COP21, day two: India’s climate policy under the microscope

India’s commitment to renewables is at odds with a refusal to subject its targets to external scrutiny

Leaders pose for the Heads of State family portrait at the COP21 - which featured speeches from over 140 leaders on day one

The opening day of COP21 was best characterised by the Heads of State family portrait, in which world leaders posed side-by-side for what was the largest gathering of heads of state on record. In it, the subjects appear united in a common fight against climate change, yet there are divisions lurking beneath the surface.

World leaders posed side-by-side for what was the largest gathering of heads of state on record

Day one featured speeches from over 140 leaders, starting with President Ollanta Humala Tasso of Peru and ending with Deputy Prime Minister Christopher Claude Emelee of Vanuatu. And while the day consisted mostly of sound bites and generalities, there was time for one important announcement when India’s Nahendra Modi unveiled the International Solar Alliance (ISA).

“Solar energy is a practical and efficient way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions,” according to a statement released by the Indian government. Launched on November 30, the ISA invites all countries between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn to partake in what is a limitless energy opportunity and a major milestone on the road to a low carbon future. The aim: to bring clean and affordable energy to all.

The ISA’s collective ambitions are to reduce the cost of solar technology and secure additional financing to support the development of supportive generation and storage technologies. Regulatory and personnel issues will also factor into the mix, as the body looks to deliver on the promise of universal energy access.

Speaking at a press conference in Paris, Hollande said of the ISA: “What we are putting in place is an avant garde of countries that believe in renewable energies.” The body’s membership is made up mostly of countries from the tropics, yet France and other European nations number among the membership. “What we are showing here is an illustration of the future Paris accord, as this initiative gives meaning to sharing technology and mobilising financial resources in an example of what we wish to do in the course of the climate conference.”

The ISA could well succeed in connecting peripheral communities to renewable energy, and remote areas in India for which access to the grid is not an option will welcome solar power with open arms. The country has long seen solar as a key component of its national energy strategy, having already sketched out plans to reach 100GW of solar capacity by the year 2022.

Looking at India’s INDC, the country has pledged to up renewables share of the energy mix to 40 percent and slash CO2 emissions by 35 percent (on 2005 levels) by 2030, by which time it will play host to the world’s largest population. This, together with the fact that 300 millions Indians are without reliable access to electricity, is testament to the scale of the task at hand, and the targets underline the seriousness with which policymakers there are treating climate change.

However, some see the country’s stance on climate change in a less favourable light, owing to India’s refusal to accept a cap on emissions. Modi, in his opening day remarks, made a plea on behalf of emerging markets that they be allowed “enough room to grow”, and that they not handicapped by those intent on forcing conventionals into early retirement. While India’s renewables targets are more ambitious than both the EU and US, the country stops short of naming an exact date from which its emissions will decline.

This refusal feeds into the question of whether fast-growing emerging economies can address the issue of energy poverty without a commitment – however slight – to fossil fuels. Expect to see the issue raise its head again before the two weeks are up.

While representatives from over 190 countries gather in Paris to reach a shared agreement on climate change, The New Economy will be at the Sustainable Innovation Forum to expand on the role and responsibilities of business. Check back for video updates from the event as they happen.