The World

Can Obama Get a Climate Commitment Out of India?

President Obama meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office on Sept. 30, 2014.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The White House announced Friday that President Obama will visit India in January to serve as “chief guest” at the country’s Republic Day celebrations. A foreign head of state is typically invited to the celebration, and as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out in a chummy tweet, he’ll be the first U.S. president ever to receive the honor. The visit will also make Obama the first U.S. president ever to visit India twice while in office. Remarkably, there have been only six U.S. presidential visits to the country ever.

Relations between the two countries were at a nadir at the end of last year, when India was vowing retaliation for the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York. Things have improved since Modi took office in May, which is pretty ironic given that he was barred from even entering the United States until this year. Earlier this month, the two countries reached a deal a major deal on trade and food subsidies.

That news was understandably overshadowed by the U.S.-China climate pact but capped off Obama’s surprisingly productive Asia trip. This India visit is also worth watching on the climate front, coming at the beginning of a year when a new U.N. climate treaty is due to be negotiated. The U.S.-China deal has now put the spotlight on India, the world’s third-largest carbon emitter.

Obama and Modi agreed to “consult and cooperate closely” on climate change during the Indian premier’s visit to Washington last month, which is pretty vague but still an improvement after years of clashes between the two governments on the issue.

It’s extremely unlikely that India will agree to the kind of emissions cap China signed on to during Obama’s visit. It lags well behind China on both emissions per capita and level of economic development. As just one example, 99.8 percent of Chinese people have access to electricity, versus just 70 percent for India, and the government has made electrification a major priority. Indian officials have said flat out that they expect the country’s emissions to continue increasing.

But there’s still room for cooperation, perhaps on renewable energy investment, where Modi’s government has been making some major commitments. India, along with China, has also signaled that it will drop its opposition to expanding an exiting treaty to cut the use of hydrofluorocarbons, chemicals used in refrigeration that are even more potent in their greenhouse impact than carbon dioxide.

It would be a shock to see anything as major as the U.S.-China deal announced, but it will still be interesting to see if these two leaders can take advantage of the current era of good feelings to make some progress.