Representational image.
 Photo: iStock
Representational image. Photo: iStock

By accusing India of demanding “billions and billions and billions of dollars” as a condition for its participation in the Paris climate agreement, US President Donald Trump has ruffled what promised to be a close relationship between the world’s two largest democracies.

After Trump singled out India in his speech renouncing the Paris accord, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj retorted that “there is absolutely no reality” in Trump’s allegation. According to Swaraj, India joined the agreement not “out of greed or fear,” but “because of our commitment to protecting the environment.”

Trump insists that the Paris deal is unfair, because while “India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020,” the United States is “supposed to get rid of ours.”

To be sure, India still gets most of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, which account for just under two-thirds of its total energy capacity. But India does not have the access to inexpensive natural gas, which has allowed the US to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions in recent years.

India thus has no choice but to build new coal plants in the medium term. As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out when the Paris agreement was concluded, India still needs to “grow rapidly to meet the aspiration of 1.25 billion people, 300 million of whom are without access to energy.”

India is now the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter – behind China and the US – but that is because it has made impressive gains in terms of economic growth. At the same time, India has long advocated for the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” which holds that the industrialized countries that have contributed the most to global warming have a larger obligation to address it.

India has expressed a willingness to reduce emissions, but on the condition that developed countries do their share, to set an example. In the past, there have been doubts as to whether India would go along with the collective global effort embodied in the Paris agreement. But in response to Trump’s decision, the Indian government has reaffirmed its commitment to fulfilling its obligations under the deal. At a recent news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Modi vowed to “continue working” to reduce emissions, “above and beyond the Paris accord.”

To that end, India has announced ambitious plans to shift away from its traditional, high-polluting energy sources. It hopes to generate 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, and it expects 100 gigawatts of that to come from solar energy by as early as 2022. In fact, this year India will likely overtake Japan as the world’s third-largest solar-power producer, after China and the US.

Indians like to point out that while China is home to 17.5% of the world’s population, and India is home to 17%, China generates more than 23% of global emissions, while India accounts for less than 10%. In terms of emissions per capita among the world’s polluters, India ranks 128th – between Anguilla and Moldova.

Indian leaders such as Modi and Swaraj often tout India’s religious, cultural, and spiritual attachment to the environment. “Our commitment to the environment is 5,000 years old,” Swaraj said in response to Trump. “River worship, mountain worship, tree worship,” she said, invoking Hinduism’s deep connections to the natural world, “is India’s cultural heritage.”

Trump misses the point entirely when he says that India, but not the US, is “allowed” to continue its coal-power production

Notwithstanding Trump’s dubious claim that the Paris agreement saddles the US with “draconian financial and economic burdens,” his decision is particularly strange, given that the agreement is voluntary and non-binding. Under the agreed deal, all participating countries are free to determine their own emissions-reduction targets and the policies for achieving them, and they may make revisions as they see fit.

Moreover, there is no penalty if a country fails to meet its “nationally determined” target. Having publicly committed to the deal, each country is honor-bound to pursue its particular obligations in good faith, or it will be held accountable in the court of public opinion.

Trump misses the point entirely when he says that India, but not the US, is “allowed” to continue its coal-power production. All 195 signatories have offered their own Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. If Trump did not like the INDCs set by the Obama administration, he could have revised them at any time. He still would have faced global opprobrium, especially from countries that joined the accord because the US was willing to share the burden. But he probably could have avoided unnecessarily antagonizing a country that fancies itself a US strategic partner.

The risk now is that Trump’s demonization of India could derail a bipartisan effort, ongoing since 2000, to strengthen bilateral ties. In the US, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have pursued a strategic partnership with India, based on existing trade ties, investment, and the large commercial and familial networks linking the two countries. Trump’s gratuitous remarks have now undermined these efforts.

In India, there is speculation that Modi may postpone his planned visit to the US later this month. That would be unwise. India’s diplomatic challenge now is to weather the occasional turbulence generated by a mercurial US president who is playing to his domestic base. Otherwise, it could lose out on the international and geopolitical advantages of its relationship with the US.

Even if India and the US differ on the Paris climate agreement, they can still coordinate in other important areas. For example, during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump identified India as a victim of terrorism – a problem that the US shares. Meanwhile, bilateral trade between the two countries stands at over $100 billion annually; and the Indian diaspora has gained unprecedented influence in Washington. The US House of Representatives now has five members of Indian descent, and the Senate has one.

These are pillars upon which a stronger US-India relationship can be built. We need only disregard the occasional “covfefe” from the White House.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017

Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian minister of state for external affairs and minister of state for human resource development, is currently chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs and a member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress.