Lack of India target underlines caution ahead of UN climate talks

Last week's Obama-Modi summit failed to deliver a bilateral climate agreement, as India maintained a characteristically cautious approach, but progress was made on solar technology and phasing out potent HFC gases

India’s failure to announce a carbon target during US president Obama’s state visit last week underlines the extent to which major emitters will play a careful diplomatic game ahead of Paris climate talks at the end of the year.

Expectations had risen in December that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi would join China in announcing some sort of figure to limit emissions growth.

A target or figure would likely give stumbling UN climate talks a spring in their step and in the longer term speed up the roll-out of low-carbon energy in the world’s third-biggest emitting country.

But instead India was much more cautious, signing a deal to limit emissions of HFC-23, a highly potent greenhouse gas widely used in refrigeration and air conditioners, and an agreement that could make it cheaper for India to import and develop solar technology from the US.

The two countries also signed deals to prolong research on solar energy and improving energy efficiency.

(Our sister site provides details on the agreements here:

But the lack of a carbon target shows that India will want to do things at its own speed, and is resisting suggestions that the US-China deal last November is making it more difficult for the country to avoid recommending a target.

"It’s my feeling that the agreement that has been concluded between the US and China does not impose any pressure on us," Modi told a press conference earlier this week.

He added: "But there is pressure. When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure. Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure."

Despite the increasingly alarming science on climate change, India appears unwilling in the near future to sign up to the kind of 2030 peak announced by China in a joint statement with the US in November.  

During Obama’s visit, the Modi government maintained the oft-repeated tenet that the country must be able to expand its use of coal-fired power massively as it aims to give hundreds of millions of its people access to electricity.

But even if an overall target or cap in emissions is unlikely to be forthcoming anytime soon, India will have to provide much more detail and figures on how its ambition to become a world leader in solar power will help slow growth in climate changing emissions.

Ahead of the Paris meeting, the UN has required countries to submit national plans on carbon reduction, also known as ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, which will major emitters will try and compare against their own efforts.

For China, the lack of a target from coal-dependent India target wasn’t a surprise.

State-run news agency Xinhua pointed out that a three-day meeting between Modi and Obama was an insufficient amount of time to bridge the gap between Delhi and Washington on climate change and other issues.

Chinese official media were less forthright on how India’s lack of carbon targets will impact China’s role in climate talks, negotiations that will have to agree major compromises if the disappointment of the 2009 Copenhagen summit is to be avoided in the French capital.

For some observers, that fact that Modi is engaging at a bilateral level with the US all is still encouraging, even in the absence of a target.

“Success at the UN climate talks in Paris this year requires leadership from the heads of state of the largest economies.  As Modi joins Obama and Xi in this leadership circle, the chances for success go up dramatically,” says Durwood Zaelke of the Washington DC-based Insitute for Government and Sustainable Development.

Establishing trust

The meeting between Modi and Obama will be important in establishing common principles that could be agreed in Paris that would evolve into a meaningful climate agreement, says Nat Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Paris will be the first step in building a new and inclusive climate regime, not a one-fell-swoop agreement. We have learnt from Copenhagen, and the process now is more about establishing principles and building trust so that commitments can be verified.”

A gradualist approach such as this may get Modi, his cabinet, and the country’s vast bureaucracy on board.

But it may do little to prevent a big increase in coal-based emissions as India claims much of the remaining ‘carbon space‘ to raise living standards that are far behind the West and many of China’s more prosperous megacities.

This would mean that other developing countries, and fully-industrialised ones, will have to examine the depth of their own proposed cuts if the world is to have a good chance of avoiding runaway climate change.