As India and the U.S. build closer ties, they should pursue a win-win agreement on climate. It is in the U.S.’s strategic interest that India grows into a regional power, which can only be accomplished if India is given sufficient development space to grow its economy and eliminate poverty. It is in India’s interest to diversify its energy portfolio — a prospect that can be strengthened with the U.S.’s assistance. The way to achieve these objectives is to forge an “India exception” at the global climate talks in Paris; doing so is the only realistic pathway to a global climate deal and will cement the growing ties between the two critical actors in an evolving international order.
A unique dilemma India faces a predicament which previous countries that used energy to grow their economies did not face. It stands on the cusp of industrialisation just as the world may finally be willing to take multilateral action to reduce carbon emissions. As it possesses vulnerable coastlines and is reliant on the monsoon and glacial melt, India is as susceptible as any other country to the consequences of collective action failure on climate. But for India, the tradeoffs between environment and growth (and poverty elimination) are harsher than perhaps anywhere else. India’s overall size of both population and emissions makes it the most critical low-income country at the Paris climate talks.
Despite India’s importance to the climate debate, it continues to pollute below its weight. Though India’s emission intensity would be expected to rise in the coming decades, it has committed to reducing emission intensity by 20 to 25 per cent by 2020 (from 2007 levels). Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory has created the opportunity for all of India to benefit from the renewable energy-friendly policies he pursued as Chief Minister of Gujarat and has opened up the possibility for it to become a leader in cost-competitive renewables. India is already the world’s largest biomass, third largest solar and fourth largest wind energy producer.
“ If India chooses to grow through the traditional carbon-intensive pathway, there will be no credible prospect for global carbon reduction ”
There is a strong strategic imperative for the U.S. in supporting India’s role in Asia. A successful India can play a major role in stabilising Asia during an otherwise turbulent transition, and can be a vital partner to the U.S. India could act on climate change on its own by reprioritising spending away from its planned naval expansion or other defence expenditures, but as China’s defence budget soars, nations around the region are becoming more invested in a balance of power that includes India. It is profoundly in the U.S.’s interest that there be a strong India — an India that is prosperous and contributing to a stable Asia and Indian Ocean.
The U.S. could reapportion part of its international development budget towards India’s green modernisation, create a way for U.S. cities that have successfully used clean building techniques to work with Indian cities, and invest in Indian efforts on energy-efficient urbanisation. It can help ensure that the Green Climate Fund and the World Bank support and crowd in private sector and other investments towards this end.
There would have to be a generational partnership between the U.S. and India. Challenges in aligning the private incentives of U.S. financiers with public incentives in India can be solved by a high-level agreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi on public monies through bilateral or multilateral tools.
India as an exception India’s unique circumstances necessitate specific exceptions. Any climate agreement must exclude India from obligations that do not befit a country in an earlier stage of development. It must be allowed lifeline energy at affordable prices. India cannot agree to a peaking date; Indian poverty cannot be frozen by a dateline. A global peaking date will depend on other nations taking on mitigation commitments to account for India’s exceptional challenge. However, certain pathways could be pursued that would allow a U.S.-India partnership to contribute to the global effort. These could include: continuing and supporting India’s voluntary emission intensity reduction goals that move its economy from a ‘business as usual’ trajectory; focussing the spending of the Green Carbon Fund and similar instruments, including technology transfer, on Indian energy options; following common but differentiated responsibility within India, requiring rich states and cities to develop further mitigation methods; initiating a universal agreement on corporate emissions mitigation that would involve large Indian companies on equal footing with developed country corporations and mandating sectoral efficiency goals for these large corporations; and a decadal review of India’s development status, as no exception should outlive its rationale.
Such a deal is the only way to maintain climate progress. If India chooses to grow through the traditional carbon-intensive pathway, there will be no credible prospect for global carbon reduction and India will soon add another European Union to the world’s carbon emissions budget. India has a veto on a global climate agreement — both in the room, and more importantly in how any deal is implemented. India has walked away from global deals like the World Trade Organization, when they are perceived to be counter to its core interests.
If the U.S. partners with India for more efficient industrialisation and supports an “India exception” in global climate talks — using bilateral ties and the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate to help build a clean energy ladder for India — it could be the kind of investment that cements ties between these two countries. From the perspective of a stable international order, it would be a big deal; from the perspective of global climate talks, it is the only realistic path forward.
(Samir Saran is a senior fellow and vice president at the Observer Research Foundation and Bruce Jones is deputy director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. This is an adaptation of an article published by the authors for Brookings and ORF earlier this month.)