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Can India Save the Warming Planet?

Author: Varun Sivaram, Douglas Dillon Fellow and Acting Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
May 2017 Issue
Scientific American


A shimmering waterfall beckoned visitors into the India pavilion at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference. Inside, multimedia exhibits and a parade of panelists proclaimed that the nation's clean energy future was fast-approaching. Prime Minister Narendra Modi went even further, announcing that his country would lead a new International Solar Alliance to ramp up solar power in 120 countries. Indian officials resolved to be leaders in battling global climate change.

I had arrived in Paris after a research trip that crisscrossed India, and I struggled to square that confident optimism with the facts I had seen on the ground: heavy reliance on coal power plants, a failing electrical grid that could not handle large additions of wind or solar electricity, and a widespread attitude that India, as a developing country, should not have to reduce its carbon emissions and should be able to grow using fossil fuels as other major countries have done. Still, by the end of the conference, India and 194 other countries, along with the European Union, had adopted the Paris Agreement, which commits the world to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. In November 2016 the agreement went into legal force, making each country's pledge binding under international law.

Despite the lofty rhetoric of India's leaders, their vision of a clean energy future is far from assured. Even though India's pledge set ambitious targets for solar and wind power, its overall commitment to curb emissions was underwhelming. If the government just sat on its hands, emissions would rise rapidly yet stay within the sky-high limits the country set for itself in Paris.

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