More than 300 million Indians have no access to electricity, and about the same number get it for only a few hours a day. India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, made universal electrification a pillar of his election campaign two years ago, and since then he has made major announcements ramping up India's ambitions to produce both coal and "clean" power.
India is centrally important to a global effort to combat climate change through agreements on sustainable carbon emission levels and development of renewable energy sources. Because it is home to almost 1.3 billion people — about a sixth of the world's population — its energy policies have huge implications for a very global dilemma.
With President Obama hosting Modi at the White House on Tuesday before the latter addresses Congress on Wednesday, there are high hopes that Modi will firmly state his government's commitments to renewable energy. Judging by public statements both have made, Modi and Obama see combating climate change not only as an imperative that will shape their legacies, but also as a foundation for their personal bond.
On the sidelines of climate talks in Paris in December that were aimed at curtailing out-of-control global warming trends, Modi said he had an “uncompromising commitment on climate change.” But he was quick to append the qualification that progress must come “without affecting our ability to meet the development aspirations of humanity.”
For his part, Obama said that India's approach to the Paris talks would “set the tone not just for today but for decades to come."
Getting India to "join" the Paris accords is one of the possible outcomes of Modi's meeting with Obama this month. Both India and the United States signed the accord, but that is different from joining it. Signing is akin to acknowledging the agreement's merits, whereas joining is closer to making a commitment to adhere to it. The United States has pledged to join as soon as possible but India has not made such a public statement. Only once at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of carbon emissions join the treaty does it even come into effect. With the sizes of the United States' and India's populations and economies, their joining would go a long way toward making that happen. (Only 17 countries have joined so far, representing .04 percent of global emissions. Because of the European Union's large bureaucracy, it is unlikely that it will be able to join in time for the next climate talks in Marrakesh, Morocco, in November.)
Another possible step forward would be India joining the United States and other Western countries that seek to amend the Montreal Protocol. That is yet another international agreement, this time geared toward HFCs, a gas emitted by appliances, such as air conditioning units and refrigerators, that cause many times as much damage to the ozone layer as carbon dioxide emissions. Modi has previously signaled willingness to cooperate with the United States on amending the Montreal Protocol to cut down on HFCs, but India has so far stuck by its own, less bold proposed amendment.
One of Modi's most ambitious plans is to create 100 gigawatts of power from solar power, and an additional 75 from other renewable sources, such as wind. To be sure, his energy policies would also entail a doubling of the country's coal production in a very short amount of time, with hundreds of new plants coming up, mostly in the country's south and east.
The United States is integral to the success of that plan because most of the world's solar technology is produced here. India will need favorable financing deals to procure billions and billions of dollars worth of solar equipment to make Modi's plan become a reality. As such, the opportunity for the United States is economically huge, too — India is essentially saying it wants to create the world's largest market for renewable energy in the world.