That all is fair in love, war and diplomacy, was evident as Narendra Modi and Barack Obama failed to reach a climate deal in Paris. The US President’s fondest hope was that India would agree to a cap on its coal-based emissions. His plan B -- a binding agreement for a five-year global review mechanism of what each country had done to cut carbon emissions.
India gave a thumbs down to both. The gap was so great that even a hoped-for joint statement did not materialise, said Indian sources.
On the coal cap, Modi held to New Delhi’s long-standing position that India is at a stage of economic development that doesn’t allow for such a commitment. The future trajectory of India’s energy demand and the nature of its energy mix remain too uncertain to accept capping.
“India simply cannot afford to accept such a limit,” says Arunabha Ghosh of the Council for Energy Environment and Water.
The five-year global review, which would have kicked in after 2020, would have potentially included mandatory increase in commitments. For India, this was just imposing the same carbon cap in instalments.
Obama had hoped an Indian carbon cap, of whatever variety, would seal his climate change legacy. It would be the third and final element that already includes the collapse of US coal usage and the US-China carbon agreement.
Modi has been facing an Obama charm offensive since he came to power last spring -- the two have met seven times in just over a year. There were other reasons for this convergence, but the President’s personal interest was climate change. It was during the run-up to their first summit in September last year, say US sources, that Obama realised Modi was as true a believer in the climate threat as he was.
A US climate negotiator, during a visit to India earlier this year, admitted, “India is doing as much on climate as we would have wanted. The issue is whether India is prepared to put this on paper.”
Obama talks about little else when he and Modi meet, say Indian officials. During their last tete-a-tete in New York this September, Obama spoke almost solely about climate change. Modi, whose priority had been Afghanistan-Pakistan, was less than pleased.
Indian officials also note Obama, a lame duck president saddled with a hostile US legislature, is in no position to provide a quid pro quo for India, whether finance or technology.
Climate activists have warned India’s fast-rising coal consumption could push the world to the brink. India has already committed to making renewables 15% of its energy mix by 2020. But agreeing to a peak year -- a specific date after which India would have to keep cutting its carbon emissions in absolute terms -- is a bridge too far for Modi.
“The two sides will have to work out a spin rather than a grand bargain,” says Ghosh.
Speaking after the bilateral meeting, US chief climate negotiator Todd Stern did put a gloss on the meeting. In response to Obama’s five-year review, Modi suggested a plan by which the developed world could help capacity-building among poorer countries. Obama, he said, noted such a proposal was ready, to which Modi said the two should work together on this.
The world will not necessarily be the worse for this failure, given Modi’s ambitious solar power goals and plans to phase out dozens of dirty sub-critical coal plants. But Obama wanted something which he could claim responsibility for -- and that, given India’s national interest, his “friend Narendra” declined to give him.
Views expressed by the author are personal.