for India’s leaders because they would help drive down the costs of clean technology and increase Indian capacity to respond effectively and sustainably to booming domestic energy demand. On the world stage, a high profile climate and energy relationship with the United States would also help India’s quest to establish itself as a leading economic and diplomatic player. In addition, and understandably, India seeks some financial support in adapting to destructive climate impacts already underway.

What would the United States gain from such a partnership? Access to India’s growing market for clean energy technologies, and the American jobs that such demand would generate; leverage to persuade India to embrace more aggressive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to subject these actions to international verification; and improvements in U.S.-India relations that would benefit not just the two nations but the global community and its shared climate.

The United States, by aiding India, would also be keeping faith with the terms of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which it signed. This requires developed countries to pay the “full incremental costs” for developing countries to implement emission reduction measures.

Building trust, and overcoming the damaging mud-slinging between Washington and New Delhi on who is the more recalcitrant on climate change, will take time.

But that time must be invested. President Obama and Prime Minister Singh can take a first important step this month, by announcing a high level partnership to develop new and affordable renewable energy technologies and promote energy efficiencies. Responding to climate change is a major test for humanity’s ability to undertake swift and effective multilateral action. The world’s two largest democratic nations need to lead the way, now, in solving this global challenge.

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