Will India be blessed - or cursed - by the sun?

India must harness its abundant sunshine to shift to a clean energy economy or risk suffering at the hands of climate change, says 350.org president Bill McKibben.

allahabad sunset
The sun casts an orange glow over Allahabad, India. Some villages in India have seen energy bills drop dramatically with the introduction of solar powered microgrids. Image: Nila Newsom / Shutterstock.com

There’s no denying that the planet’s in a bad place: 2014 seems likely to be the hottest year ever recorded globally, and it’s brought with it tremendous drought in much of the Americas (Sao Paulo, the 7th largest in the city in the world, is weeks away from running dry) and crazy flooding across swaths of Asia.

The world watched in horror at the pictures from Kashmir and before that Uttarahkand, but by now that kind of horror is growing routine. In 2013 it was the Philippines, in 2012 New York City. In 2015 it will be somewhere else – probably many somewheres. That’s what happens on a superheated planet.

But if the planet’s in a tough place, India’s in a sweet spot. It stands poised to become the first big country to really leapfrog the fossil fuel age – to move from smoggy cities perennially suffering from brownouts and instead move to a future powered by the wind and sun.

You can see it in places like Bihar, where Dharnai village went overnight from no electricity at all to a solar-powered micro-grid. People went from paying 200 rupees a month for kerosene to power their lights to 75 rupees for the warm glow of the electric bulb.

And you can also see it in places like Andhra Pradesh, where last week a tender for bids on a huge power plant drew bids from every kind of provider. There were coal plants, for instance, who have always been thought of as the cheapest power producers on earth, since they don’t have to account for the damage their smoke does to the atmosphere or to the public health.

But now they can’t compete even on price: they were underbid by First Solar by two cents a kilowatt hour. That’s a lot – it demonstrates how powerfully the momentum is changing.

India will be hit hard as the temperature rises. And India – in energy terms – has the advantage of being a young nation. It could help show this planet the way forward to a world powered from above, not below!

The price of solar panels has dropped 98 percent in the last 40 years. It’s clearly the energy of the future – and India is clearly perfectly situated to take advantage. Because, in my travels from one end of the country to the other, I’ve always been impressed by just how much the sun shines. From Kerala to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, it’s a country blessed by the sun.

If we don’t take advantage soon, however, it will be a country cursed by the sun. Already, experts say, the extra heat and humidity caused by global warming has cut the amount of work a human can do in the outdoors by 10 percent; by mid-century that figure could be 30 percent. So we have to get to work to make sure that we get off coal, gas, and oil with the greatest possible speed.

That will require governments to lead. Too often our leaders are inclined to help the rich industries that have helped put them in office; in the U.S. many of us have had to go to jail outside Barack Obama’s White House to stop him from exporting filthy tar sands oil from Canada. So far our protests have been successful, and now they’re spreading.

In Australia last month, for instance, natives of 12 Pacific Island nations that may soon disappear beneath the rising sea blockaded the world’s biggest coal port with their traditional canoes; it was one of the most beautiful and symbolic actions since Gandhi’s salt march.

But here’s the thing: much of the coal from that Australian port was destined for India. A kind of coal-onialism is spreading everywhere.

Climate change is not India’s fault. It’s only in recent years that it’s begun to burn big quantities of fossil fuel, and it will never catch up with the worst sinners like the U.S. 

But nature plays no favors. India will be hit hard as the temperature rises. And India – in energy terms – has the advantage of being a young nation. It could help show this planet the way forward to a world powered from above, not below!

Bill McKibben is the president of 350.org. This post was originally published on the Thomson Reuters Foundation Alternet.

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