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Home >Opinion >Barack Obama’s Republic Day trip

US President Barack Obama will be in the nation’s capital two weeks from today. He will be the first US President to visit India twice while in office. This visit is all about atmospherics, what with him watching India’s military might and cultural diversity on display at the Republic Day parade. The agenda for his substantive meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi will undoubtedly include strategic, trade and investment issues. The climate for his visit has sought to be improved by a spate of ordinances, including those for hiking foreign direct investment (FDI) limits in insurance and for making land acquisition dangerously more corporate-friendly.

But another type of climate may well figure in the bilateral discussions, especially since President Obama is thinking of his legacy. There might well be extended conversations on the ongoing inter-governmental climate change negotiations that are to result in a new global accord in Paris later this year in December. Actually, the joint statement issued after the last meeting of these two leaders on 30 September 2014 did refer to climate change issues. But since then, three major developments have taken place that perhaps call for a fresh joint statement. First, the 28-nation European Union (EU) has announced bold emission mitigation targets for the year 2030. Second, China and the US have signed a historic bilateral agreement committing the world’s top two emitters to specific mitigation actions by 2025 and 2030. Third, in the recently concluded United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference at Lima, 194 countries signed the “Lima Call for Climate Action", thus upping the ante for a Paris compact with ambitious contributions from all countries.

What can India proactively offer the world as its contributions to combat global warming? In December 2009, it had announced that its emissions intensity (that is, emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of gross domestic product) would be reduced by 20-25% on 2005 levels by 2020. Earlier, in July 2008, it had pledged that its per capita emissions would not exceed those of the developed countries, which, in many ways, is an implicit acceptance of a peaking target. Two new milestones were set early last year. Beginning 1 April 2015, India’s market-based perform, achieve and trade (PAT) system for achieving energy efficiency goals will become fully operational as will mandatory fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars from 1 April 2016. But clearly, the world is expecting much more and indeed we should be publicly committing much more, especially since India accounts for something like 6% of world emissions (making India No. 3 after China and the US or No. 4 if the EU is taken as a single entity), which could well increase to 10% by 2030.

Such an initial package of further commitments (intended nationally determined contributions in UN-ese) for the year 2030 could well include the following:

—Reduction of energy intensity by 40-45% on 2005 levels

—Trebling the share of solar and wind to electricity supply to around 18%, which means a solar and wind capacity of about 100,000 megawatts each

—Doubling the share of nuclear to electricity supply to around 7%

—Increasing the share of hydel sources to electricity supply to around 20% from the present level of about 17%

—Enforcement of concentration standards for emissions of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from coal-based power plants

—Improving the quality of forest cover (which acts to sequester carbon) so that the share of degraded forests is halved from the present level of about 40%

—Phasedown of the use of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the refrigerator and air-conditioner industry according to a globally negotiated trajectory

—Enhancing fertilizer and water use efficiency by at least 25% on 2005 levels

These commitments incidentally will help India and the world from a climate angle, but equally important bring substantial co-benefits, especially in the area of public health. Of course, India is not in a position right now to make any commitments on a cap on its use of coal, which is its main energy resource. Undoubtedly, much needs to be done to ensure higher efficiency in coal combustion, especially in power generation, and coal mining has to be done in an environmentally more sensitive manner. But a trebling of coal consumption, if not a quadrupling, by 2030 looks inevitable given our demographic imperatives.

Making both firm and aspirational commitments for 2025 and 2030 is relatively easy. What will prove more contentious is their international monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV). India seems to think such a process will erode its sovereignty. Far from it. If we have the wisdom and courage to make commitments, then we must summon the wisdom and courage to hold ourselves accountable for their achievement as well. There is no loss of sovereignty when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reviews our macroeconomic policies every year or when the World Trade Organization (WTO) reviews our trade policies every two years. Such reviews yield new insights to our benefit. President Obama and the heads of state of the BASIC quartet (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) had agreed to a mechanism for international consultations and analysis at Copenhagen in December 2009 and that needs to be put in place now.

The Prime Minister started off somewhat dramatically by renaming the ministry of environment and forests as the ministry of environment, forests and climate change. This was supposed to signal his seriousness on the climate change challenge. But thereafter, all signals have been disturbing and point clearly only in one direction—and that is the dismantling of the entire edifice of environmental laws, regulations and rules in the name of boosting economic growth. The T.S.R. Subramanian Committee report that has provided a precooked menu for this dismantling is a sure recipe for ecological disaster. And anything that is ecologically disastrous cannot but inflict huge injustices and inequities on the poorer and weaker sections of society, especially if it is accompanied by forcible land acquisitions.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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