He wouldn’t put it this way, but Secretary of State John Kerry announced this week that the U.S. government will turn the screws on India over the country’s environmental record.
In a joint event, the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency declared that they will expand the EPA’s AirNow pollution program to more U.S. embassies around the world, monitoring local air quality and releasing their findings on a user-friendly platform. The embassy in Delhi will be among the first to see AirNow expansion. This is a bold challenge to the Indian government that could become an extremely effective exercise of soft power.
Kerry’s first stated motivation is to protect Americans traveling or living abroad — particularly those with respiratory illnesses that nasty particulate matter known as PM 2.5 might inflame. “We have tens of thousands of U.S. government workers who are employed in some 150 posts around the world,” he said Wednesday, “and in many of the cities where those posts are located, believe me, it can get hard to have regular access to reliable PM 2.5 data.”
But that is not the only — or, perhaps, even the primary — reason for State’s move. Global air quality monitoring will also offer clear and accurate information to foreign citizens choking under their governments’ haze of environmental neglect. Embassy air monitoring is among the most powerful tools the State Department has to pressure countries to change policy. That’s what happened after the U.S. embassy in Beijing began releasing air quality information, to the Chinese government’s distress.
“There was a time when poor visibility in cities like Beijing was blamed simply on excessive fog,” Kerry explained. “But today, in part because of expanded air-quality monitoring in cities throughout China, the Chinese government is now deeply committed to getting the pollution under control.”
What Kerry didn’t explain fully is why India is top on the list for new monitoring. Delhi is perhaps the most polluted city on the planet. In a very rough estimate, Bloomberg News calculated that President Obama would lose 6 hours of his life following a brief visit to the city last month. Cars, diesel generators, coal burning — all of these sources pump out noxious pollution that fogs the ambient air.
But they all also produce a lot of climate change-inducing carbon dioxide emissions, and that fact reveals Kerry’s underlying diplomatic objective.
India is now the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, recently surpassing the European Union. Yet the country is doing the least among the large emitters to combat global warming. Following U.S. embassy air monitoring, the Chinese government made a serious emissions commitment last fall. The Europeans have already made big cuts and plan more. The EPA is clamping down on carbon dioxide in the United States. By contrast, India’s leaders didn’t give much on climate change when Obama visited last month. The president’s disappointment was thinly veiled.
World leaders will meet at the end of this year to complete a global climate agreement. The Obama administration apparently has not given up on eliciting a more impressive commitment from India than observers expect. Nor should it.
But even if AirNow monitoring doesn’t work a diplomatic miracle in time for the Paris conference, at least the fact that India’s pollution problem hurts its people will be well-articulated. That can only increase public pressure to clean up India’s development strategy.
Update, 2:30 p.m., Feb. 21: Slight edits made above for clarity.