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India, One of the World’s Biggest Polluters, Will Join Climate Change Accord

New Delhi said it will formally join the Paris climate agreement this year, a potentially big step to curbing harmful global temperature increases.

MODIOBAMA

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said New Delhi aims to formally join the Paris climate agreement this year, a historic move by the world’s fastest-growing emitter of greenhouse gases — and a key step toward full implementation of the far-reaching accord.

Modi and President Barack Obama issued a joint statement Tuesday after two meetings at the White House, part of a three-day visit meant to shore up ever-closer ties between Washington and New Delhi. The two countries outlined other steps to fight climate change, including working to phase out highly potent pollutants known as hydrofluorocarbons. That agreement, similar to one reached between the United States and China in 2013, could have the biggest short-term impact in limiting rising temperatures. The two countries also agreed to jump-start construction of six U.S.-built nuclear power plants in India — the first fruits of a 2008 nuclear power cooperation accord between India and the United States.

India’s formal adhesion to the Paris climate accord, once completed, will move the pact one big step closer to the level of global support needed for it to legally enter into force: 55 countries and 55 percent of global emissions. India would be the 46th country, and its entry would bring the tally of global emissions covered by the treaty to 54.7 percent.

“There are a lot of positive, encouraging signals — including today’s announcement — that India is taking the threat of climate change more seriously,” said Jason Bordoff, a former Obama energy and climate advisor who now directs Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

India’s apparent enthusiasm for the Paris deal is even more surprising in light of its historical opposition to limits on how fast it can develop. For years, right up to the negotiations last December that finally led to the Paris deal, India had been the standard-bearer of countries that put economic development ahead of environmental objectives, including the fight against global warming.

Since winning election in 2014, Modi’s concerns about India’s energy future had largely focused on providing power to the more than 300 million Indians without access to electricity. India’s power minister, Piyush Goyal, has repeatedly defended India’s right to develop its economy with whatever fuel source it could, including coal, a dirty source of power that remains the centerpiece of Modi’s plan to modernize India’s power system.

Yet, environmental problems have suddenly grown hugely forbidding for India. Major cities like New Delhi have worse air quality than Chinese cities, prompting a rethink of how India will get energy. On paper, India has some of the most ambitious clean-energy goals in the world. Modi hopes to install more than 100,000 megawatts of solar power by 2022, a jaw-dropping objective given that India’s total electricity generation capacity is only about 300,000 megawatts.

To help New Delhi meet those targets, the two countries on Tuesday agreed to streamline financing for renewable energy projects, especially solar power, and particularly in rural areas far removed from the electricity grid. The White House said such agreements could help mobilize more than $1 billion in finance to help India develop its solar resources more quickly.

Despite all the fanfare over India’s formal accession to the climate pact, that won’t by itself clean up the country’s emissions, even if the renewable energy targets are largely met. India’s plans to meet the Paris targets call for cleaning up the economy while it grows — not for shrinking greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms. Under the plan it submitted to the U.N., India’s greenhouse gas emissions will probably keep rising for decades to come. If Modi’s ambitious plans for economic growth work out, those emissions could rise even faster.

“We should applaud what India is doing, but not get carried away,” Bordoff said.

In the meantime, climate change itself is already hammering the subcontinent. Ferocious droughts, caused by a shift in the monsoon pattern due largely to climate change, have in the past two years affected hundreds of millions of Indians, emptied villages and farms, and curtailed power generation from thirsty coal plants and dams.

After many years of a development-first pitch, Bordoff said, “you’re hearing constructive rhetoric” from India now. “They are starting to understand that they need to change the path they are on” if the world is to come close to meeting its target of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s deputy editor for news. @KFJ_FP

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