Barack Obama was advised, only half-jokingly, to wear a gas mask when he appears as guest of honour at India’s Republic Day parade on Monday. The air pollution in Delhi and other Indian cities has become that bad.
Providing a fix for that very unhealthy air – 13 of the world’s most polluted cites are in India – is a growing priority for the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and could take key position in a suite of clean energy initiatives the two leaders are expected to roll out on Monday.
“The co-operation on clean energy and climate change is critically important,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told a conference call with reporters.
America is hoping to persuade India, one of the world’s biggest emitters, to commit to an ambitious post-2020 plan for reining in its greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the international climate change meeting in Paris this December.
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The first priority – ahead of climate change, US officials admit – is expanding India’s access to clean energy.
US and Indian officials have repeatedly doused speculation of a repeat of the US-China agreement to cut emissions that came out of Obama’s visit to Beijing last November.
But billions in US investment to help India move ahead on ambitious targets for expanding its use of wind and solar power, as well as initiatives to clean up the dangerous levels of soot and smog, are very much on the cards.
India is expected to outpace China in growth by the end of the decade. Modi late last year doubled India’s wind power targets and increased the solar power target by a factor of five to 100GW by 2022.
Researchers have calculated wind and solar could generate 28% of India’s electricity by 2030 – a bigger share than China, according to Navroz Dubash, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
The Indian government estimates that it could take about $100bn (£67bn) in investment – potentially a big opening for US firms, said Raymond Vickery, a senior commerce official during the Clinton administration.
“There has to be $100 billion in financing that has to be mobilised in this period between now and 2022, and that is not going to come from government alone,” he told a conference call hosted by the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. US-based SunEdison and India’s Adani Enterprises said earlier this month they would invest $4bn in an Indian solar power factory.
Vickery said he also expected announcements on Monday regarding India’s civil nuclear programme.
On air pollution, Obama and Modi are expected to unveil a new effort to clean up the diesel truck engines that are fouling the air of India’s cities. The World Health Organisation considers the tiny particles, known as PM2.5, a carcinogen. The World Bank estimates outdoor air pollution in India causes 620,000 premature deaths a year.
Researchers from the University of California at San Diego will visit Bangalore and Chennai in early February to work on plans for cleaning up the air in those cities. The first step is moving towards low sulphur fuels, said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of the university’s Center for Atmospheric Sciences.
Almost half of the particulate pollution, or soot, in India’s cities is produced by vehicles, with millions more cars on the roads each year. The rest is caused by coal burning, the burning of firewood and cow dung cakes for fuel and cooking, and crop fields after harvest.
Delhi has the additional misfortune of meteorological inversion, which traps smog and soot over the city in the winter months, worsening air pollution two or three times.
Obama will also be trying to persuade Modi to do more to fight climate change.
“It’s no secret that the administration is looking to press the climate agenda. They would welcome whatever degree of commitment that India wants to make,” said Pete Ogden, a former White House director for climate change in the Obama administration.
Getting India to commit to curbing its greenhouse gas emissions is critical to reaching a meaningful climate agreement in Paris. India is the third biggest carbon polluter behind China and the US – although it remains a very distant third.
During Obama’s visit to Beijing last year, the US said it would cut emissions 28% on 2005 levels by 2025. China said it would cap emissions and get 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2030.
India is expected to come forward with its own climate action targets by the middle of the year, though they are unlikely to resemble China’s.
Modi has pushed back against pressure to put an absolute cap on emissions, arguing that India still faces widespread poverty. Despite the much-touted solar expansion, India is also planning to double domestic coal production to one billion tonnes, and it has been putting pressure on environmental groups trying to keep mining in check.
“We are seeing that Modi is not as progressive as some of the other rhetoric would lead us to believe,” said Rebecca Lefton, director of policy research at Climate Advisers. “While he is making fantastic promises on clean energy, at the same time he is making these other big goals to expand coal production in the country. That really does not jive with their climate goals,” she said.
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