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The weekend read: Exclusive interview with Obama climate negotiator Andrew Light

Top official who led Paris talks between US and India discusses Trump’s legacy, Modi’s ambitions and what a Biden win would mean for the Delhi-Washington relationship

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Lou Del Bello

Oct 25 2020

12 mins read

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The adoption of the Paris Agreement, December 2015 - Image credit: UNclimatechange

Indian climate negotiators who helped seal the Paris Agreement will remember Andrew Light as the senior official who could walk blindfolded from the American to the Indian delegation room: “I'd done it so many times that I actually blindfolded myself to prove that I could do it. I didn't have to go outside, so it wasn't a big hardship. But it was nonetheless exciting for everyone that I was able to do that. Including the India side. They liked it, too.”

Andrew Light, professor of Philosophy, Public Policy, and Atmospheric Sciences at George Mason University, was the State Department’s director of US-India bilateral cooperation on climate change during the second Obama term, between 2013 and 2016. 

As we near the end of the first term of a Trump administration that has systematically undermined global cooperation on climate change, Light talks about how the election outcome could put the US back on track in its climate action, and how the relationship between India and the US may evolve.

Q - It’s been five years since the Paris Agreement was signed, and a lot has happened since. What do you think has changed in the relationship between India and the US during this period? 

Andrew Light - It's no secret that the United States and India have always had their differences in the climate negotiations, going back to the 1990s. I do feel, though, that by the time we got to Paris, we had converged right on the same text, and had finally come to understand both the things that we had in common in terms of the agreement we were trying to forge, and also had come to respect the differences and concerns of each side.

At the end of the day, though, we really came to see that this agreement was something that would work well, with respect to a domestic reception in each of our countries. And that if we really got behind it and made it work, it would be the best chance the planet has for an international agreement to deal with this problem. So, by the end of the day, I had enormous affection for some of my counterparts on the India side, and I hope that I can stay in touch with them for the rest of my life. I think it was the most important thing I've ever done, helping to bridge that gap between the US and India.

If you had to choose one thing that in your mind symbolises that partnership, that bridge being built, what would that be?

One of the last sentences that got added to the Paris Agreement came down to a discussion between the US and India on how to incorporate a reference to climate justice in the agreement. That may seem small, but I think it was important for the [Indian] government, and the US came to respect that. 

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Andrew Light

After the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement, some countries such as Brazil and Australia took this as a sign that they could also distance themselves from climate commitments. How do you think this move landed in India?

I've never thought for a second that the Modi government wants to backpedal from the Paris Agreement. In fact, what we have seen, since the original creation of the Indian commitment under Paris, has been an increase in ambition. I point to things as far ranging as the large number of programmes that address cooling and refrigeration, which have an impact on hydrofluorocarbons. Or Prime Minister Modi's announcement a year ago, at the opening of the General Assembly, that he wanted to see India reach a target of 450 gigawatts of installed renewable capacity or non-fossil capacity by 2030. Which is bigger than their NDC.

These are very big ambitions, but we know that it’s not going to be easy for India to realise them, and in fact some of the targets already seem out of reach. How do you see the energy transition unfolding here in the coming years?

It’s the nature of this kind of endeavour. When you're setting targets in the future, every country is in a position of having to ask whether you can meet your stated ambition. The first important thing, though, is that you have ambition, which I think India has demonstrated.

It started when Modi right out of the gate in 2014 took a very modest solar target from the Congress government of 20 GW by 2022, and increased it to 100. And then added 75 additional GW. And even though it's gonna be hard to hit that 2022 target, I think no one could have predicted that India would have gotten as far as it has since 2014. 

There are still lots of problems, you know, especially with investor confidence in India, because of the varied environment and landscape of the power sector across the country. 

But I think that the rest of the world needs to come forward and say, alright, how do we help to make this work for you in a way that also helps us? That is where the Trump administration has dropped the ball entirely. It is only interested in pushing natural gas on India, and nothing else.

In your view, is India being receptive to President Trump’s offer?

I'm not being critical of the Indian government for having that conversation, but over the last four years I was always looking for a stronger public signal from the Indian government to ask the Trump administration to continue to make good on some of the programmes we have. 

If you look at the joint statements between Modi and Obama, climate and clean energy featured very prominently as a core part of the relationship. By my count, there were 15 programmes that were either newly created or greatly accelerated between the US and India and it saddened me that I've not seen a more forceful demand to the Trump administration to continue them.

What’s the future of cooperation between India and the US? What would be the priorities?

I think we need to get back into cooperation on innovation and technology development, and significantly increase what we were doing under what were called the partnerships to advance clean energy between the US and India. For example, our teams of researchers and businesses are involved in joint research and patent development between both countries, and that can be scaled up significantly to look at things like industrial decarbonisation, which is a problem in both countries. 

We also need to do a lot of work with India on how to phase down coal and replace it with renewables, which Modi already has the aspiration to do. And how you do that, so that you don't lose the wealth, the jobs that in some parts of India depend on fossil fuel extraction. And again, the US has the same issue, we are phasing out coal, but we need to take care of our vulnerable communities. And I think the US and India have a common problem that they can work on together.

In this context, do you see a greater role for research and development or business cooperation? 

I think it's got to be both as well as finance. Right now, we need to start with Modi's 450 GW target for 2030, and work backwards: How much money will that take in investment in India to achieve? That will be more than the globally negotiated $100 billion a year.

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Joe Biden at a rally in Philadelphia - Image credit: Flickr/Michael Stokes

The election may as well be a turning point for all of this. How much of this do you think a Biden administration would be able or willing to deliver?

I don't know yet. But I think that India will be very high on the list for a future US administration who cares about climate change. 

Look, if Chinese emissions go down, to the degree that they are now promising, and India does not hit its current targets under Modi, then India becomes the largest emitter in the world at some point. So you can't care about the climate and not care about India, in addition to the absolute necessity of delivering electricity and eliminating energy poverty in India, the humanitarian priority. On top of that, there's the climate vulnerability that India faces. 

No country can just write a check to India to make it possible to hit the 450 GW goal right by the end of the decade. But what we need to do is to reactivate its development finance institutions, which were very active in the first Obama term with respect to India, and helping on renewable energy goals, make sure that those are focused on delivering what Modi says he wants, and not, you know, subsidising fossil fuel anymore. 

[We should be] driving investment into India, and then work with Indian institutions to create a better environment for investment, so that people are more confident, and I think we can start getting very big numbers there to help, which would be more than India would be able to get out of the Green Climate Fund or anything else. 

Because that's a problem that has to be shared with the rest of the world. Alongside that, what can India do to also leverage its capacity and influence in the rest of the world? The US cooperating with Modi on the International Solar Alliance would also be a critically important moment of this. The final piece of engagement is, frankly, just diplomacy, reviving the US-India energy dialogue to really focus on these problems and these opportunities for both countries, reviving the US-India Climate Change Working Group, [and] creating a conversation between the US and India, where they both look at what we can do to make the 2021 COP in Glasgow a success.

How would a potential US reentry work in practice?

That's pretty straightforward. The US is out of the Paris Agreement on November 4, we're still part of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Because of the way we joined the Paris Agreement, a new president can just rejoin without going back to Congress for this. So we rejoin as early as Inauguration Day in January. 

The Paris Agreement requires every country to have a commitment, a nationally determined contribution. Then it is unclear what a Biden administration would do: they might reassert the old US 2025 target, initially, but that already is going to be overdue on the Paris clock. And so I think everyone will understand that and give us time. Then the question is, how fast can the US put together a combination of a legislative package and a series of executive orders by the president that can underpin a new commitment for 2030?

It’s understandable that some countries may have trust issues with the US, given climate change has become such a partisan issue there. Where do you expect India to stand in this respect?

I would never say any country should just have blind trust in what the US government is going to do. However, what I would like to hear from a country like India, especially given that it's so influential internationally, would be ‘Okay, you have an audience, we're listening. You show us what you're going to do at home, and then you show us what you want to do with us. And we will take it seriously’.

And I think that a clear signal, for example, is that Biden wants to convene a group of world leaders right before Glasgow to talk about enhancing ambition and greening the [coronavirus pandemic] recovery. I think a cooperative stance by India would be absolutely essential to make that a success. 

How would the US demonstrate its willingness to move away from the climate deadlock at home and show an ability to commit to long term international cooperation?

In the US we have not had a stimulus package focused on the pandemic since the summer. If we see Biden winning, I don't think that anything will happen between now and January, in what is called the ‘lame duck’ period. I don't think the White House will want to do anything if Trump is upset that he lost, and what it means is that there will be enormous pressure on the Biden administration to quickly roll out a new stimulus package very much like Obama did in 2008. 

The question is, how much of that can you make a green recovery? If you look at the 2009 stimulus package, it included $100 billion for clean energy programmes, which was the biggest energy bill the US has ever seen. So I think that you could do quite a lot pretty early on, that begins to give us a firmer foundation than we had in the Obama administration, [and] that could be the basis for a new international commitment. 

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