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UN Environment Chief says India should see Paris commitments as a business opportunity

Donald Trump is expected to announce America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement this week throwing the fate of the pact in doubt.

world Updated: May 31, 2017 20:31 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
Malavika Vyawahare
Donald Trump,Paris,Paris agreement
Donald Trump is expected to announce America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement this week.(Reuters File Photo)

In 2015, when 175 countries came together to sign the Paris Agreement, it was hailed as a landmark moment in the struggle to mitigate the impacts of climate change. One of the big wins was that the United States was on board. In the past, the superpower had stood in the way of another major treaty the Kyoto Protocol that aimed at checking greenhouse gas emissions which are major contributors to global warming. Less than two years later the US is poised to either withdraw from the pact altogether or at least push for a dilution of commitments. In either case, the message from the Trump White House is clear: the Paris agreement as it stands today is unacceptable.

The United States is currently the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, that trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere and lead to the warming of the planet. Historically, the US is responsible for the largest quantity of greenhouse gas emissions and continues to have one of the highest per-capita emissions in the world. The U.S. is critical to the climate change agreement not just because of the arithmetic of curbing greenhouse gases emissions but also for setting the terms of the negotiations surrounding climate change action.

Trump, as a presidential candidate had sought to appease voters in America’s coal country, which has been devastated by the shift to renewables and away from coal. Since the election of Trump as U.S. president, Indian leaders including Narendra Modi have reiterated their commitment to the Paris agreement.

In an interview with Malavika Vyawahare, United Nations Environment Programme chief Erik Solheim discusses what changes if the US leaves the Paris agreement and what the changed global scenario means for India.

What can we expect in the event of US pulling out of the Paris agreement?

There is a very clear message from the rest of the world, China, India and Europe that they will move very quickly on this quickly. Prime Minister Modi met with Chancellor Angela Merkel and said it would be a crime not to act on the environment.

There is very strong language coming out from the rest of the world. The private sector in the U.S. is much ahead of the politicians. All the big American companies that are well known in the world- the Apples, the Googles, the Microsofts are of course rapidly moving to renewables.

We are definitely past the point of no return. Last year there was a lot more energy coming into the grid from solar and wind than from oil gas and coal combined. It is just a matter of how fast we can move into the future. We were at the turning point of the digital revolution in the 1980s, we were at the turning point of the industrial revolution in the 18 century.We are now at the turning point of the renewable energy and environment revolution. Those who do not buy the ticket for that train will lose.

Is there a divergence in how India and China see their roles in a situation where the US pulls out of the pact?

There is a lot of divergences but a lot of cooperation last time I visited India I visited the state of Andhra Pradesh that is rapidly moving into solar- they are setting up the biggest solar power in the world. They are putting up solar everywhere.

No one expected people to move into solar if it was much more expensive, but solar is cheaper now and can compete with coal anywhere in the world.

PM Modi setting up the National Solar Alliance with France, being such a dedicated supporter. That matters enormously. When the big markets of China and India are moving that sets a price that can also benefit Africa, Latin America and the rest of the world.

What is the best course of action for India if Trump withdraws from the Paris Agreement?

India should see the business opportunities: of creating green jobs and still bringing electricity to hundreds and millions of Indians.

You can kill all three birds with one stone: provide economic opportunity, provide electricity and ensure environmental progress. Really embrace this not just as an environment issue but as an economic opportunity

With U.S. retreating from a leadership role with regard to climate change action, does this take the pressure of countries like India to meet their commitments?

We are long past that moment. We might have been there 5-10 years ago when there was a lot of discussion in India that we cannot afford to really take climate seriously, there are too many poor Indians and we have to bring development first. That conversation has basically gone away, people see the enormous economic opportunity in this new agenda, creating jobs, creating prosperity and bringing energy through the same means.

The conversation has changed in India and we see exactly the same thing in China.

What we see now is that China India and Europe to lead, but we surely also want the American leadership. We see that from the private sector companies in the U.S. and also from states like California, remember California is itself one of the largest economies in the world, that is not insignificant.

Added to that, we hope that Donald Trump will also make the right decision.

In America the businesses seem to be leading the charge. Have businesses in India responded to this message of transition to a low-carbon economy as a business opportunity?

I definitely see that. There are lots of startups in IT, energy solar technology. These will grow and become big. We also see the big historical companies like Tata that lead this change. Like everywhere else there are some conservative players. Those who are not embracing will lose. Those who did not embrace the digital revolution, where are they now?

Trump’s decision has not been announced yet. What according to you is the best case scenario right now? What will be worst-case scenario?

The ideal situation will be that President trump decides to keep US in the Paris Agreement and that he allows those companies in the US that are so critical to technological development in the world to move rapidly ahead. Understanding that in the U.S. itself there are very few jobs in coal – there are about 70,000 jobs in coal, about 400,000 jobs in renewables and everybody knows that renewables – that the new jobs will come in renewables not in coal. The worst will be for the American people who will see all these fascinating jobs go to India and China.

First Published: May 31, 2017 19:36 IST