US President Barack Obama could hardly have missed the irony of conducting talks on climate change in what is, according to some indices, the world’s most polluted city. But despite disappointing those awaiting major concessions on emissions-reduction targets like the one Obama brokered with China last year, the modest agreement that was announced — and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s eloquent acknowledgement of the government’s responsibility to combat climate change — should fan the optimism sparked by the gamechanging US-China deal that the critical UN Conference of the Parties in Paris in late 2015 might yet yield a global framework to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
India and the US announced that they would curb the use of hydrofluorocarbons, work together at the climate talks in Paris and finance India’s solar power targets. While this climate treaty does little to address the gap between the negotiating positions of developing and developed countries — the former, including India, argue that wealthy economies like the US bear greater responsibility in making emissions cuts and must also compensate or fund the efforts of poorer nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions — the commitment to cooperate is itself significant. Implicit in Modi’s acceptance of the pressure to act — not from another “country” or “person” but “future generations” — is the realisation that India is one of the countries most at risk from the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. This could signal a shift in India’s approach to international climate negotiations. It could presage smarter diplomacy, so that it is no longer singled out as the obstructionist bad guy, especially since China’s deal with the US means it is unlikely now to be cast in that role.
The Indian government has rightly prioritised revitalising economic growth, poverty alleviation and job creation and, as Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu has pointed out earlier, the India-China hyphenation in global climate action forums does not best serve Delhi’s interests. After all, China far outstrips India not just in total and per capita emissions, but also income. The Modi government’s willingness to improve cooperation on climate change may not lead to a pledge to cut emissions. But it should do more to highlight India’s own impressive domestic efforts to boost renewable energy, beginning with its ambitious solar power target of 1,00,000 MW by 2022, and the hike in the tax on coal.