In the high profile media coverage of the visit of the United States President Donald Trump, that starts today, a number of issues have dominated the headlines. But perhaps the most significant one has escaped the media glare. However, Narendra Modi must ask Trump about climate change.
As I pen this piece, American President Donald Trump is in the air heading towards India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi too must be ‘in air’ for different reason. In the last six years, he has managed to turn upside down the famed diplomacy of the US State Department, sending the much experienced American diplomats scurrying for cover through this own diplomatic skills and moves.
Let’s step back in time to get the context. A decade ago, Modi had the unenviable status of being the only leader from world’s largest democracy to be denied a visa by the world’s oldest democracy. In this, Modi had created history of sort, said the financial daily, Wall Street Journal, by becoming the only person ever to be banned to travel to the United States of America for the reasons related to International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
However, nearly a decade later, the tables had turned entirely. In 2016, not only Modi was duly invited to visit the US, this time as the Prime Minister of the country, but he was also accorded the rare honour of addressing a joint sitting of the US Congress. That’s as much of about face in the international diplomacy as has ever happened.
Since that day, the ties between India and the US have flourished and scaled newer heights. The countries have developed a close strategic partnership encompassing the political, social, global and commercial aspects of a healthy relationship that two large countries ought to enjoy in today’s world. Yes, they have differences, too, notably on climate change as well as Trump’s obsession with trade balances. However, so far, the excellent personal rapport that the two leaders enjoy and the personal bond that they have obviously developed has ensured that these differences don’t impact the overall tenor of the bilateral relationship.
The US and India, let me use the term U and I to describe them, are different but not dissimilar. They may be poles apart but still are pulled together. Competitive, but not combative. ‘‘India is not treating the US, well but I like Modi,’’ said a tweet by Trump last week, while Modi had already declared to Trump, “I am learning art of deal from you.’’
The elusive climate deal
While he is learning the art of deal from Trump, Modi must teach Trump on how to deal with the climate change, one of the most important global issues that Trump has completely turned his back on. For Modi, climate and environment are nothing new as issues. Even before becoming Prime Minister, Modi had demonstrated his determination to fight climate change. His approach has been focused action rather than discussions or debates. He had actively proposed a revolutionary strategy called, ‘Convenient Action’ for the inconvenient truth of climate change, the former vice president of the US, Al Gore, had once famously said.
A strong believer that action to mitigate the climate change would benefit the world, Modi went on to publish a catalogue of innovative case studies from Gujarat, some of them had become world famous like floating solar panels on water canals that not only produced renewable energy but also reduced the water evaporation. For a leader of one of the 29 states of India to show such deep engagement on climate change that inspired the central government is nothing short of what California is doing in wake of the federal dribbling on the climate change.
Even before becoming the President in January 2017, Trump, the billionaire businessman, had long been in total denial on climate change and called it a hoax, devised by the China. And after taking charge of the White House, he repeatedly stated that there was no evidence that humans were responsible for climate change. He called for more drilling, fewer regulations and the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.
On the other hand, Modi considers action on climate change as an opportunity for the world, notably the developed economies, to change their lifestyle and reorienting it more towards preserving nature. Trump, however, believes that action on climate change is against the interest of the American workers life style. “Any regulation that’s outdated, unnecessary, bad for workers or contrary to the national interest will be scrapped and scrapped completely,” Trump has often said.
While Trump was yet to win the elections, Modi had already played a lead role in getting a key deal during the COP21 meeting in Paris, also known as Paris Climate Summit, in December 2015. Modi supported the Paris Climate Agreement with a passionate commitment, by promising proactive role that India would play in curbing carbon emissions and notably through the ambitious plan of generating 175 GW of solar energy by 2022 as well as enhancing the energy intensity (energy use per unit of GDP) and carbon sink through extending the forest cover.
A year before the Paris meet, Modi, a strong believer that action to mitigate the climate change would benefit the world, in one of the first speeches made after taking over as Prime Minister of India had said, “International partnership must be at the centre of our efforts, whether it is development or combating climate change. We should forge a global public partnership to harness technology, innovation and finance to put affordable clean and renewable energy within the reach of all.” Since then, Modi has walked the talk by launching, along with France, the International Solar Alliance (ISA), an intergovernmental organisation styled on the United Nations. The ISA today has over 120 countries as members .
While addressing the Joint Session of US Congress on June 8, 2016, a few months before Trump took over, Modi had declared, “India and the U.S. have combined their strengths in science, technology and innovation to help fight hunger, poverty, diseases and illiteracy in different parts of the world. And, the protection of environment and caring for the planet is central to our shared vision of a just world. For us in India, to live in harmony with mother earth is part of our ancient belief. And, to take from nature only what is most essential is part of our civilisational ethos. Our partnership, therefore, aims to balance responsibilities with capabilities. And, it also focuses on new ways to increase the availability and use of renewable energy. A strong U.S. support for our initiative to form an International Solar Alliance is one such effort. We are working together not just for a better future for ourselves, but for the whole world. This has also been the goal of our efforts in G-20, East Asia Summit and Climate Change summits.”
Almost exactly a year later, on June 1, 2017, Trump announced official withdrawal of USA from the Paris Agreement. He declared that the US would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. He has repeatedly watered-down the language of the climate action related outcomes of G-20 meetings, though agreed upon by all other members.
However, an undeterred Modi has kept the pressure on for the rest of the world to take ambitious steps to combat climate change. At the meeting of the BRICS leaders on the sidelines of the 2019 G-20 meetings in Japan, Modi listed climate change, along with the sustainable development, as one of the top challenges as grave as terrorism and economic downturn. However, Trump ensured that the final communique of the G-20 meeting, in para related to USA did not even mention climate change and instead emphasised promotion of economic growth, energy security and access and environmental protection.
For his commitment to environment, the United Nations honoured Modi with the ‘Champion of the Earth Award’ in 2018. Trump, now in his re-election campaign has categorically declared that he will not change his stand on climate change, even though there are growing signs of extreme concerns that our planet is moving towards a apocalypse.
Despite such stark differences, Trump and Modi like each other as is evident from their body language and decision to meet each other on unlikely occasions. There lies the hope that Modi can make a difference in closing the gap in thinking over climate change. In New Delhi, on February 25, the two leaders are meeting sans a serious agenda. Trump has reserved the trade negotiations for a later date and we cannot hope of major breakthrough in other serious issues like terrorism and India’s special status.
The meeting is taking place when the world is witnessing not hoax of climate change but havoc due to climate change. The temperatures in Antarctica has reached near 20 degree centigrade, more than the temperature in New Delhi. Arctic temperature had breached 34 degree centigrade in August 2019 and as much as 12 million hectares of forest has been lost to fire across the globe. Gore says that the earth is trapping heat like never before. His estimate is the heat trapped is equivalent to the heat released by 500,000 Hiroshima bombs per day. Such a level of heat has not been trapped even over millions of years of the earth’s history. Extreme weather events are getting more frequent and more intense. Globally 24 billion tons of top soil, from where the world gets its food, is lost every year due to floods and degradation.
The world is facing climate crisis of unprecedented proportion. Modi-Trump bonhomie cannot miss the opportunity to make their joint policy to be Planet First without sacrificing their own ambitions of America First and Make in India. The second largest and the fourth largest emitter of the greenhouse gases, as indeed the rest of the world, are standing at the cusp of the most critical decade of the 21st century.
This decade has been declared as the ‘Decade of action’ by the United Nations and the current year as the ‘Super Year for Nature and biodiversity’. It is time for Modi and Trump to make their momentous meeting in India as ‘Super Meeting’.
Climate action despite Trump
Trump’s repeated and vocal dismissal of climate change and environment should actually mean that the US has been moving toward higher emissions and greater destruction of the ecology. However, in reality, many would be shocked to see the reality. Data released by the UN says that the US’s emissions in 2019 stood 12 lower than the levels in 2005. Last year in 2019, as per data released by International Energy Agency, US emissions decreased by 2 pc. And coal consumption in US has been decreasing over a decade mainly due to amazing progress in extracting the natural gas. That has helped the US to reduce emissions as well as air pollution.
If this is not enough to convince cynics that the US is indeed moving in the right direction, despite the utterances of its President, consider this. As many as 24 of 50 states of the US are determined to follow Paris climate agreement by reducing emissions by nearly 30 pc by 2025. Just last week, California, the biggest state in the US, passed a legislation for 100 pc zero carbon electricity by 2045 and an executive order for economy wide carbon neutrality by 2045. California, had it been a country would be the fifth largest economy, the impact of its decision on global carbon emissions would be as large as India going carbon neutral in barely 25 years.
Thus the Presidential utterances notwithstanding, the US is making great efforts to meet its climate obligations, irrespective of whether the country remains in or out of the Paris climate agreement.
Similarly, India, too, is taking big strides in meeting its targets under the Paris agreement. Though committed to the upliftment of poor by supplying electricity to every house in India and improving the energy mix in India’s GDP, India is also transitioning from its biggest source of power, coal, to other alternatives, notably gas and renewable energy. India has amongst the highest taxes on coal, even as other nations continue to use coal without enhancing the carbon tax.
India is also increasing its forest cover to improve the carbon sink. A study released by NASA in 2019 shows that India, the world’s second most populous country, is leading the globe in increasing forest cover, while many other nations are viciously knocking down their forests. India’s efforts to meet the target of 175 GW of solar energy and enhancing the contribution of non-fossil energy to 40 pc of the total electricity are extraordinarily ambitious target.
Thus, in a simple message, at the end of the two day visit in Delhi on Tuesday, Trump and Modi should declare by re-emphasising what Trump and Modi had already agreed in G-20 meeting in Japan with renewed but powerful wordings. “The United States and India are the world leaders in reducing emissions. We would develop and deploy innovative energy technologies and commit ourselves to the reduction in emissions and provide for a cleaner environment.”
If Modi can indeed bring about this change of heart in his guest, it could yet be another monumental achievement of the Indian leader towards saving planet earth and the response to the question Kem Cho, planet earth (how are you, planet earth) could indeed become Majama Chu (I am doing well).