Time For Modi’s India To Walk The Talk On Energy

Published: August 07, 2017

Shashi Tharoor


India’s tense military standoff with China at the tri-junction of the two countries with Bhutan has overshadowed the prospects for amicable co-operation between them on a host of other issues. Yet, however the Doklam crisis is eventually resolved, it should not obscure the potential for genuine cooperation with China in tackling another crisis – one with arguably greater stakes for India and the world at large. And that is the crisis of climate change.

The G20 summit last month in Hamburg, which was in large measure about this most pressing issue of our time, marked a watershed moment when President Donald Trump abdicated the position of the US as the spearhead of the global movement to address climate change. China and Europe are now looking to fill the vacuum and lead the rest of the member-states to meet their targets of sustainable development – powered largely by clean energy. India should stand with them.

Given our steadfast commitment to the Paris agreement, our highly ambitious renewable energy targets and our inherent vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, India could well seek to join the leadership space, provided the government makes the right moves at home and abroad.

The opportunity certainly seems to be ripe for strengthening our engagement with the European Union. Our relationship with the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, has started on a good note, with Prime Minister Modi and President Macron jointly pledging cooperation on climate change. 

The President has also expressed his interest in being a part of the first summit of the International Solar Alliance, to be organized in India later this year. This is significant, because while little actual progress seems to have been made after the ISA’s inception in 2015, the ISA could be an important vehicle through which India can mobilize international finance for its various solar projects – not just within the country but for all of the ISA’s 120 odd member-nations. Playing a proactive role in the ISA’s functioning will be essential to India’s emergence as a global clean energy leader. 

Similarly, India will have a lot to gain (as will indeed the rest of the European Union) if incumbent German Chancellor Angela Merkel is successfully re-elected, as the Chancellor has played a crucial role in bringing climate action to the forefront at G-20. Under her leadership, Germany has reaffirmed that climate action is critical to modernizing the global economy and securing long-term prosperity. Germany’s initiatives to accelerate renewables under the Energiewend have made for an excellent learning for India and our two countries already have an enviable record of cooperation in renewable energy deployment and energy access,

Most important, though, is the renewed talk of appointing a common Eurozone finance minister, which indicates that the EU may be looking at an attempt to reconsolidate itself. If a common finance minister is indeed appointed, given India’s cordial ties with the EU, it may open an opportunity for us to engage directly with Brussels and facilitate the transfer of not just innovative technology to address our own energy transition goals, but also perhaps establish a favorable line of financing for India to achieve its clean energy objectives. 

 On the domestic front, however, India needs a well thought-out strategy to better its climate change leadership ambitions. It urgently needs to address the critical issue of its dangerously high dependence on Chinese solar modules to feed its burgeoning solar power portfolio. Being highly subsidized by the state, Chinese manufacturers are churning out solar modules and associated equipment at extremely low prices. While this has brought down project costs for developers in India and power tariffs, it is killing our own solar module manufacturers.

It was also reported recently that our Finance Ministry has rejected a Rs. 20,000 crore financial support package for domestic solar equipment manufacturers. Such a move is highly regrettable, because a strong, self-sufficient domestic manufacturing industry is the first step towards insulating ourselves from (abrupt) policy changes by our giant neighbour.  

Strategies on clean energy leadership aside, we must not forget the highly attractive incentives for India to transition swiftly to clean energy. Not only will it bring us energy independence, but it could also prove to be a game changer for India’s chronic struggles with deteriorating air quality. 

Several of our cities rank dangerously low on air quality indices, partly because of emissions from thermal power stations, and partly due to particulate matter spewing out of vehicles. And the rural populace depends heavily on subsidized kerosene oil for cooking and indoor lighting needs, even though burning kerosene oil is a major cause of indoor air pollution.

The opportunities and the benefits they present to India are clear. These days, our government’s rhetoric on a host of issues has tended to outstrip its actual performance on any of them. One can only hope that the government takes advantage of the opportunity to take the lead on climate change – and decides to finally walk the talk.