India-US Climate Partnership- Reading the Tea Leaves Again

Dr. Raj V. Rajan-

Dr. Raj V. Rajan

 Dr. Raj V. Rajan serves on the Board of Directors of non-profits Climate Generation, Fresh Energy, and Environmental Initiative and is a Fellow of the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota. Views expressed are his own.

Let me begin by saying that this was never a partnership of equals. Take a look at these overlaid images shown below. For starters, look at the chart. It is based on over 270 years of data summarized by the Global Carbon Project. Over 1.4 billion humans in the subcontinent, 18% of the global population, have only accounted for 3% of the cumulative carbon emissions produced from fossil fuels and industry since 1750.

What about China? Fair question- very popular with most elected officials and many climate experts in the US, just before they ask “What about India?”. The other 18% of humanity in China account for 14% of cumulative global emissions today. Keep in mind that this was after wages rose in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan- leading the US, EU, and Japan to move many of their carbon-intensive operations to China, to increase profits and shareholder value for their corporations. Before China “opened up” at the end of 1978, it accounted for less than 4% of cumulative global emissions.

Now look at the map under the chart. It depicts the share of any country’s population that experienced extreme temperatures strongly affected by climate change for at least 100 days. This map was created by Axios to illustrate the disproportionate impacts today. It is based on analysis of the past year’s data by Climate Central, using a peer-reviewed metric- Climate Shift Index (CSI).  Look at countries where 30% to >80% of the population experienced a CSI of over 3. Most of them, like India, had little or nothing to do with causing the climate change problem.

While it is obvious who is left holding the bag today, who has been rocking the boat all along? The US, EU, and UK collectively represent 11% of humanity today, owning 45% of cumulative emissions to date, even after offshoring most heavy manufacturing to China. Before that, they accounted for 69% of cumulative emissions through 1978. Also, 200+ years of European colonialism robbed Indians of the wealth that could have helped them face and mitigate these impacts. Europe and its derivative beneficiaries of this loot [the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand] are not contributing what they should to solve the problem today. They have been happy to blame India and China, while falling short on promises to help. We will continue to see more climate impacts in India and will continue to hear more excuses at COP28, much like we did at COP26. No climate equity here.

After the Group of 20 (G20) major economies committed to ending fossil fuel subsidies in 2009, subsidies increased, along with emissions. Over $1.4 trillion in 2022 global fossil-fuel subsidies, after COP26 promises in Glasgow! We heard this past July that the G20 meeting in India failed to reach consensus on phasing down fossil fuels.

India is set to become the world’s fastest-growing major economy in 2023 and with it will come increased coal use and higher emission, as in 2022. While people in India struggle to breathe due to the poorest air quality worldwide. Even China, which leads the rest of the world put together on wind turbine and solar panel manufacturing, has new coal plants going in to meet growing demand. India’s GHG emissions dropped by a faster-than-expected rate and is “well on the way to meeting the commitment India made to the UN. China is on course to hit wind and solar power target five years ahead of time. Meanwhile, the USEPA confirmed that US GHG emissions increased in 2021 by 6 percent, even after accounting for land sequestration. The increase was driven largely by emissions from US fossil fuel combustion. With prior climate finance commitments from the US and EU being where they are [mitigation pledges are barely trickling in and adaptation financing dropped in 2021], India’s coal use might go up even more.

When it comes to building a power grid of the future, India could leapfrog to the latest in power electronics, like it did in telecommunications with mobile phones. But companies that lead in technologies like HVDC are still too busy making money off of their archaic AC technologies in India to bother. It is like the days when US beverage companies sent their hand-me-down bottling lines to Asia and Africa! While many major manufacturers of AC to DC converters are in China, there is no major HVDC player in the US.

The solutions are not always technical- they can be innovative business models. Community Solar is the fastest-growing segment of the US solar power industry that decoupled home ownership from participation in renewable energy’s financial benefits. India is a nation with low rates of home ownership and a lot of multi-family urban housing- not roof-rich. And a weak grid is more compatible with distributed generation than it is with centralized large utility generation.

While China leads the rest of the world combined on electric vehicles, road transportation will remain a major source of emissions in India, due to a lack of reliable grid and charging infrastructure. India’s solution cannot rely on personal EVs- it has to rest on public transit. It was interesting to read that the USAID and Indian Railways signed up on a partnership in June 2023, to help achieve Indian Railways’ target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Because 83% of India’s rail network is electrified, while it is less than 1% in the US. And India carries 35 times the annual rail passenger kilometers that the US, where it is all about freight tonnage, which is comparable for the two countries.

US companies may continue to push for nuclear power plants they have been unable to build right here at home. India should say “no thank you”. Many countries – Albania, Costa Rica, Greece, Iceland, Paraguay, and Portugal – have shown us that the power grid can go 100% fossil-fuel-free without nuclear power. Nuclear power is NOT renewable electricity– it needs a mined radioactive fuel with significant environmental impacts over its lifecycle. Three Mile IslandChernobyl, and Fukushima have shown the world that it is NOT CLEAN. And studies here have shown that even the US can transition to 100% clean energy without nuclear power. Besides, nuclear power is thermoelectric. Many of India’s thermoelectric plants are already suffering from being in water-scarce areas.

India should not trade water security for energy security, like the US did when it subsidized corn ethanol and soy diesel, depleting the Ogallala aquifer and polluting the Mississippi. I spent decades fighting the dark side of the energy-water nexus and am disturbed to read about “Advanced Biofuels” like bio-ethanol, renewable-diesel and sustainable-aviation fuels in the U.S.-India Strategic Clean Energy Partnership. I wish India did not go down the Global Biofuels Alliance rabbit hole- look at Brazil’s cane ethanol and the Amazon rainforests. Grow food to feed people, not farm animals and fuel making plants. It is energy inefficient, and India does not have the land- the US and Brazil do.

There are viable pathways for India to get to net-zero emissions by 2070, but they need to be funded by international organizations. The flagship USAID program, Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) was a good start in 2009, but it is peanuts and technology-focused. Even PACE Deployment 2.0 (2020) did not have enough scale, with not enough investments. Mobilizing significant foreign capital is what India needs from the US, not technology that the US does not have or does not want for itself.

There are some possible exceptions- the US-India Hydrogen Task Force could be useful, if it focuses on green hydrogen replacing fossil fuels for industrial thermal use or jet fuel synthesis, instead of inefficient use of hydrogen to fuel power plants, which is being pushed by many in the US. Initiatives like the “Responsible Oil & Gas” are disturbing red flags in the U.S.-India Strategic Clean Energy Partnership that was announced a year ago. India does not have a domestic shale gas industry like the US does- they don’t need solutions that will extend the life of fossil fuel use. India does not need US shale gas liquified and exported, like high-sulfur coal exports to India while we replaced it with low-sulfur Wyoming coal in the US to solve our acid rain problems.

The US-India Elevate Strategic Partnership, announced in January 2023, also has red flags like ”defense industrial cooperation”. The US military industrial complex is larger than the rest of the world put together. India is the world’s largest weapons importer, already the biggest arms buyer from Russia and France. India would do well to pay attention to former US President Eisenhower’s warning. India, unfortunately, still has hundreds of millions who are hungry and cold. It should not get in the middle of geopolitical games played by those who do not.

India is not China, which has almost six times its GDP and less people today. The India-China relationship is not like the equal-footing competitive US-China relationship. India and China are neighbors who have had shared history and culture for millennia. China leads the world in technology and manufacturing India needs for its clean energy future. India should get past the xenophobia (Sinophobia) prevalent in the US and in India and import these solutions. The US and Europe should fulfill promises made to fund climate solutions India wants to implement. Not to benefit their own economies, but because they caused the problem in the first place.

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