In the years since Paris, the world has changed — Prime Minister Modi has seized on the momentum.
The Western world has often pointed fingers at India and China in the last couple of decades, often as a scapegoat, in relation to greenhouse gas emissions and its effects on global, catastrophic climate change. While the West has emitted the lion’s share of carbon, courtesy years of unsustainable economic growth — largely through the proliferation of mega-scale fossil-fuel-fired power plants and an oil-dependent mobility infrastructure, accounting for nearly half of global emissions since 1970 — India and China are slated to ratchet their own energy generation infrastructure in the coming years. With billion-plus population and ambitious hunger for economic prosperity, both these nations are expected to build large-scale energy generation infrastructure.
Given this backdrop, India and China, through the first twenty UN-sponsored climate change talks — over as many years argued that they, too, like the West — have a responsibility to deliver economic growth to their people.
Who then, should pick up the emissions reductions tab? The West that has already enjoyed economic growth? Or our aspiring, large nations that haven’t gotten the chance at the developed-scale yet? This central point has been the primary cause of stalemate at climate change talks since they were initiated in Brazil in 1992.
Who should pick up the emissions reductions tab? The West that has already enjoyed economic growth? Or our aspiring, large nations that haven’t gotten the chance at the developed-scale yet?
The changing economics of climate change mitigation
Renewables have seen a dramatic fall in cost, especially over the last 6-7 years, and that has turned the tables on climate change. Depending on the country, renewables now are anywhere between 10-30% cheaper to build than fossil-fuel based power plants. In India, the price of electricity generated from new solar and wind sources, factoring in the capital and financing costs, is 15-20% cheaper than the average price of thermal power produced by the National Thermal Power Corporation, India’s largest, state-run thermal power producer.
Since electricity generation accounts for one-fourth of all greenhouse gas emissions, cleaning up the electricity value chain is expected to contribute impressively, perhaps as one of the only lone-stars in the mix of all possible climate mitigation strategies.
Paris climate conference, 2015
The world was a lot more different than it is today. The then US President Barack Obama prioritised climate change in his administration and made a remarkable push to get nations together to agree on emissions curbs. The Paris accord was a first-of-its-kind agreement where nearly all nations volunteered to reduce their respective emissions so as to contain global mean temperature increases to within 1.5-2 degree Celsius of pre-industrial levels.
Prime Minister Modi’s plan at Paris was to offer reasonable emissions reductions through increased solar adoption, closure of the oldest, inefficient coal-based power plants, and intense afforestation programmes. It was considered a fine act of balance in ensuring India’s self-interest and intention to keep its economic engines on fire as well as managing the nation’s emissions. Solar and renewables, though, were the PM’s key underpinnings in what India brought to the table. At home, he had quadrupled India’s solar target of 25 GW by 2022 under the UPA, to 100 GW by 2022. Additionally, Modi mandated his government to build another 75 GW of additional renewables in the form of wind, small hydro, and biomass — with wind accounting for 60 GW of that number. To be sure, these numbers were by no means small. India’s cumulative installed electricity generation capacity when he took office in May 2014 was 240 GW, of which coal accounted for more than two-thirds capacity. To target to build out nearly that entire number in a matter of five years — when all the existing capacity was built over a period of over sixty years — with only renewables, was a bold move.
It should be noted that the Indian renewable programme, so far has, with resolvable hiccups expected in any ambitious venture, been a success. Solar and wind now account for roughly 18-19% of all electricity capacity, and closer to 6% of electricity generation. In 2017, India added close to 12 GW of new capacity, discovered low tariffs through competitive auctions, and initiated plans of action for grid strengthening.
The International Solar Alliance
In addition to bolstering renewable targets at home, the Prime Minister was also proactive in finding an ally in the then French President, Francois Hollande, who was also the host of the Paris talks in 2015, and launched the International Solar Alliance (ISA) together with France on the sidelines of the Paris summit — a multilateral body to promote solar growth around the world. ISA’s mandate was to bring countries situated within the equatorial tropics together — largely emerging nations — to share best-practices in solar technology and deployment, and provide government-based grants for increased solar adoption.
With the ISA, PM Modi essentially took a technology largely driven by economics and ensured that he used it to pipe India’s commitment to containing greenhouse gas emissions in the face of Western criticism of India’s future expected emissions.
In the years since Paris, the world has changed — and PM Modi has seized on the momentum. Obama’s departure, and Republican domination in internal US politics, has created a significant lacuna in the climate change momentum globally. Countries have scrambled to find leadership, and have second-guessed each other on baulking out of their emissions-reductions commitments, as Trump already, rather dismissively, has. From Europe too, given that most of the European energy systems have already been built out and that their emissions have plateaued, and the increased fractures in their own internal politics, both at the EU level and at country levels, no clear global leader has emerged on this issue in the face of American vacuum.
With the International Solar Alliance, PM Modi took a technology largely driven by economics and ensured that he used it to pipe India’s commitment to containing greenhouse gas emissions.
PM Modi has taken the front-seat on climate change
It is the perfect mix of storms that have allowed PM Modi to capitalise on both feeding energy demand at home and taking center-stage on climate change policy. That the opportunity opened itself, he has seized it with both hands to showcase India’s leadership on the issue, and additionally channeled the ISA.
It also helps that the ISA is headquartered in our very own Gurugram, the formal inauguration of which took place a few days ago. The fact that a former Secretary of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy in the Indian Government has led the steering and formation of the entire organisation since its inception as an idea in 2015, has emboldened global Indian leadership in this domain.
This past weekend, when the ISA was formally launched, India made a stream of commitments. This included getting France to allocate €700 million for financing projects, committing $1.4 billion in funding on our own might for solar projects in Africa (part of this money will come through the reallocation of aid that India sets aside for Africa every year), and creating a “playbook” for African governments, based on the experiences of success we have seen at home, to plan for and deploy solar projects. This playbook is now called the “Delhi Agenda.”
A smart counter to China’s influence in Africa
Much like the Prime Minister’s diplomatic success in inviting all the heads of states of ASEAN countries as guests of honour on India’s Republic Day in January, partially as a counter to China’s growing dominance in the region, the Prime Minister has added another diplomatic feather to his cap — this time through “solar diplomacy”.
One could argue that China could have taken a more central leadership role in renewables diplomacy, especially since the Chinese government subsidises solar photovoltaic module — the most important component of a solar power plant — making China, in addition to being the largest exporter, the largest solar installer in the world.
However, India has wrestled an important niche for itself and become the benign, guiding leader on this front.
It is well known that Chinese influence in Africa is on the rise through its large-scale infrastructure loans for the construction of roads, highways, transmission lines, power plants, ports, and mines across the continent — between 2000 and 2015, public and private Chinese entities have extended loans of over $90 billion to African nations. Through the International Solar Alliance, on the other hand, India has now created a channel of uncoerced influence — often the more respectful between coercive and uncoercive — on 14 African nations, who have signed and ratified the International Solar Alliance treaty (out of a total of 30 nations).
In fact, over the past weekend, India invited all the ratified members of the Alliance to New Delhi to formally launch the ISA. It was also an opportunity where the Prime Minister held bilateral meetings with heads of state of African countries from all parts of the continent — and other nations part of the ISA — including Togo, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, among others. These meetings are significant because PM Modi has not met these leaders on the sidelines of a multilateral forum led by another nation, or in Africa, but by inviting them to New Delhi on his home turf on his own initiative.
Renewables could have just been driven by market forces given their economics, but PM Modi has diplomatically capitalised on them by showing exceptional leadership at the global stage. He has used it to steer global climate change negotiations, and to gain concrete influence among developing nations, especially those in Africa, in the face of Chinese dragooning. It has been a masterstroke.