Photograph by Robb Kendrick, National Geographic Creative

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A young boy in Ranchi, in Jharkhand state, India, carries a chunk of coal into the mining camp where he lives.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick, National Geographic Creative

In Climate Talks, Spotlight Turns to India

U.S.-China deal on carbon emissions ramps up pressure on New Delhi to get more aggressive in moving away from coal.

India's new prime minister, a Hindu nationalist and former tea seller, recently urged his country's schoolchildren to help save the planet by relishing the delight of a full moon.

"On a full moon night, if street lights are put off for two, three hours, will it not be service to the environment? Won't you enjoy the full moon night?" Narendra Modi said in September, adding: "We have forgotten to live with nature." He urged kids to switch off fans, lights, or appliances when not in use and turn off tap water when brushing teeth.

Modi, 64, has sounded at times like a climate activist. "Al Gore was right when he commented a few years ago that it was inconvenient to many leaders to hear, face and accept the naked truth of global warming," Modi wrote in a 2011 e-book, Convenient Action, which heralded his climate efforts while chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.

So as a new round of international climate talks launches Monday in Lima, Peru, what role will Modi's government play? The United Nations meeting will focus on a new global accord, slated to be finalized next year in Paris, to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming. (See related map: "Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.")

India, the world's third largest emitter of these gases, is under the spotlight because it is driving an uptick in global coal use and carbon emissions. China and the United States—the world's two biggest emitters—announced a deal on November 12 to curb such pollution by 2030. (See related story: "Three Obstacles Ahead for U.S.-China Climate Deal.")

Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party swept India's elections in May, also faces pressure at home. By 2022, he's promised around-the-clock electricity for all Indians, more than one-quarter of whom now lack such access. His goal is daunting: India, the world's second most populous country, has grinding poverty, frequent power blackouts, and a heavy reliance on coal that's exacerbating the air pollution choking its cities.

"India's willing to make commitments to its own people" but not to the world, says Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow and India expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. "I would not expect any big shift in India's climate policy in the next year or two ... It's not ready to make binding international commitments."

Even so, analysts expect India to make voluntary pledges to boost energy efficiency and renewable power. It's well on its way toward meeting a pledge, made at UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, to cut the "intensity" of its carbon emissions—reducing the amount of carbon emitted for the same amount of economic output 20 to 25 percent over 2005 levels by 2020.

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Workers in a coal depot do backbreaking work for as little as two dollars a day (U.S.).

Key Message: India Is Not China

Indian officials often note that their country's economy, although growing rapidly, is still not as advanced as China's, so its international obligations should not be the same.

"India has the largest number of poor people. Our income levels are several times lower than those of China. There is no way India could be asked to take the same kind of climate actions as China," Suresh Prabhu, an informal adviser to Modi on climate issues, told the Indian Express in early November.

Indeed, there's a huge difference between the two Asian giants. While 6 percent of China's population lived at the poverty level of $1.25 a day or less in 2011, 25 percent of India's did, according to World Bank data.

"The burden of sustainability cannot be placed on the poor," Sumitra Mahajan, the speaker of India's lower house of parliament, told the United Nations this month. She agreed with Modi's push to promote frugality and respect for nature.

In India, where coal use is rising, carbon dioxide emissions increased more last year (5.1 percent) than they did in China (4.2 percent) or the United States (2.9 percent). But on a per capita basis, India's carbon emissions pale in comparison. India produces 1.9 tons per person, compared with 7.2 for China and 16.4 for the United States.

The U.S.-China deal does not go nearly far enough to reduce global emissions, says Chandra Bhushan, head of the climate change team for the Center for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research and advocacy group. She says China's pledge to halt the increase in its emissions by 2030 would freeze that nation at about 12 tons of emissions per person each year.

"In fact, if India were to follow the principles of this deal, then we need not do anything till 2040 and beyond," Bhushan says in a statement, adding that India's per capita emissions would still be only a fraction of China's in 15 years.

India's environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, called the U.S.-China deal a "good beginning" but said it is not "as ambitious as people wanted it to be." The United States pledged to cut its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

"We are positively disposed towards using our natural resources efficiently," he said, echoing comments he made in September before the UN Climate Summit in New York. Modi, who planned to visit Obama later that month in Washington, skipped the summit, angering environmentalists.

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A man works in a Jharkhand mining camp thick with coal fires. Coal can be burned to produce coke, a fuel for cooking and heating.

"Remarkable" Change in India

India's slogan is "Development Without Destruction," Javadekar said in the UN speech, noting his country plans to double its wind energy capacity over the next five years and improve the efficiency of its cars, appliances, and buildings. (See related photos:  "India Power Outage Darkens Cities, Stops Trains.")

Even bolder, Modi's government aims to increase its use of solar power by fivefold. "We have reset the targets of renewable energy" from 20 gigawatts to 100 gigawatts by 2022, Energy Minister Piyush Goyal said in mid-November. (See related story: "India's Push for Renewable Energy: Is It Enough?")

"He [Modi] is moving at a pace that no other government in modern India history has done ... It's quite remarkable," says Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute, an organization that focuses on sustainability issues.

India has been at the forefront of developing clean energy technologies, striking a partnership with the U.S. in 2009. During Modi's visit to Washington in late September, the White House announced the two countries were expanding their efforts, including a new program to scale up renewable energy's integration into India's power grid.

The Obama Administration also cleared the way for one billion dollars in U.S. Export-Import Bank financing to help India buy American technology for clean-energy projects. On Friday, President Barack Obama accepted Modi's invitation to visit India in January.

Bapna says technological advances could allow India to accelerate its path toward carbon reductions so it doesn't necessarily lag behind China's climate targets by 15 to 20 years.

"It's going to take time," Ayres says of India's solar thrust.  She says that although solar technology has potential, given the country's vast expanses of desert, it "isn't fully rolled out yet or been connected to the grid." She adds: "The big elephant in the room is coal."

Along with renewables, Modi's government is pushing coal, which now accounts for 59 percent of India's electric capacity. It seeks to lower coal imports and ramp up power supplies quickly by doubling domestic production to one billion tons by 2019. (Vote and comment on how best to curb cities' air pollution.)

Coal's ascent and the country's rapid economic development are polluting India's air. In May, the World Health Organization said the four cities with the dirtiest air worldwide—led by New Delhi—are all in India's central region.

Ayres says this pollution may spur grassroots opposition to coal. She says Modi cares passionately about his country and is trying to spur economic growth in a clean way, adding: "He's trying to walk that tightrope."

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoGreen.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.