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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

India's Solar Initiative and the Challenge of Climate-Safe Development

Air Date: Week of

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Hollande onstage at the session. (Photo: Jennifer Stevens)

Indian President Narendra Modi announced a bold new $1 trillion solar initiative at the COP21. We hear the details and host Steve Curwood learns from two East African Heads of State what role solar can play in their countries’ development. Finally he discusses with Chandra Bhushan of India’s Center for Science and the Environment the challenges India faces and its role at these climate talks.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood at the climate summit.


CURWOOD: The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, partnering with COP21 president Francois Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, have just launched the international solar alliance. One hundred and twenty nations around the world will cooperate to, as Mr. Modi put it, “meet [the] energy needs of member countries in a safe, convenient, affordable, equitable and sustainable manner.” A key goal of the initiative is to mobilize a trillion dollars by 2030 to solarize the developing world, according to India’s prime minister.


MODI: Today, the world must turn to sun to power our future. As the developing world lifts billions of people into prosperity, our hope for a sustainable planet rests on a bold global initiative. It will mean advanced countries leaving enough carbon space for developing countries to grow. That is natural climate justice. The vast majority of humanity is blessed with generous sunlight round the year. Yet many are also without any source of power. This is why this alliance is so important. We want to bring solar energy into our lives and homes by making it cheaper, more reliable, and easier to connect to grid.

A solar field in Rwanda (Photo: IIP Photo Archive, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

CURWOOD: The alliance will develop best practices and common regulation, stimulate investment and solar product development, Modi said, and will become the foundation of the new economy.

MODI: This is an alliance that brings together developed and developing countries; governments and industries; laboratories and institutions, in a common enterprise. This day is the sunrise of new hope — not just for clean energy, but for villages and homes still in darkness, and for more mornings and evenings filled with the clear view of the glory of the sun. Thank you very much. 


CURWOOD: As Prime Minister Modi spoke, many leaders from around the world listened attentively. A number from Africa sat in the front row, and some told me that they welcome this initiative and think India’s size and scale can drive the developing world’s solar revolution.

DESALEGN: My name is Hailemariam Desalegn, I’m Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

CURWOOD: How important is solar energy for Ethiopia?

DESALEGN: It is so important because it is renewable energy. The intensity of solar power energy is so huge that we can generate more power, and we can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, which creates problems now. We have extreme storms, heavy floods, extreme droughts taking place in many places on the globe, especially in Ethiopia as well, so it is very very important for us.

CURWOOD: How much money will it take to get solar on a big scale in Ethiopia, do you think?

DESALEGN: We have some projects now we're working on. I think the cost of solar energy is now reducing because the technology is improving very much, but still it's a little [more] expensive than hydro, wind, and geothermal energy, but if the pace of technology improvement goes on this way we can get much better.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much for taking this time. Briefly, how do you feel about the negotiations? How are they going?

DESALEGN: The positions are better than the usual other COPs, but still we need to move very fast because Africa needs to reduce 1.5 degrees Centigrade temperature, compared with preindustrial revolution. This is very important. If we go even to two degrees Centigrade Africa will suffer, so I think we need to push very much the global community, especially the developed nations has to be very supportive in this regard.

KENYATTA: My name is Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya.

CURWOOD: How important is solar for the development of Kenya?

KENYATTA: Well, solar is indeed important because we have an abundance of it and that's why we are keen to participate together under this initiative to see how we can exploit that potential that we have. But the costs in the past have generally been very prohibitive, and we're very keen to therefore see how we can work with others both on accessing cheaper finance but also in tapping better technologies, cheaper technologies. Kenya has already made large investments in this particular sector, we now have about 100 or 150 megawatts of solar energy already connected to our grid. We're looking to expand my going forward. We have a couple of projects ranging from about 50 megawatts in different parts of the country and we're very keen to exploit this renewable source of energy which we have plenty to help us achieve our social, economic objectives.

CURWOOD: Tell me how you would use solar in Kenya. You have big cities, you have nomadic tribes people, it's such a diverse country. How would you best use solar, do you think?

KENYATTA: Well, solar would be the best mechanism to use, especially in areas that are off-grid, because the resource is there. So we think that therefore it's something that we should really take advantage of. It's something that you can tap and you don't really need the grid to get it to the people because the resource is where the people are.

Hailemariam Desalegn is the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. (Photo: Eric Miller/World Economic Forum, Wikimedia Commons CC)

CURWOOD: At the Copenhagen meeting I had a chat with Wangari Maathai, who is sadly missed, A, and, B, really determined of course to plant as many trees as possible. What do you think Wangari Maathai would say today about the solar initiative?

KENYATTA: I think she would be very keen. I mean, if there is a way to really save our environment, to stop our people from cutting forests in order to access firewood and other means of cooking energy and be able to use solar instead, it would go a long way towards achieving her dream of protecting our environment, protecting our forests. I think she would be a great supporter.

CURWOOD: And how do you feel about these negotiations? How are they going?

KENYATTA: Well, like I'm saying what we want is something that's legally binding and people to make commitments and to fulfill their obligations, and we're hoping that especially the big, the developing countries are going to be able to work with us in the developing world, make clear commitments. We need to be able to achieve the sustainable development goals that we accepted as an international community in New York in September of this year. We need that support, and we are also equally the biggest victims and yet we are the least contributions of emissions and other problems that affect our environment. So, our hope is that we can get legally binding commitments and a clear platform that is monitorable, manageable; and clear ways in which they are going to help provide the necessary resources that would allow especially the developing countries to achieve their developmental objectives.

CURWOOD: For some perspective on how the India-led solar initiative, as well as the COP21 negotiations, are seen back in India I caught up with Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of the Center for Science and the Environment based in New Delhi.

BHUSHAN: Solar is going to be very important for India, and I think Prime Minister Modi understands this. But he also understands that you need a global coalition to bring down the cost of solar and improve technology, because the current solar technologies is not a replacement for fossil fuels. We're still some time away from solar which will provide energy 24/7, and we will see the result of this coalition, this alliance, in the coming years.

CURWOOD: What about the plans to massively expand coal-fired power plants in India?

BHUSHAN: I think this entire issue has been blown out of proportion. India actually on a per capita basis uses coal which is one fourth of the US. US consumes about 800 million tons of coal compared to 600 million tons from India. And compared to close to more than two billion tons for China. So this entire coal issue that is talked about is blown out of proportion, considering the population and energy need of India. The second point is we are reaching a point on our energy journey where solar is becoming more and more affordable. For six hours today, solar is as cheap as coal. Now we have to convert that six hours into 24 hours. That's where storage will become important and our analysis at the Center for Science and Environment shows that is just a matter of time, maybe in the next 10 years, when solar storage will be as competitive as coal, and India doesn't need to build coal-based power plants. The third issue is, India doesn't have gas, which US has or Europe has, or Europe can get from Russia. A lot of developed countries have moved from coal to gas. That option is not available to us because of water issues, because of high-density of population. The government has taken a position that we're not going to go for shale gas, so we don't have gas. Therefore, the option for India is coal, which I believe is for the short-term. You will see India's coal consumption going down over a period of 15 [years], we will have started reducing, and renewables we will keep increasing. India is worried about coal itself because of local pollution issues, but if the world really wants to solve climate exchange it is not about anti-coal, it should be about anti-fossil fuel. You don't want to see a world where coal is replaced with gas. It's going to be equally disastrous for climate exchange.

CURWOOD: Some are pointing the finger at India as being obstructionist in these negotiations. Your views?

BHUSHAN: I think India is not obstructionist. I think India has a principled approach to climate change which can at times look obstructionist, but I very strongly believe that if you don't have a principled approach to a global common problem then you will not have universal, as well as ambitious, participation. So, for example, the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibility, which is now been viewed as obstruction by many developed countries, I believe is the bedrock off today and future climate agreement. You need to have common but differentiated responsibility so that people feel that these climate agreements are fair. If you have common but differentiated responsibilities, everyone feels that what they are being asked to do is fair and reasonable, you will have more people participating in it, you will have more enthusiasm in solving climate change. I was very glad to hear President Obama in his speech on Monday essentially saying that US accepts responsibility for causing climate change and he is willing to work on it. I think that is more than enough. I don't think India or any other country is looking for some sort of reparations from the US, we aren't looking for some historical guilt to be atoned, that's not the idea. The idea is that as a leader of the world, the largest economy in the world, we have a lot of hopes from the US. We believed that if US strong on climate change, it will drive the global agenda on climate change. The US approach right now is that we will have bottom up, do whatever you like approach, that approach is not going to keep temperatures below two degrees. We know the irony is that this is not adding up, that we are on path to 3.5 degrees temperature rise, and therefore we need to sit back and analyze whether this bottom up self-regulatory approach is going to work or not. Unfortunately it will not. And that principle-based approach is important and I encouraged my country and other developing countries to make sure we have a principle-based approach to these negotiations.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (Photo: Nairobi123/Government of Kenya, Wikimedia Commons CC)

CURWOOD: From your perspective, how is India doing in these negotiations?

BHUSHAN: I think India is in a very challenging position right now because on the one hand, we have a large number of poor people who are getting affected by climate change. So we have a huge concern on climate change, but we also have high aspirations. We have 60 percent of our population or more which is below the age of 35. Young people who need jobs are aspiring like any other country in the world, they are looking for jobs and they are looking for basic comforts, which I think should be the fundamental right of everyone. So India actually has to balance its climate position between concerns of climate change and aspirations of its people. So India is in a challenging position, but I also believe there is a concerted effort to actually show India in a poor light. I thought it was very unfortunate for Secretary of State John Kerry to say India is a challenge for climate change, a statement he made about two weeks back. I believe that the western media also is unfairly targeting India without understanding their concerns. It's very easy to say that India is the third largest polluter in the world, the fourth largest polluter. On a per capita basis we will be 134th in the world. So I believe that there are some unfair comments being made about India which is not helpful for negotiations. I believe that countries need to take each other's concerns into account and be polite about it, and then we can have a better outcome. In the current situation where it is almost like a blame game happening, I find the road ahead a little difficult.

Solar panels power a farm’s water pumps, lights, and more in Tamil Nadu, India. (Photo: PWRDF, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Overall, how do you feel these negotiations are going, stepping back and looking at the whole process, how does it feel to you here?

BHUSHAN: You know, negotiations right now are not exciting, there are no great ideas on the table. We are going back and forth on issues which I believe we should have resolved a year back. So I'm not very optimistic of a great deal coming out of Paris, but I'm also not pessimistic that we will not have a deal. We will have a deal, maybe will have a weak deal, maybe we will have a deal which allows us to fight another day.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking time with me today. Chandra Bhushan is Deputy Director General of the Center for Science and the Environment in India.

BHUSHAN: Thank you. Thank you very much. Nice to talk to you.



Working Paper On International Solar Alliance (ISA)

The International Solar Energy Alliance

India unveils global solar alliance of 120 countries at Paris climate summit

Center for Science and the Environment

Read more analysis from Chandra Bhushand about India's role in the climate talks

Video of Modi's speech to the COP21


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