US wants solar alliance between India and France to function as informal arrangement
The International Solar Alliance (ISA), proposed with fanfare by India and France, faces a challenge from the US, which wants it to function as an informal arrangement, although Delhi has touted it as the major international organization to be headquartered in the country.
The alliance, a joint initiative of PM Narendra Modi and French President Francois Hollande, was announced at the end of the last climate talks in Paris in November 2015, as a coalition of solar resource rich countries “to address their special energy needs and provide a platform to collaborate on addressing the identified gaps through a common, agreed agenda”, as the working paper on the ISA put it.
Such organizations are usually established by a treaty, which is ratified by countries to give it a legal status in line with the UN norms.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, deputy secretary, US Department of Energy, confirmed the US’s position. “If the body established is a treaty body, that could create a problem for us,” she said.
“We want to support the concept but the legal structure has to be one that doesn’t present a challenge for us with our Congress. We are fully supportive of the principle of the approach of trying to create more support globally for solar deployment.”
If the US joins such a “treaty body”, all financial and other commitments it makes to the body will have to be approved by the US Congress.
The current Democratic administration may be uncomfortable with doing so, since Republicans command a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. But India believes the ISA would be lacking in strength and influence without a treaty backing it.
“Most international organizations are registered as treaty bodies,” said a senior government official. “If any dispute arises, members can appeal to the UN for a settlement. Without such a treaty, the ISA would just be an informal club.”
The ministry of new and renewable mnergy (MNRE) has referred the matter to the ministry of external affairs for a decision. “We have to take a call now on whether to go ahead without the US,” the official added.
“The US will still support ISA programmes, but I’m not sure if it will become a member.” Publicly, the US has always supported the formation of the ISA.
It was even mentioned in the joint declaration by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s visit to the US in June this year. “The US welcomes the launch of ISA, recognizes the critical role it can play in development and deployment of solar power, and intends pursuing membership in the ISA,” the declaration said.
“To this end, and to strengthen the ISA together, the US and India will jointly launch the third initiative of ISA, which will focus on off-grid solar for energy access at the Founding Conference of ISA in September 2016 in India.”
However, there is a question mark over whether the founding conference will be held in September. “Initially, it was expected that the treaty would be prepared and signed by the end of November 2015, soon after the climate conference ended,” said the government official.
“That didn’t happen. Then it was thought that the signing would take place in February during the second edition of RE Invest summit in Delhi. But the summit itself was postponed by a year. Now, September too appears unlikely. Many other countries which want to join the ISA are getting restless.”
Modi and Hollande jointly laid the foundation stone for the headquarters of the ISA at the campus of the National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE) in Gurgaon in January this year.
The steering committee of the ISA has held a few meetings in different parts of the world, but beyond that there has been no progress. “We’re hoping to hold the founding conference in October when some 30 countries are expected to ratify the treaty,” said the official.
“We hope the US will come on board sooner or later.” MNRE Secretary Upendra Tripathy, who is also the ex-officio chairman of the Interim Administrative Cell of the ISA, denied any hitches had arisen.
“The interim secretariat meeting will take place as planned in September,” he said. “Negotiations are ongoing with all the countries to become member states, including the US. I’m confident things will go smoothly and we will have the US’s full support.”
He revealed that the draft of the treaty had been circulated to all likely members and a number of the modifications suggested by them had been accepted. “We have made many changes taking into account feedback from all countries,” he said.
“Earlier, we had decided that only the countries lying between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, all of which are solar rich, would be potential members, but with countries outside this zone also expressing keenness to join, we have removed this criterion. We have made ISA a two-tier structure, instead of a three-tier one as planned before. We have also done away with the membership fee.”