India’s huge solar uptake has boosted climate goals, says minister

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India’s huge solar uptake has boosted climate goals, says minister

Indian foreign secretary says price and popularity of renewables behind Modi’s 2070 net zero target

Solar panels installed in farmland at Vahelal village, near Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Last modified on Wed 3 Nov 2021 09.28 EDT

The staggering take-up of solar power in India has enabled the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to announce a more ambitious climate plan at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, according to the country’s foreign secretary.

India’s commitment to get half of its energy from renewables and to reach net zero by 2070 was arguably the most positive news from the opening phase of the UN gathering.

Some tried to portray this as the successful result of international pressure, diplomatic arm-twisting by the UK host and still-unfulfilled promises of financial support, but senior Indian officials said the decision was based on practical domestic considerations, in particular the unexpectedly fast expansion of photovoltaic energy.

“We voluntarily and unilaterally enhanced our commitments,” the foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, said. “It was very, very carefully thought through and considered.”

He said the take-up of solar power had been so quick that India’s original target of adding 175 gigawatts of capacity by 2030 was on course to be achieved eight years early. In response, the government had first upped the target to 450GW, and now, in Modi’s speech, to 500GW.

This was encouraging news, because it suggested the price and popularity of the technology was driving the pace of change far faster than planned by the government, which continues to support coal power. Shringla said it had put the 2070 net zero target in sight. “We have consistently met our targets and surpassed them,” he said. “These are the stepping stones for us to reach that net zero figure.” He predicted the gap between India’s peak emissions and net zero would prove the smallest of any country.

As an example of the spread of solar, he said he had recently seen many remote homes along the Brahmaputra river with photovoltaic panels, which residents had chosen because that was the cheapest and best way to power their homes, which were not otherwise connected to the grid.

On a macro level, the government plans to upgrade its energy infrastructure further and joined the UK and other countries this week in unveiling plans for a global network of interconnected solar power plants that could ensure the world is powered by sunlight. The One Sun, One World, One Grid plan envisages more investment and regulations to encourage cross-border transmission lines and shared renewable energy.

Until now, Shringla said India had funded its own expansion of clean energy. “We have to do what we do for our own country, our own people and future generations,” he said. But he emphasised that greater finance was needed to hasten the process in India and other developing nations.

The question, he said, was the amount of support. “It is clear that it is not in the billions, but in the trillions of dollars.” This did not all have to be grants, he said; it could also be zero- or low-interest concessional loans that help developing countries invest in renewables.

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