The Paris Climate Change Conference is a unique opportunity for prime minister Narendra Modi to steer the world towards a low-carbon horizon. Modi is the key to not just a final agreement in Paris but also to shaping long-term solutions to environmental degradation.

According to The New York Times, Modi could “make or break” US president Barack Obama’s quest to carve out his climate legacy. Despite disagreements, the latter has “welcomed India’s leadership on this issue”, while the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commented that Modi is providing “the kind of bold leadership the world needs” in green energy.

■A Clean Past

Why is the world so focused on what India does in Paris and thereafter? Firstly, as the fastest growing major economy which has emitted only 3 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide since 1890, India has a relatively clean past but also an increasing responsibility for the future of the earth and the atmosphere.

Although we are proud of not harming the environment until now, India’s ambitious economic modernisation in the coming decades will likely triple its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. The intensity of these emissions are expected to decline by up to 35 per cent from 2005 levels, but the absolute addition to emissions is inexorable.

Our per capita emissions are indeed far lower than those of China, the US and European nations, but the fact that we are industrialising later than them means maximum global interest in how India manages its rise. The timing of India’s ascent is such that we are willy-nilly in the hot seat.

The second factor that puts India in the limelight at Paris is Modi’s proactive environmental diplomacy. In the words of power minister Piyush Goyal, Modi is under no compulsion or pressure from any other country, but is rather driven by a deep “passion” and India’s civilisational ethos of protecting nature.

The PM’s Global Solar Alliance, comprising all the 121 countries falling within the tropics, has won rave praise in Paris as a literal ray of hope for alternative energy sources to become more viable and replace fossil fuels. The host in Paris, President Francois Hollande, hailed Modi’s brainchild as a “paradigm shift” that can guide the way we tackle myriad environmental challenges.

■The Right Mix

Thanks to technological advances rendering renewables more competitive that carbon-emitting coal and gas, international cooperation for sharing of knowhow and transmission of clean energy across borders has never looked more promising. Modi’s Solar Alliance is the right nostrum at the right moment. It is part of what Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar terms as India’s strategy at Paris to “change the narrative from a negative one on emissions capping to a more positive one on cleaner energy”.

So, while we have no mentionable carbon reduction pledge, our declared national commitment at Paris to generate 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022 is considered by all as a huge progress.

Our contention is that even if we emit more carbon in the near term for a justifiable cause of lifting our people out of poverty, this would not be forever since 40 per cent of our energy mix can come from renewables by 2030.

Modi’s proactive environmental diplomacy in Paris towards shaping long-term solutions to environmental degradation has made India the cynosure of all eyes Green Signal Narendra Modi (centre) at Mission Innovation in Paris on Monday Progress on initiatives such as the Solar Alliance and ‘Breakthrough Energy Coalition’ can help meet the grand goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius from the preindustrial levels.

Though environmentalists in India and skeptics in the West contend that Modi’s tall promises on climate change are “more style over substance”, it is heartening that our installed capacity for renewables has jumped by 13 per cent since he assumed office last year.

If the Solar Alliance, as well as the parallel ‘Breakthrough Energy Coalition’ launched by corporate titans like Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Mark Zuckerberg, Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani take off, the financing of green technology innovations can accelerate and help meet the grand goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above 20 Celsius from the pre-industrial levels.

France’s announcement that “India will be one of the founding beneficiaries” of the new publicprivate ‘Clean Tech Initiative’ gives Modi’s domestic green transformation agenda a financial leg up. Indian negotiators at Paris have shown flexibility on coal usage by saying we could reduce it if more funding was forthcoming from rich countries to make renewables cheaper and installable.

Sadly, on the vital issue of financing, the US, Canada and Australia are playing hardball in Paris by insisting that top developing economies such as China, India and Brazil are obliged to also contribute to climate finance pools instead of demanding money transfers and acting as recipients.

Anticipating this line of attack, Modi has reiterated that climate change is “not of our making” and that it is “morally wrong” to shift the burden on to the shoulders of developing countries. Donning the traditional mantle as a leader of the Global South, which deserves climate reparations for historical injustices from the Global North, has been a vital bargaining chip for India at Paris.

But apart from this time-tested defensive approach, Modi brought to the table a counteroffensive technique of forging new international coalitions and launching catchy initiatives that capture the global imagination.