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Green Transformation: A Win-Win Opportunity for India

The craziness of western arrogance was at full display during the climate conference in Glasgow last year. India argued that the world should phase down rather than phase out coal, a small, hardly significant change of wording. Some western media, NGOs and politicians came down on India, blaming India for lack of climate courage and claiming that India was blocking progress.

Image Credit: PMO

Few focused on the fact that North American historical climate emissions are more than 25 times than Indian. Even today the US emits eight times more than India per capita every year.

India has no reason to accept blame. But India has all the reasons to adopt a new win - win formula for a greener future. Climate action is not a problem to India and even less a cost. It’s an enormous opportunity for Indian triple wins. Creating prosperity, making Indian lives better, protecting Mother Earth.

For many decades the debate in India was simple: Do we want to develop or do we want to care for the environment?

Economists argued that rapid development would always come with costs to mother earth while environmentalists countered that we should put the planet first. The economist always won this debate. Not surprisingly for nearly all Indians rapid development, bringing Indians out of poverty, was the number one priority.

This discussion now smells so much of the 20th century. From the industrial revolution untill recently no nation could develop fast and protect the environment at the same time. Industrialization came with an assault in nature. Economic growth was based on fossil fuels, coal in particular. The pattern was the same everywhere - rapid economic growth with a lot of harm both to the workforce and to the environment. When a country had become rich it started caring for the environment. This was true first in the UK, then in Germany and the rest of Europe, in North America, in Japan and Korea and most lately in China.

The good news in the 21st century is that for the first time in human history a new development paradigm is possible. The win - lose debate where you had to choose between development and environment is replaced by the win - win opportunity where rapid parallel progress on both economy and ecology can establish an ecological civilization. Climate change and the environment crisis become an opportunity for jobs and prosperity.

At the core of this change is the drop in price of renewables. When the world came together for the famous disaster of climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 all focus was on climate diplomacy. No one talked about the climate economy. I cannot remember anyone even hinting to a future with a 90% fall in the price of solar energy.

Thanks mainly to China but also to India solar energy is now cheaper than coal everywhere. Solar energy in India is indeed the cheapest energy which has ever existed on the planet. Going solar brings more jobs and saves money.

No one has understood this better than Prime Minister Modi. He has cast around the Indian debate from win-lose to win win. When my good friend Jairam Ramesh came back from climate talks during the time of Congress rule he was normally always accused of "selling out". If he had agreed to common positions during the talks, domestic critics claimed that he had not fought hard enough for Indian development. Now fortunately, it's all about the win - wins.

India is a global leader in solar energy. With president Macron of France prime minister Modi formed the International Solar Alliance to support the global solar economy. India is home to the first all solar airport in the world in Kochi, Kerala and the first all solar rail station in Assam. Some of the largest concentrated solar plants on the planet are hosted in states like Rajasthan, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Roof top solar provides energy for homes and village businesses in Uttar Pradesh and many other states.

When Prime Minister Modi recently launched a green hydrogen mission for India the response was univocal and promising. Two of the tycoons of Indian business, Ambani from Mumbai and Adani from Ahmedabad put enormous amounts of rupees on the table for green hydrogen. Many smaller enterprises reacted in unison.

The war in Ukraine will supercharge this move towards energy independence. India does not share the European focus on independence from Russia. But nearly all oil and gas consumed in India is imported. Volatile and high prices create a huge burden for the Indian economy. The sun, the wind and the waterfalls are all Indian, all domestic. Every megawatt of energy produced by solar rather than imported oil creates jobs in India and saves money for better use for the people of India.

Agriculture is next to renewables in importance for the green transition of India. Andhra Pradesh shows the way, with Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh and others following. The Zero Budget Natural Farming program in Andhra is the world leading charge towards green agriculture. One million farmers, six million people, have made the move from traditional chemical heavy agriculture into a future where pesticides and fertilizer are reduced or avoided. They are replaced by a scientific mix of cow dung and cow urine, with use of residues from previous harvests as fertilizer. Insect repellant plants replace pesticides. The result is better yields and income for farmers, improved health and better care for soil. The Andhra program is called a pilot. But it is already encompassing more people than the inhabitants of my nation Norway. Soon all farmers in Andhra may join. Prime Minister Modi has highlighted this great initiative as a model for India.

This summer Sadhguru, the most inspiring spiritual leader from Coimbatore, embarked upon an epic motorbike ride from London to Delhi to bring attention to the need to save soil. If we destroy soil, we destroy life, he says Andhra Pradesh shows how we can act better and smarter.

Treeplanting and greening of landscapes add to the benefits of better farming. Telangana is an Indian and global frontrunner in treeplanting. The state has increased its tree cover by three percent over a few years. Hyderabad has been awarded title as a Tree City of the World. I was very impressed visiting its beautiful urban forests and parks. The greening of such a megacity is a great example of win - win policies. Hyderabad becomes more attractive for its citizens and for tourists while at the same time contributing to climate mitigation and pollution control.

Electric mobility adds to renewables, eco agriculture and tree planting as a fourth pillar in a green and climate friendly India. Aaditya Thackeray, the very ambitious environment minister of Maharashtra is launching green developments by the day. I had the privilege last year to join him launching electric buses for Mumbai. In a few years all buses in Mumbai will run on electric power - a wide variety of vehicles from minibuses to two storey buses. The state of Maharashtra has also developed a policy for the shift into electric personal vehicles, two, three and four wheelers. The state will help establish a network of charging stations to facilitate the transformation. Experience from Norway shows exactly this. Initially you ned government regulations to drive the change. When a critical mass of electric vehicles is reached the market tales obver.

Buses for Mumbai are produced by Tata in Pune. So it's a win - win. Good for jobs and the economy, good for our fight against the triple environment crisis of climate change, pollution and nature destruction.

When India now acts decisively to combat the climate crisis its of course not only because it provides a great economic and ecological opportunities. It is also because India is more vulnerable than most to climate change.

This summer has seen unprecented heat waves in already warm northern India. The last years have recorded serious floods and cyclones. Most seriously of all is a worrying pattern of melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas. If under the worst of circumstances the Himalayan glaciers were to disappear, many of the great Asian rivers will be seasonal rivers with horrifying consequences for hundred of millions of people along Ganga and other waterways.

But while the climate prospects are troubling, there are also reasons for optimism. Natural catastrophies will be more frequent, but they will be much less deadly than in the past. India has a strong state and vibrant civil society which will help people handle crises. We saw this on display in 2019 during cyclone Fani in Odisha. It was one of the worst cyclones hitting India in modern time, but killed very few people. India weather forecasting was precise and gave exact warning on the landfall of the cyclone. The responsible chief minister of Odisha mobilized transport to get a million people out of the danger zone. Noone died after they cyclon from the twin warriors of the past - hunger and disease.

Adding to the domestic benefits, climate action will also help India in global geopolitics. China last year produced 80% of all solar panels, 70% of all electric batteries and 80% of all new hydropower. Around 70% of all green high speed trains are running on Chinese tracks and 99% of all electric buses running on Chinese roads. China is on course to become the green superpower of the 21st century. But India can cooperate with China and compete with China. India will soon be the worlds second biggest solar power. The young population and the current higher economic growth give India "longterm" advantages.

At the first global environment conference in Stockholm in 1972, Indira Gandhi gave a passionate speech recalling how she in her youth felt the kinship with nature, with birds, plants and stones. She famously hammered in that poverty is the greatest polluter. Now, 50 years later, we must make the same link between development and environment as Indira Gandhi, but with an optimistic tweak. We have all the policies, technologies and finances needed to develop fast while caring for the planet. The future is win - win.

{Erik Solheim is a Norwegian diplomat and former politician. He served in the Norwegian government from 2005 to 2012 as Minister of International Development and Minister of the Environment, and as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) from 2016 to 2018}

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