The Obama administration reached an agreement with India on Tuesday on measures intended to accelerate that country’s shift to renewable fuels, steps that officials say will reduce carbon emissions while helping India’s new government extend electricity to all of its 1.2 billion citizens.
The package, announced after talks between President Obama and visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also contained a modest step toward reducing global emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, industrial chemicals that act as a powerful greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Indian officials formally agreed to engage in international discussions that the White House hopes will lead to a phaseout of the chemicals, known as HFCs.
“They’re signaling a willingness to take this seriously,” said a senior administration official familiar with the agreement, finalized during an Oval Office chat between the two leaders. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing negotiations.
The accord provided an important boost for U.S. relations with the newly installed Modi government. “We have had an outstanding discussion around a range of issues,” Obama said Tuesday. The president said he and Modi mostly talked about economic issues during a working dinner Monday night, including the importance of education and job training. Other topics included the threats from Ebola and the Islamic State.
The agreement announced Tuesday also represents a potentially significant victory for Obama’s climate strategy. The White House has been pressing Indian officials to publicly commit to slowing the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions even as the country rapidly modernizes. India recently surpassed the European Union as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the United States.
U.S. diplomats also have intensely lobbied both China and India to join international negotiations on scaling back HFCs, known to most Americans as the chemical refrigerants used in air conditioners and home appliances. Pound for pound, HFCs are up to 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping the sun’s heat in the atmosphere.
According to a statement released by Obama and Modi, the two governments committed to measures addressing a wide range of problems related to climate change and energy security, while encouraging India’s embrace of alternative energy as it tries to modernize its economy and bring millions of its citizens out of poverty.
In one of the most significant initiatives, the Obama administration cleared the way for $1 billion in financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank to help India purchase American technology for clean-energy projects. Other measures would expand U.S.-Indian cooperation on improving air quality and energy efficiency, and on helping coastal cities prepare for flooding and other weather-related disasters, the statement said.
With regard to HFCs, Indian officials signaled a willingness to work with other countries to address the buildup of the potent gas under the framework of the Montreal Protocol, the 25-year-old treaty that outlawed another class of chemical refrigerants blamed for damaging Earth’s ozone layer.
In the joint statement, the two governments formally acknowledged the “need to use the institutions and expertise of the Montreal Protocol to reduce consumption and production of HFCs.” Previous Indian governments declined to participate in negotiations aimed at amending the Montreal Protocol to include a phaseout of HFCs. Indian officials stopped short of promising actual cuts in production, but the statement said technical teams from the two countries would meet within the next two months to discuss “safety, cost, and commercial access to new or alternative technologies to replace HFCs.”
“The two sides would thereafter cooperate on next steps to tackle the challenge posed by HFCs to global warming,” it said.
India is the world’s fastest-growing producer of HFCs, though its capacity lags far behind that of the United States and China. The Obama administration has secured cooperation from major U.S. chemical manufacturers to rapidly phase out domestic production of HFCs in favor of more environmentally friendly alternatives already on the market.
The announcement came hours after the publication in The Washington Post of an op-ed article, written under the names of the two leaders, pledging to expand cooperation in multiple fields. Obama and Modi said they would work jointly on efforts to “boost manufacturing and expand affordable renewable energy, while sustainably securing the future of our common environment.”
Even before being sworn in as prime minister in May, Modi was a leading Indian advocate of solar energy, having championed the country’s massive Gujarat Solar Park, an array of electricity-generating solar panels that is regarded as the largest of its kind in India. Still, Modi also faces pressure to fulfill promises to accelerate India’s economic development by providing a reliable electricity supply to more than 350 million impoverished citizens. To meet that goal, India is rapidly building conventional generators powered by coal.
The surge in coal-burning has led to soaring carbon dioxide emissions and reluctance by Indian officials to commit to curbs on air pollution. Modi declined to attend last week’s U.N. climate summit in New York, and his aides have insisted that India’s priority must be expanding access to electricity to raise living standards for the poor.
Obama administration officials argue that India could avoid the social and environmental costs associated with fossil-fuel burning by leaping directly into renewables, a move that also would help spare the planet from some of the worst effects of climate change. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, introducing Modi at a State Department luncheon, said Washington and New Delhi could reap substantial benefits for their economies and the environment by working together.
“This is one of those hinge points in history,” he said. “We don’t just share the same founding ideals, but the same economic and political imperatives. We both need and want clean air. We both need good jobs.”
In their joint statement, Obama and Modi said their countries would expand defense cooperation, including sharing information about people who return from Iraq and Syria.
The White House also announced a number of economic initiatives Tuesday between the United States and India. They include efforts focusing on the development of capital markets and the shoring up of India’s infrastructure, as well as the Digital India Initiative, which aims to put India’s government and many of its services online.
Staff writers Carol Morello and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.