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A US-India energy deal would highlight Australia's failings

By Guy Ragen - posted Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Yesterday, India and Australia both celebrated our respective national holidays. What takes place in India on and around Monday could have repercussions for international climate politics in 2015. It could also once again highlight how far behind Australia has fallen.

India is marking Republic Day with its traditional parade through Delhi. The new Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be joined by his guest, President Obama.

The presidential visit is highly anticipated for a number of reasons. In particular, there is guarded expectation that some sort of US-India climate and energy deal will be signed off during the President's visit. It won't be as far-reaching as the historic US-China agreement in November, but it would be another clear step on the path to the signing of a global agreement at the UN conference in Paris in November.


Media reports in India this week suggest any US-India deal will focus on energy, and feature a large US investment in Indian solar capacity.

Since becoming Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has made development, in particular energy development, a key commitment. While India is the world's third largest greenhouse gas emitter, its per capita emissions are dwarfed by countries such as Australia. Around three hundred million Indians live without reliable power, and this is where solar power comes in. Solar, unlike coal, does not need large, fixed power stations, with costly grid infrastructure. Its flexibility – install a solar panel on a roof and you've got electricity without the need to miles of transmission lines and a huge, polluting power station – means the new Indian Government sees solar power as a direct way to making good on Modi's development promises.

While coal is still the major fuel source in India, the new government has said renewable energy could jump from making up around six per cent of Indian energy now, to around 15 per cent in a few years. And this is where the United States looks set to play a significant role in assisting India.

So, what does all this have to do with whether the world will reach an agreement at Paris?

Any Paris agreement is going to have to include every nation, developed and developing, which makes India crucial. The divide between developing and developed countries is a fault line which could disrupt negotiations. That's why if an announcement this weekend by Modi and Obama is seen to help India navigate what the Brookings Institute has called "a pathway to a more efficient industrialisation" – i.e. one that is less polluting than it otherwise may have been – it will be a big step on the road to Paris.

The contrast between the US and Australia here couldn't be any clearer. The Obama Administration is throwing diplomatic weight behind reaching an international deal at Paris. The pact with China was one step. A possible agreement with India would be another. Sitting behind this is the fact the US has cut pollution during Obama's presidency, which is enabling the US to play this more constructive role with credibility.


Meanwhile, Australia's role at recent UN climate conferences in Warsaw in 2013 and Lima in 2014 has been negative. At the same time, we have abolished a carbon price which was working to cut pollution. We have also ignored the UN's calls to announce our post-2020 international targets in March. We've come up with our own timeline and will announce in June.

There is another obvious contrast: as the US looks set to help India on a path to development where renewable energy plays a large and growing role, Australia is debating whether to ship enormous quantities of coal to India via the Galilee Basin.

At Paris, Australiawon't be able to duck scrutiny from the rest of the world. As a rich nation among the worst polluters per capita, we are significant when it comes to international climate change negotiations – an Australia reluctant to raise ambition provides an easy get-out clause for a developing nation like India not to sign on.

The signs so far suggest that if Paris succeeds, it will be because people around the world demanded action, and the US, China and others showed global leadership. If it fails, Australia will bear some responsibility.

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About the Author

Guy Ragen is a climate change campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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