India recently experienced its hottest day ever when temperatures in the northern city of Phalodi reached a shocking temperature of 123.8 degrees Farenheit—while Washington D.C. slogged through a record-breaking 15 consecutive days of rain. Meanwhile, April 2016 was the hottest April globally in history by a wide margin. As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays a visit to President Obama, these records serve as a harsh reminder of the need to build on their recent progress to tackle the challenges of a changing climate.
Climate change will likely be high on the agenda at the White House meeting, as it has in virtually every interaction between the two. Bilateral cooperation to curb heat-trapping emissions has been part of their discussions in Washington, Delhi and Paris.
Prime Minister Modi and President Obama have put themselves in the vanguard of global climate policy, not because of any immediate political pressure, but because both leaders see action on this front as crucial for future generations’ health and prosperity.
Prime Minister Modi has framed expanding the availability of clean, renewable energy as necessary to transform the Indian economy and improve the welfare of its poorest citizens. As he said in Paris last November, “A vast section of humanity lives at the edge of poverty and in darkness after the sun sets … And they are also the most vulnerable to the consequences of an industrial age powered by fossil fuel. Access to energy and a better life is a universal aspiration.”
Because some 240 million Indian residents lack any electricity, the government has adopted an all-of-the-above energy strategy. It includes continuing to use fossil fuels like coal, while also ramping up solar and wind power by aiming to get 175 gigawatts of renewable energy from solar, wind, hydro and biomass by 2022. The solar goal alone—100 gigawatts—is five times the previous Indian government’s target for 2022. These bold commitments send a signal that incremental change will not be enough to raise millions out of poverty while also keeping global temperatures below the level that will trigger the most severe impacts of a warming world. Only dramatic change will bring the transformation India’s people need.
Some of this change is already occurring. Solar home systems added more than $21 million to the rural Indian economy in 2014, allowing a billion extra hours of studying for children, while cutting down on the use of dangerous kerosene lamps, according to research in the New Climate Economy report. Replacing a million diesel irrigation pumps with solar power pumps would save $300 million a year on diesel imports. A farmer with a solar power pump system can earn nearly $800 selling excess power to the grid, while saving as much as $2,000 a year on diesel fuel. To support the shift to renewables, India has for the fourth time doubled its tax on coal—known as a coal cess—to about $6 a ton. The revenues are meant to help foster solar and wind power development.
The Obama administration also deserves credit for setting ambitious climate targets. It currently has a target to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and it introduced the first-ever national climate strategy, including the cornerstone Clean Power Plan. But, as in India, the U.S. targets will not be reached without further action to ramp up renewable energy and a long-term commitment to climate action.
Three things should top the U.S.-India climate agenda set by Prime Minister Modi and President Obama:
Reduce HFCs with the Montreal Protocol: To reduce hydrofluorocarbons (or HFCs, chemicals found in refrigerants and cooling systems), India and the United States need to work together to amend the Montreal Protocol, the agreement aimed at protecting Earth’s ozone layer. It must include phasing down HFCs. That measure could avoid as much as nearly 1 degree Farenheit of global warming by the end of the century.
Coordinate Energy Innovation: Another area for bilateral collaboration is on enticing public and private clean-energy innovation to tackle global climate change. The Mission Innovation initiative, announced at the Paris climate summit, along with India’s new International Solar Alliance, a network of nations and businesses dedicated to enabling large-scale expansion of solar energy use, can work together as another way to help meet climate commitments made at and after the Paris conference. The ultimate goal is to make solar power a mainstream source of energy.
Maintain Open Markets in Clean Energy: Trade disputes between the United States and India over India’s renewable energy policies could hinder cooperation on clean energy. The two must find a mutually acceptable solution to maintain open markets in clean energy trade and investment.
This is clearly a time for statesmanship. Prime Minister Modi is pushing to maintain his popularity in India, while President Obama is looking to seal his legacy at the end of his presidency. Somewhat surprisingly, these two leaders have found common ground in the need for action. Ongoing collaboration on climate can reduce future risks and create long-term prosperity for both countries.