India-US Relationship: A help or a hinderance to COP21?

The Paris Climate Change summit (COP21) is being hailed as a significant milestone, in a concerted journey to unify over a single cause - to mitigate the challenges that have arisen due to climate change. It is also a milestone to explore new goals, limits and agreements; not only for developing but also developed countries. Only two weeks since the terror attacks in Paris, “leaders of 150 leaders, along with 40,000 delegates from 195 countries” are in Paris for the 21st annual meeting-- Conference of Parties-- of nations under the United Nations Framework for Climate Change. While there have been annual meetings since 1995, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon deems COP21 as a “great opportunity” with conviction that “a political moment like this may not come again.”

The objective of COP21 is to hopefully “agree on legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions meant to hold global average temperatures short of a 2 degree Celsius increase over preindustrial global temperature.” This two-week long summit, from November 30 to December 11, is expected to be a testament to a political collaboration of nearly 200 countries. The need for this is urgent as the previous commitment on greenhouse gas emissions expires in 2020. The anticipated challenges to the success of these talks can be boxed in four packages. One, the simple logistics of an agreement that is unanimously agreed upon by all the parties is, in fact, quite complex. Second, for any legally binding agreement, domestic pressures might play a significant role in the implementation of the goals of the agreement. This would in fact question the legitimacy of any agreed upon terms. Third, an ideational challenge that is likely to occur could be in terms of limitations imposed on developing countries that lack the resources or funds to invest in cleaner energy for growth and development. And lastly, the implementation structure and the consequences of not adhering to the agreement is always difficult as is evidenced by the fact that “none of the countries that failed to meet their commitments under Kyoto have been sanctioned.

The United States, being the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, intends to play a big role in helping this agreement come through. President of the US, Mr. Obama, quite candidly accepted America’s responsibility in “creating the problem” of climate change, which is quite typical of Mr. Obama. His opening remarks at the First Session of COP21 at Le Bourget were a combination of a rhetoric in favor of an agreement, America’s on-going and future commitments and a promise that growth and clean environment can go hand in hand. However, his urgency in combating climate change has met a lot of criticism, most recently, by Presidential Candidate Ms. Carly Fiorina. During a segment on Fox News, Ms. Fiorina claimed that Mr. Obama’s declaration and emphasis on the issue-- climate change “poses a greater threat to future generations” than any other-- is “delusional.” While Forbes deemed Mr. Obama’s proposed Climate Action Plan “uninspiring,” there are harsher criticisms to his climate policy. Climate Researcher and Expert, James Hanson considers his policy “practically worthless.” In the same article by MSNBC that covered Mr. Hanson’s critique, Mr. Obama’s outlook towards mitigating climate change was summarized as “meek and dangerously self-congratulatory, sapping the movement of urgency while doing almost nothing to maintain the future habitability of the earth.” A final issue that Mr. Obama might face in terms of an overarching agreement is it not being ratified by Congress as exemplified in the absence of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Fellow and Climate Policy Expert at the Hudson Institute, Mr. Lee Lane, has also been known to criticize Mr. Obama’s leftist and extremely expensive climate policy. In an article in the New Atlantis, Mr Lane proposes a conservative viewpoint in establishing a more sustainable, long-term and effective climate change policy for the United States. While these criticisms emerge, Mr. Obama is still committed to bringing home a deal of cooperation.

While these criticisms are directed at Mr. Obama, there are rallies and protests around the world, and in Paris, criticizing that not enough is being done and urging world leaders to make bolder decisions. At one of the protests in Paris, there are lines of pairs of shoes on the streets with messages like “taking action against climate change and stopping pollution.” This was a unique, and creatively silent protest as mass demonstration are not allowed in the city in light of the November 13 terror Attacks. However, there have been demonstrations where the police has had to use force-- water cannons, batons, and shields -- to disperse the protesters.

In a New York Times article, another problem to COP21 was identified that converges the ideational and structural challenges mentioned earlier--

“The greatest threat to reaching a binding climate accord may be a loose coalition of developing nations, led by India, who argue that they should not be asked to limit their economic growth as a way of fixing a problem that was largely created by the others.”

While this may turn in to a significant problem in finalizing a larger agreement, India certainly intends to play a pivotal role in the Climate Talks. Right at the beginning of the Paris Summit, Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Modi and French President, Mr. Francois Hollande launched the ‘International Agency for Solar Technologies & Applications (INSTA)’ or as it is being popularly called the “solar alliance.” India played a key role in bringing together over 120 solar-rich countries in order to “create collaborative platforms for increased deployment of solar technologies to improve access to energy and create opportunities for better livelihoods, especially in rural and remote areas.” India has already promised a commitment of $90 million dollars to house the headquarters in India and is building a network of investments in order to push the project off the ground. Mr. Modi has taken a more direct narrative to establish that “advanced nations” must take the lead. His words while strict were not new that “the prosperous still have a strong carbon footprint. And, the world's billions at the bottom of the development ladder are seeking space to grow.” This remains another possible point of contention or cooperation between Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi who have shown the possibility of an actual relationship between the United States and India. While the opposition party to Mr. Modi’s BJP in India seems to be reluctant in recognizing the “warm rapport” that Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi share, the White House continues to support India’s role in helping achieve an agreement, that does not curb the growth of countries like India. However, there continues to be a lot of back and forth on what role India is likely to play during the process of the Paris agreement. While a New York Times article said that “Narendra Modi could make or break Obama’s Climate Legacy,” only time will tell whether the relationship between Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama can help create a global political collaboration to mitigate the effects of climate change, that scientists have warned, if not taken care of, will be “catastrophic and irreversible.”