In the world’s most polluted city, a layer of smog hangs over everything, thicker year after year.
Dirty exhaust pours out of the more than seven million cars clogging the streets. Smoke from the open fires built for heating and cooking fills the air. White plumes puff steadily out of tall towers at the coal-fired power plants.
Thus, it’s no surprise that after the United States and China, the world’s two largest carbon emitters, reached a historic climate change deal in November, attention quickly turned to the third: India.
After meeting here Sunday, President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a modest agreement on clean energy. It included a reduction in hydrofluorocarbons used as a coolant and an aerosol propellant, and an increase in solar and wind energy that India had already announced. The United States agreed to help finance solar energy production in India.
India did not announce a cut in carbon emissions.
Obama said the two men agreed to work together “to pursue a strong global climate agreement.” And Modi said Sunday he is personally committed to reducing the emissions. “When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure,” he said.
But Modi, the popular leader who took office last year after a landslide victory, has made growing the economy and alleviating poverty his top priorities, even if that contributes to climate change.
He wrote the 2011 e-book, A Convenient Action, to present a case for action on climate change, but more recently has attracted criticism for his response to the issue when he skipped a U.N. climate summit last fall and offered yoga as a solution to global warning.
“By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” he said in his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September. “Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”
The world’s second-most populous country may have a fast-growing economy and middle class, but a staggering 300 million people still lack electricity. Millions more Indians only have access to electricity sporadically.
Modi’s plan to expand electric power means hundreds of new coal-fired power plants. He plans to double the use of coal by 2019.
Carbon emissions also come from cars, factories, open fires in slums and on farms where fields are burned to prepare for new planting season. In total, India’s emissions are expected to double in the coming decades, surpassing those of the United States and China.
“This prime minister has had kind of a mixed view on this issue and a mixed track record,” said Tanvi Madan, India Project Director at the Brookings Institution. “You’ve seen, on the one hand, that he’s actually talked about this issue much more, took some actionsbut is also very focused on economic development.”
Last year, nearly 200 nations – both rich and poor – agreed for the first time agreed to reduce the burning oil, gas and coal that lead to global warming. Each nation is expected to write a plan outlining what laws they will pass and what emissions they will cut in time for a summit later this year in Paris.
Some Indians say their government under Modi and his predecessor has already helped cut pollution over the last decade by forcing the closure of some factories and by forcing buses and cabs to switch from to clean burning compressed natural gas. All over the city, small green and yellow tuk tuk cars announce the change with the letters CNG.
“We are feeling earlier, while breathing, we are feeling that pollution in the air. Now we can breath easily,” Adesh Arora, 35, a New Delhi native who works for American Express. “It’s getting better day by day.”
Indian officials insist they should be treated differently than China because they started developing a decade or two later than their more prosperous neighbor and because they lag behind when measuring per capita emissions.
In global talks, India blames developed nations including the United States for spending the last century polluting the air while building their economies. Those are the countries, they say, that must now cut their emissions.
Neil Bhatiya, a policy associate who focuses on South Asia at the Century Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, said he expects India will chart where it wants to be in the next decade or two but will only commit to modest proposals right now, perhaps accelerating what it already said it would do.
Modi has said he will boost funding for public transportation, including trains, enact new standards for power plants and, perhaps most importantly, greatly increase solar and wind energy.
“In India, there is much more that could be done,” Anjali Jaiswal, India Initiative Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council said in an interview.
Michael Greenstone, who runs the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, said Indians may eventually be spurred into action by health concerns because the same fossil fuels that cause climate change produce air pollution.
Thirteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, according to the World Health Organization. New Delhi topped the list.
Air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India, leading to 67,000 premature deaths in 2010, according to an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research group. And by 2050, 40 million people in India could die from rising sea levels, according to the Center for Global Development’s Climate Vulnerability.
“It may well be that until there is more real public demand and recognition of health costs it will not be focused on this,” Greenstone said. “This is an opportunity for India to do something for its citizens. It’s out there to be had.”