Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Obama and (climate) change: Indian edition


The U.S. launched this week a historic program to advance clean energy in India—where simply moving the 40 percent of the South Asian nation's citizens who still burn coal, dung or wood to electricity could deliver major improvements for development, clean air and climate. Last week, it was a similar historic program to advance clean energy with China as well as a shared commitment to meaningful steps as part of the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks. And, to top it off, Obama has announced plans to swing by the talks on Dec. 9 as well as to publicly commit to U.S. emission reductions "in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 and ultimately in line with final U.S. energy and climate legislation."

By negotiating directly with China and India—as well as neighbors Mexico and Canada—to craft a shared strategy on climate change, the Obama administration has both addressed more than half of global emissions of greenhouse gases and made international consensus in Copenhagen more likely. The president has also gotten both developing countries to agree to actively monitor and announce their greenhouse gas emissions going forward—a key aspect of any international verification system for emission reductions. And China has already committed to keeping the intensity of its emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

"Based on progress made in recent, constructive discussions with China and India’s Leaders, the President believes it is possible to reach a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen," according to a prepared statement from the White House. "The President’s decision to go is a sign of his continuing commitment and leadership to find a global solution to the global threat of climate change, and to lay the foundation for a new, sustainable and prosperous clean energy future."

A big part of that foundation will be developing the kinds of clean energy technologies discussed with China and India—from coal with carbon capture and storage to new nuclear power plants, and from rural electrification abroad to energy efficiency improvements at home. In particular, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab will partner with India's Solar Energy Centre and Centre for Wind Energy Technology to map potential, develop technology and, ultimately, aid in its deployment—potentially allowing rural Indians to "leapfrog" directly to distributed solar energy, without the need for costly transmission lines. And there will also be enhanced cooperation in agriculture—helping to revitalize the Green Revolution in India that dramatically reduced starvation there in the 20th century.

"India is important to the energy and climate change problem for several reasons," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu during a visit to the country this month. For one, "eighty percent of the infrastructure in India has yet to be built. What we have today and what we are going to have by 2030. So this is an incredible opportunity for India to build its buildings, its cities, its highways, its infrastructure, its transportation in the most energy efficient way possible."

Further, the President outlined his vision for pending climate legislation in the U.S. this week—in addition to the target of reducing emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (a goal already half-achieved thanks to the Great Recession and other factors), a 30 percent reduction by 2025, 42 percent by 2030 and, ultimately, an 83 percent cut by mid-century.

"The U.S. commitment to specific, mid-term emission cut targets and China's commitment to specific action on energy efficiency can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, of the chances for a global agreement in Copenhagen.

Of course, the shape of any final U.S. commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions will be decided by the U.S. Congress, but the President has a final option should legislators fail to act—regulation under the Clean Air Act by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article