What the US can learn from India on climate change and energy access

India’s Prime Minister Modi recently said it would be “morally criminal” not to act against global warming. He’s right, says the Rockefeller Foundation’s Rajiv Shah.

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with President Donald Trump this week in Washington, it will be a telling encounter – not only for the US-India relationship, but for the future of global action on climate change and renewable energy.

In this, they are polar opposites: as the US government is rejecting clean energy investment and sustainability around the globe, the Indian government has been pushing for an energy revolution.

Indeed, with the United States’ retreat from the Paris climate agreement leaving a void in global leadership, it may be Prime Minister Modi – with his bold renewable energy agenda, “power for all” commitment, and push for widespread adoption of LED light bulbs – who steps up to the plate. He recently said it would be “morally criminal” not to act against global warming. He’s right.

From my experience as a member of the Obama administration, I know how seriously Prime Minister Modi takes power and energy. When he first visited the White House in 2014, he told us it was his number-one issue for India’s development.

While India and America did set different benchmarks under the Paris agreement, critics of this miss the point: the countries are at very different stages of economic development, and therefore face different challenges that are directly linked to their economic maturity.

Here’s why. More than 230 million Indian citizens, most in rural areas, are locked out of the modern economy because they lack sufficient access to electricity to power their daily lives, communities and businesses.

This means if children want to read or study after dark, they are forced to use kerosene lamps that are a fire hazard and an extremely poor source of illumination. Men, women and children are subjected to unlit roads, forcing them to navigate decrepit infrastructure as they set out for work and school before dawn.                                 

India is not alone. Many other emerging economies hunger for power that can help their citizens lift themselves out of poverty and reach their full potential. Because if you provide reliable and sufficient electricity, social and economic development will follow.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Smart Power for Rural Development programme in India is creating a not-for-profit partnership with entrepreneurs, governments, and scientists that is bringing innovative renewable electricity solutions to rural villages.

We identify villages where solar energy can be routed, through a mini-grid, to homes and businesses while also providing power to nearby cell phone towers. Because of these partnerships, today India has the largest cluster of these renewable energy mini-grids, which now reach more than 110 villages and have changed lives for 40,000 people.

In village after village, the results are promising. With tools and machines powered by reliable electricity, carpenters and tailors have more than doubled their productivity. Dairy farmers built cold storage facilities to keep fresh farm produce from spoiling overnight, letting them sell more at the market. Entrepreneurs have opened car washes, water purification and delivery systems, and computer training centers.

In dozens of villages, these families are now moving themselves out of poverty through their own hard work and enterprise.

Our work in India proves how innovative public-private partnerships can still bring people together to tackle tough problems, even one as seemingly complex as combating global warming and poverty at the same time.

In that spirit, leaders from US businesses, cities, state and local governments, community organisations, philanthropy, and other parts of our society should come together and recommit to a renewable energy revolution in America – regardless of how the Trump administration feels about the Paris agreement. 

Our work in India proves how innovative public-private partnerships can still bring people together to tackle tough problems, even one as seemingly complex as combating global warming and poverty at the same time.

Several states have been racing to harness the economic and jobs potential from renewable energy sources, including Republican-led states like Kansas and Oklahoma. A year or two from now, some may even generate as much as 50 per cent of their electricity from wind power. Apple recently invest $1 billion in clean energy, and Facebook and Microsoft committed $50 million to renewable energy microgrids. We should keep up and build on this progress.

Prime Minister Modi should be recognised for his leadership. Large-scale programmes on solar, wind, and hydro power will redefine India’s emerging role as a leader in clean energy, and our work together on behalf of the poorest Indian families will change the lives of tens of millions of people. If he continues to succeed, his will be an incredible legacy.

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