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Obama to face air pollution, climate challenges in New Delhi

Visit between world’s two largest democracies expected to be heavy on symbolism, but climate change is on the agenda

Hazy skies and some of the world's filthiest air will serve as the backdrop to New Delhi’s Republic Day celebrations, which President Barack Obama will attend on Monday at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

May 2014 survey of 1,600 cities by the World Health Organization found New Delhi to have the dirtiest air, with an annual average of 153 micrograms of small particulates per cubic meter (PM2.5). Beijing, notorious for having such thick smog that residents have nicknamed it "Grayjing," was ranked 77th, with a PM2.5 reading of 56.

Vehicles, brick kilns and coal plants are three of the biggest factors contributing to New Delhi's pollution problem, according to Justin Guay, associate director for the Sierra Club's international climate program.  

“When it comes to Delhi in particular, there are three coal plants within the city limits, which is a part of the problem, there is obviously vehicular transport, which is a big part of the problem as well," Guay told Al Jazeera. "But there’s this untold story about ... a cottage industry surrounding Delhi [where] essentially poor day laborers that work at these dirty brick kilns make bricks all day long, all night long and do it by using coal to heat up the dirt and solidify it into a brick and those are completely uncontrolled."

Obama and Modi on Sunday said they had reached an agreement to break the deadlock that has been stalling a civilian nuclear power agreement that was signed in 2008. Modi said the original agreement had "created new economic opportunities and expanded our option for clean energy." 

U.S. Ambassador to New Delhi Richard Verma said Sunday that the deal "opens the door for U.S. and other companies to come forward and actually help India towards developing nuclear power and support its non carbon-based energy production."

But how the deal will come to fruition is yet to be seen.  

Despite Washington and New Delhi announcing a nuclear “breakthrough” on Sunday, India is still moving ahead, at least on paper, with expanding its coal capacity. State coal producer Coal India will double its annual production target to one billion tons within five years, according to the Ministry of Power.

Such plans entail predictable environmental consequences for India, which is considered one of the countries vulnerable to climate change, with some 7,000 miles of coastline. It is also an agricultural economy relying on seasonal rains with hundreds of millions of people still living off the land.

But the worst may not come to pass. Troubles in India's coal industry have already driven investors to the solar market, and many of the approved new coal projects are stalled due to a lack of financing or coal supplies. As hopes rise for a new global climate pact in Paris later this year, some think Obama can broker with India another landmark deal like last year's U.S.-China climate agreement in which China pledged to rein in emissions starting in 2030.

India applauded that deal for recognizing that developing countries have a right to keep growing and polluting for a time, while the U.S., which industrialized long ago, begins curbing emissions now. A possible U.S.-India deal, however, would be unlikely to see India following China's example in setting a date for its emissions to peak.

“There is no chance that the U.S. and India are going to strike a bargain akin to what the U.S. and China did. India is quite simply too poor and far behind China in its development to commit to such targets," Milan Vaishnav, an associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Jazeera.

Indeed Modi, speaking at his joint news conference with Obama on Sunday said "India is an independent country and there is no pressure on us from any country or any person," responding to a question about whether India felt any pressure to follow the path of China's agreement with the U.S.

But Modi added, "Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure and all those who think about a better life and a better world for the future generations — those who are concerned about this — then it is their duty and their conscious ... to give a better lifestyle to the future generations" 

The U.S. and India agreed on Sunday to cooperate on reducing the release of hydroflurocarbons, the greenhouse gases used for refrigeration and air conditioning. Still, that was hardly the kind of sweeping climate change agreement the U.S. ultimately has in mind with India.

India has long refused to curb carbon emissions while hundreds of millions of Indians live in dire poverty. Instead, India has pledged to reduce its emissions intensity — how much carbon dioxide it puts out per dollar of economic activity.

The country has also pledged a five-fold increase in its solar energy capacity to 100 gigawatts, a 30-fold boost for wind energy to 60 GW and a massive overhaul of India’s dilapidated energy grid by 2022. India will be looking to the U.S. government and businesses to help finance the initiative.

The U.S. believes developed countries cannot adequately address climate change while ignoring the "huge, looming wave of carbon dioxide emissions coming from developing countries," said the Sierra Club's Guay.

However, India has countered that developing countries have already put so much carbon in the atmosphere that they should be the ones to cut back on emissions while developing countries catch up, Guay added.

“I think the challenge for these two countries is to kind of put aside these entrenched politics and for India is to look at this as an opportunity and say [clean energy technologies] are actually cheaper in the long-run or even today...and we face all kinds of collateral damage from building out things like coal plants in the form of dirty air quality," Guay said. "And from the U.S. side, looking at this as a market opportunity, we need to look at countries like India as new emerging markets for clean technology and that the U.S. can benefit from." 

Al Jazeera and wire services. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report. 

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