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Obama and India’s Modi pledge future deal on climate and energy

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 07-06-2016 Steven Mufson
President Obama shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday. © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images President Obama shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday.

The leaders of India and the United States on Tuesday vowed to ratify the Paris climate accord this year, pledged to nail down terms for limiting a potent greenhouse gas used as a refrigerant in air conditioners, and set a one-year deadline for concluding a deal for six commercial nuclear power plants. 

But the two sides provided few specifics about how they would achieve those goals beyond saying that President Obama and Prime Minister Naredra Modi, who were meeting at the White House, share the same objectives and have established time frames for resolving differences.

Even without the agreed deadlines, the recent pledge by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump to renegotiate the Paris climate accord if he is elected has added a sense of urgency among world leaders to make sure the accord goes into effect before the end of the year. When at least 55 countries, who account for at least 55 percent of global emissions, have all moved to join the agreement, the Paris accord then enters into force after a 30-day wait period.

India accounts for 4.1 percent of global emissions. “If India joins, it will put us over the hump of 55 percent of global emissions required for ratification,” said Andrew Light, a former State Department negotiator now at the World Resources Institute.

India is a key country for the United States, given tensions with Pakistan and its status as a bulwark against China in South Asia. But Obama has put climate and energy issues at the forefront of relations with Modi.

The focus among negotiators leading up to Tuesday’s meeting has been an effort to work out details for restricting hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, by adding them to the existing Montreal Protocol, the global treaty adopted in 1987 to address ozone depletion.

The two nations agreed on that they would link increased financial support for India from a multilateral fund with what Obama adviser Brian Deese called “an ambitious approach to phase out HFCs altogether.”

The use of HFCs are expected to soar as the growth of a middle class in India fuels an increase in the sale of air conditioning and refrigerators. India is the world’s third largest carbon emitter, and HFCs have a global warming power thousands of times greater that carbon dioxide.

The accord is one part of a broad effort by Obama to convince Modi to act to prevent an explosion of greenhouse gas emissions as India’s economy speeds ahead. In talks Tuesday, Obama and Modi were also expected to discuss how India can reach its 100 gigawatt target for solar power by 2022. The leaders backed the creation of two mechanisms to help stimulate the scores of billions of dollars of financing that will be needed. 

One mechanism will be a joint $40 million program to provide high-risk capital for areas off the grid in India, where about 240 million people have no access to electricity. The second mechanism is a joint $20 million India Clean Energy Finance Initiative. This will help developers put together “serious bankable” renewable projects and then get substantial financing with the help of the Overseas Private Investment Corp. 

Deese estimated that the two mechanisms together could catalyze up to $1 billion in investment — still a small fraction of the financing India will need to meet its goal. “My view is that these two institutions are way too small to solve this problem,” said Light.

On the nuclear power front, Westinghouse Electric (now owned by Toshiba) has been negotiating with India in the hopes of selling it six AP-1000 nuclear power reactors. The project site was recently moved to the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where site preparation is underway. Local opposition prevented the multi billion-dollar project from moving ahead in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

The stumbling block has been one article in a 2010 piece of Indian legislation that would make Westinghouse — and its suppliers — potentially vulnerable to crippling litigation under local laws in the event of an accident. India has offered to establish insurance pools, but companies have not accepted that plan. There was no indication Tuesday that this issue had been resolved.

“They’ve painted themselves into a corner,” Omer F. Brown, a lawyer and nuclear liability expert, said of the Indian government. “I don’t know how they get out of it given that they wrote the law the way they did.”

Westinghouse and General Electric’s nuclear arm have been striving to reach a deal with India for more than a decade, and in 2008 Congress approved an agreement to promote nuclear cooperation with India, which critics said undermined half a century of U.S. nonproliferation efforts. So far the agreement has not borne any fruit, though Nisha Desai Biswal, assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, told a Senate committee on May 24 that a commercial deal was “quite close.”

Energy and climate issues have overshadowed other aspects of U.S.-India relations. Human rights groups complained that Obama has failed to challenge Modi over the treatment of independent domestic critics, encouragement of Hindu nationalism, women’s rights, and trafficking. John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, noted that the government recently revoked the non-governmental organization status of the Lawyers’ Collective, a well-regarded law firm in favor of legal reforms.

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