The debates and discussions on climate change in India have mainly focused on the energy sector. This sector is a vital element in the developmental strategy of all countries, especially developing ones such as India.While the mainstream debates on the linkages between energy security and climate change have mostly emphasised the undesirable consequences of the energy transition for energy security, it is also important to highlight the numerous positives for India in its energy transition strategy. The gradual transition from conventional fossil fuels to non-conventional energy sources not only helps India achieve its climate change commitments and gain self-reliance to some extent, but also providesscope for India’s soft power projection.


The International Solar Alliance (ISA) and its role in India’s nation branding on a global scale is one prominent example that shows that energy transition strategy and soft power projection are linked in many cases. The ISA symbolises India’s willingness to don the role of a norm setter at the international level. Along with the ISA, there are many other private as well as public initiatives and projects that indicate the interconnectedness between India’s energy strategy and soft power projection.


India’s Energy Strategy and SDGs


There are many convergences between India’s energy transitiongoals and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Initiatives aimed at achieving these gaols have been launched not just by the government (and its agencies) but also non-governmental and private actors. One such initative is the Solar Mama project, initiated by Barefoot College,also known as the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), a voluntary organisation based in Rajasthan. It was founded in 1972 by Bunker Roy for skill development, women’s empowerment, and electrification via solar energy among others. The Barefoot College initiated the ‘Solar Mama’ project for solar power generation by providing suitable training programmes for skill development to women in India’s rural parts, assisting them to “build, install and maintain” solar panels and reduce dependence on fuelwood.


Solar Mama project is currently also a stakeholder in the achievement of SDGs such as ‘no poverty’, ‘gender equality’, ‘affordable and clean energy’, ‘decent work and economic growth’, ‘reduced inequalities’, ‘responsible consumption and production’, and ‘climate action’. The commitments of Solar Mama in achieving these seven SDGs created a greater platform for India to project its soft power within the international community by utilising energy initiatives. The project is also supported by the Indian Government. Nearly 2,700Solar Mamas from 96 countries and 15 states of India have been trained under the auspices of this initiave and collectively, they have installed solar systems that generate 1.4 MW of electricity annually. The initiative presently has its reach in developing and least developed Asian, African and Latin American countries. The success of the programme in power generation along with women’s empowerment has already gained global attention.


Furthermore, many other new ventures have been initiated in different states of India, which are aimed at women’s empowerment in which the central focus is on clean energy generation. For example, the ‘climate ready for women’ Kerala chapter has come up with an entrepreneurship development programme for women entrepreneurs in clean energy technology. Also, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) wing in Bihar successfully developed and installed solar lights in the state’s villages, as a part of SEWA Bharat project. All these programmes have gained attention from several quarters, including the international community and helped India boost its image by developing its capacity in clean energy as well as promoting women’s empowerment. Also, these programmes have assisted India in promoting its commitment towards fulfilling SDGs, especially with regard to SDG 1, 5, 7, 13 and 17. The aforementioned programmes are oriented towards coupling clean energy actions with gender equality objectives. 


India’s Growing Leadership in Global Energy Transition through the ISA


A major development with respect to India’s soft power and energy strategy is its growing leadership in the global energy transition. The establishment of the ISA has created a new face for India’s soft power potential. It can be argued that with this initiative, India has emerged as a norm giver in the international system, especially by combining ideas of ‘climate justice’ and ‘affordable energy for all’. From India’s part,the ISA is the first formal, intergovernmental institution established to address climate change. The ISA is a brainchild of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and it was inaugurated by him and French President Francois Hollande in 2015. The alliance currently has 85 signatories (out of which 57 have ratified). It was opened for signature in 2016 on the side-lines of the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) in Morocco.The ISA has embraced a policy that is comparatively less burdensomein terms of membershipobligations. There are “no binding pledges and no large dollops of state funding.” This is a huge leverage for investors, especially private players, which would also help the poor and least developed countries to adopt solar power projects.


Cooperation in the solar sector could significantly boost India’s overall soft power projection. The 2018 ISA Summit platform provided India a platform to project not only its commitments towards climate action but also a diplomatic victory in terms of bringing many countries as well as international, multinational and transnational organisations under the ISA’s belt. The ISA’s headquarters is situated in Gurgaon, Delhi. There are mainly three programmes under the ISA. They are: “scaling solar applications for agricultural use”, “affordable finance at scale”, and “scaling solar mini-grids”. These programmes primarily aim to espouse the cause of universal energy access and expedite economic development with sustainability.


Recent reports have surfaced that indicate China’s interest in being a part of the ISA. China’s entry into the ISA can be considered both positive and negative from India’s perspective. Currently, China is the largest producer and exporter of solar cells, owing to its dominance in rare earth elements (REE), including silicon (accounting for two-thirds of the global silicon production), that are required for the production of solar cells and panels. China’s entry into the ISA can open up an entry point for cooperation between India and China, and most importantly, China’s presence might help the ISA overcome a major challenge with respect to financial obstacles since it is an economic superhouse that can meet the financial requirements of the ISA. Also, China’s solar-electric panel industry is said to have “changed the economics of solar all over the world”, as it brought abouta reduction of nearly 80% (2008-2013) in the solar prices. Hence, in terms of financial and technological scale-up, China’s entry will only boost the status of the ISA. Nevertheless, India should be cautious with respect to the decision of including China in the ISA to avoid monopolisation.


India has attained success in vitalising its bilateral and multilateral relations with its partners by means of energy initiatives. Japan’s SB Energy’s (an affiliate of Soft Bank of Japan) decision to invest 30,000 crores in projects based on solar, wind and other non-conventional sources of energy in Gujarat corroborates the same. Also, India and the European Union (EU) have set up the India-EU energy panel, which mainly aims to boost cooperation between the two parties in the renewable energy sector. France and India already have established various levels of cooperation in the field. Apart from the ISA, French oil and gas giant Total has committed to investing in solar and wind power projects in India. India is also cooperating with technological giants from Germany to develop technologies such as long-lasting and better-performing batteries, electric vehicles etc. as a part of its energy transition strategy.


The Southeast Asian countries that are facing problems related to climate change have shown keenness to cooperate with the ISA in developing and advancing climate change mitigation options. As of now, only Myanmar has ratified the ISA and Cambodia is also a signatory to the alliance. This shows the possibility for India to widen its cooperation in the region. However, as observed by analysts, “The establishment of ISA by developing a strong relationship with France is indeed a positive sign, as is the case with a large number of countries that have already signed and ratified the ISA Charter. The suggested risk-pooling funding approach also has value, and the stated objectives of the ISA meet the needs of renewables in the developing world. But the biggest challenge is to transform the objectives into measurable results.”


The Road Ahead for India 


India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and one of the fastest-growing economies. It is therefore, not viable for India to shift towards a net zero-carbon emissions scenario at this stage. Furthermore, it is impossible to avoid the fact that India is still at a nascent stage with respect to transition towards renewables, especially taking into consideration the inadequate state of Research and Development (R&D) in this sector and the lack of financial capabilities. This can considerably hamper India’saspirations of achieving energy self-sufficiency through increased focus on renewable energy, even though India is one of the largest markets for renewable energy investments. Nevertheless, steps in the direction of advancing technologicaldevelopment and new initiatives under ‘Make in India’ can potentially enhance R&D efforts in this field considerably.


In the past few years, numerous new small and large renewable energy firms such as Artha Energy Resources (“India’s first platform for renewable energy assets”), ReNew Power (“India’s largest renewable energy Independent Power Producer”), and a few others have emerged in India. These developments reflect India’s enthusiasm and readiness to transition towards renewable energy on a larger scale. The establishment of the ISA has enhanced these aspirations and goals further. India is one of the major stakeholders in global climate action that can utilise its resources and ideas concerning energy transition for augmenting the soft power component of its foreign policy.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.