Sunshine alliance: long road ahead

Climate change, the quest for clean power resources and the need to balance growth trajectory are three tough factors in diplomatic manoeuvres for any nation. With India taking the lead in the International Solar Alliance (ISA) that shall soon acquire the status of an international treaty, there are other factors to be pondered over beyond the line of fascination.

It is held that the secretariat will be located in Gurugram, which is also in light of the recognition of India's leading role in forging this sunshine alliance that has even got China on the same board. No doubt, it is significant that the ISA will become a treaty-based international intergovernmental organisation but symbolism should not cover up vexed issues.

United States President Donald Trump has acted in a way that can be dubbed as 'climate sceptic'. To add to that, financial aid and technology transfer become problematic, too, with respect to such a hardline
stand by developed nations.

Further, the North-South unequal exchange in international political economy owing to the  difference in preferences is also evident in the fact that developed countries have historically given less funding to renewable energy projects in developing countries.  

From the pervasive problem of fluctuations in power supply, once solar panel comes on the grid to how people do not have the access and the know-how for sources of modern energy, the purported solar alliance needs more caution to be woven in its attempt for clean energy.

Any energy regime has to factor in demand and supply, means and ends trade-offs. In terms of implementation also, solar energy faces a dilemma as equipment costs may have come down over the years but customer acquisition is still an issue. There are bottlenecks to be addressed in transmission as well since no country has uniform availability of inputs from the sun across the rural-urban terrain. This systemic inflexibility may harm the functioning of this alliance and the treaty.

There is no clarity on whether multilateral development banks and other financial institutions will support solar projects without any bias or preference for one over the other. Storage mechanisms for solar power, too, need right upgradation.  

A non-traditional security dimension like climate change and global warming through burning of fossil fuels for heat and electricity show how the nature of threat and insecurity cuts across borders. This is no different from the anxious moments faced by Delhi and China because of their smoggy skies. However, all the best-laid plans fall flat when we account for the fact that hydrocarbons and coal still remain dominant in energy production.

Centre-state agreement

The world polity would want the solar alliance to be increasingly prominent in the provision of clean energy as a collective good. However, in order to meaningfully enable solar technologies, domestic policies may need to undergo constitutional changes as per law of the land. This should involve the right negotiation between Centre and state governments.

A non-serious attitude towards enforceable agreements among themselves or with states questions the efficacy of an organisation. Oil as the currency of power led to intractable conflicts. Now, with nations attempting to decarbonise, the ISA also has to work to minimise interstate conflict.  

Owing to the uncertainty brought in by climate change, renewable energy now goes beyond national parameters; it has global implications. The US may be significant in innovation but it is India and China which have huge markets to boost demands for it. Further, policy innovation will lead to lowering of costs.

While the purported alliance opens up new avenues for India, with the rise in ambitions of partner countries with time, these positives may hit a dead-end. With the ISA still in a formative stage, procedures to tap into funding and investment are crucial and should be defined in advance to avoid any blockades in functioning.  

It is indeed a great attempt to make universal energy accessible and affordable to all. With grandiose plans of Risk Mitigation Fund and starting a corpus of $1 billion, India should also try to fulfill the void created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which gave a clarion call on heating of atmospheric temperatures but did not devise any mechanisms for avenues to harness renewable energy.

This is why the ISA has to broaden its base for negotiation and ensure that investors, developers, academics and governments are all brought together for a decisive consensus.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, University of Delhi)

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