Nothing momentous in the Modi-Obama statement on climate change

Feature story - January 25, 2015
Greenpeace India expressed disappointment at the joint announcement by Prime Minister Modi and President Obama as it didn’t go beyond rhetoric and the usual platitudes.

The big shift that was seen was the agreement they reached to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which has been a thorny issue in the past with India not keen to move on it. Both Obama and Modi, indicated a personal commitment to a strong deal at the crucial climate negotiations to be held in Paris. Despite the sense of optimism that has preceded the visit with speculations on what the outcomes would be, they did not announce anything new or significant towards getting there.

Greenpeace has been urging developing countries to leapfrog the use of HFCs, and to immediately move to environmentally safer alternatives. This is one of the easiest and quickest ways to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to avoid unnecessary damage to the climate. The announcement that US and India have reached an agreement on phase out of HFCs is certainly good news.

“It was indeed heartening to hear Modi speak about the fact “that climate change is a pressure” and to protect future generations it is the responsibility of leaders to act on climate change. Modi’s government has a massive opportunity to make a mark on what is undoubtedly the critical issue of our times. What he decides on climate action is going to be a defining moment in his tenure as Prime Minister. His ambition for renewable energy must create the impetus India needs to chart a new energy pathway and demonstrate India’s leadership on the global stage.” said Vinuta Gopal, Climate and Energy Manager, Greenpeace India.

Coal power plant in Singrauli © Sudhanshu Malhotra/Greenpeace

However, the elephant in the room is the unbridled coal expansion that India is witnessing. A huge rollout of new coal would undo all the good that today’s announcement promises, trashing the climate and having a negative impact on our air, water, forests and people.

Delhi’s air pollution has hit historic highs this winter. Approximately 25% of the city’s wintertime particulate air pollution comes from burning coal in power plants and industries. Recently, Greenpeace India monitored the PM2.5 levels in Central Delhi and found peak pollution levels to be 3 times the Indian safety limits, 9 times that of the WHO’s and 2.5 times the average levels in Beijing. The fact that Obama and Modi have agreed to work on addressing the issue of air quality is a significant step forward.

“Any announcement on India’s climate action needs to address future coal expansion to make the cut. The bulk of our CO2 emissions come from burning coal for electricity and this number will rise exponentially if India goes ahead with business as usual. We know we can’t end all coal burning this year or even this decade, but the majority of new energy generation in India should come from clean power sources and efficient use of energy. Modi has the political strength to make this change – the question is if he has the will. As the Prime Minister of the third largest emitter in the world, Modi must ensure a healthy environment where the livelihoods of people, forests and wildlife are protected.”, added Gopal.