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Why India is the key to the world's climate future
If the nation can leapfrog fossil fuels, the benefits would be enormous
 
Technologies such as solar panels could help India leapfrog other countries on the energy front.
Technologies such as solar panels could help India leapfrog other countries on the energy front. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

The future of climate change is largely about China and India. Their populations are gigantic, their economies are growing fast, and their potential emissions growth could completely swamp anything else that happens in the world. The United States must act as well, but as I've argued before, it's mainly in the service of obtaining an international climate agreement.

Therefore, choices that policymakers in those countries make today will have enormous climate effects over the next few decades. New coal-fired power plants, for instance, will last for many years, and it will be hard to avoid using them. But should these nations manage to leapfrog the traditional fossil-fuel-driven stage of the economic growth path, the climate benefits could be enormous.

China is substantially ahead on the industrialization curve (its policy will be more about reducing emissions than avoiding them), so the choices India is making right now are correspondingly more important for future climate effects. That's the light in which you should read this fascinating report from Andrew Satter on solar-based rural electrification in India:

Yet it is here, as I watch employees of one of the country's many fast-growing clean energy startups install solar panels on a local villager's roof — their sixth installation of the day — that I realize I am witnessing something transformational. It is a glimpse into the future of how the world's rural poor could access electricity: off-grid, distributed, renewable, and most importantly, affordable. It's happening all over rural India and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and is turning the entire narrative around energy and development on its head. [Climate Progress]

Ironically, the janky and unreliable nature of the country's energy grid (a couple years ago India witnessed the largest power failure in history, leaving over 700 million people without electricity) is something of an advantage to these solar installers. Cheap individual installations are more useful to people whose regular grid power goes down all the time, or who don't have a grid connection at all – of which there are roughly 400 million.

Newly elected President Narendra Modi has promised to get every home in India electrified by 2019, and says he's going to use largely solar to do it. Climate change isn't the only reason to move toward solar: India's power portfolio so far is over half coal, and they are constantly struggling to secure enough supplies to keep the lights on. Solar could ease that pressure, in addition to reducing the usual panoply of coal-fired illnesses.

It's a worthy goal, though as Neil Bhatiya explains, they'll still have to fix the grid and modernize their policy framework (in particular, reducing made-in-India requirements for generation equipment). Luckily, as the price of solar continues to plummet, the kind of massive solar deployment needed will get cheaper and cheaper.

In the end, a big deployment of solar and other renewables (or nuclear) will be a very tough task for the Indian government, which is pretty slow and corrupt at the best of times. But it's also worth emphasizing that India is even more vulnerable than China to damage caused by climate change. The country has an existential interest in getting its energy house in order, and I judge that it's well within the realm of the possible.

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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