Let's make haste while the sun shines
In all the brouhaha about the Indo-US nuclear deal, not enough attention has been paid to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent announcement of a credible energy plan for India that goes way beyond the nuclear. By far the most welcome component of his six-point plan to increase the country's reliance on sustainable sources of energy was the prime minister's declaration that the development of India's capacity to tap the power of the sun would be central to the strategy. "In this strategy, the sun occupies centrestage," the PM memorably said, "as it should, being literally the original source of all energy. We will pool all our scientific, technical and managerial talents, with financial sources, to develop solar energy as a source of abundant energy to power our economy and to transform the lives of our people." Dr Singh added, and this was no hyperbole: "Our success in this endeavour will change the face of India." As a layman who has no particular competence to weigh in on the scientific aspects of the debate over climate change, I have often wondered why a country like India, with its abundance of natural sunshine, hasn't done more to focus on developing solar energy. The prime minister made it clear that India has no choice, over the next few years, but to move away from economic activity based on fossil fuels to a far greater use of non-fossil fuels. The price of oil alone is proof enough that we have to reduce our dependence on non-renewable (and dwindling) sources of carbon-based energy to renewable and sustainable sources instead. Of these, solar power is the most obvious one for India. But the existing technology is prohibitively expensive. Solar panels, made from silicon (which itself consumes non-renewable petroleum energy in its manufacture), cost 10 times the price of the cheapest fossil fuels. Indian scientists who have worked on reducing these costs are few and far between, and have little success to report. But with the new governmental emphasis on solar energy as a priority, a new research thrust ought to be feasible, given adequate government funding and tax incentives. It's interesting that all the pressure on India from the international climate change community has lain in the direction of cutting back on our country's carbon emissions. There's no doubt that Indian industry contributes to the global build-up of greenhouse gases, but as New Delhi has repeatedly pointed out, the bulk of that problem was created by 200 years of western industrialisation, to which India contributed little. Even today, Indian emissions, on a per capita basis, are amongst the lowest in the world. But the debate need not be conducted on that tediously familiar ground. Instead, there's a different point worth making: that of all the possible ways you could combat global warming, the least effective would be the path of simply cutting carbon dioxide emissions. That conclusion isn't mine: it comes from a panel of eight of the world's top economists, including five Nobel laureates, who were gathered together by the Copenhagen Consensus, a highly innovative mechanism put together by the smart young Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, author of a remarkable (and admittedly controversial) book called The Sceptical Environmentalist. Dr Lomborg convened the panel to examine worldwide research findings on the best ways to tackle 10 global challenges: air pollution, conflict, disease, global warming, hunger and malnutrition, lack of education, gender inequity, lack of water and sanitation, terrorism, and trade barriers. The panelists' job, as experts, was to examine, through a cost-benefit approach, a variety of possible solutions to each of these ten challenges. Lomborg set them an interesting challenge of their own: to create a list of priorities enumerating how, in their view, the sum of $800 billion could most effectively be spent over the next 100 years in tackling these problems. The results were fascinating. Lomborg's panel concluded that the least effective use of resources in slowing down the pace of global warming would be to spend $800 billion over 100 years solely on cutting back carbon emissions. Such action would, they determined, reduce the planet's unavoidable increases in temperature by less than 0.2 degrees centigrade by the end of this century. Even taking into account the environmental damage that would be caused by the persistence of global warming, the world would in fact be able to prevent only $685 billion worth of damage — while spending $800 billion in the attempt. The Copenhagen Consensus economists did not draw the conclusion from this that the world should ignore the problem — the effects of climate change are too serious to be neglected. Instead, they concluded that a more effective response than the attempt to reduce emissions would be to significantly increase research on, and the development of, other energy sources than carbon — such as solar energy and (though this would be less welcome in India, where agriculture is meant to feed people, not run their cars) second-generation biofuels. "Even if every nation spent 0.05% of its gross domestic product on research and development of low-carbon energy," Dr Lomborg argues, "this would be only about one-tenth as costly as the Kyoto Protocol and would save dramatically more than any of Kyoto's likely successors." India can afford to spend that 0.05% — and what's more, we have trained scientists and engineers who, given the proper incentives, can take the challenge on. The scale of India's energy needs, and the abundance of sunshine, should also mean that we should be able to benefit from economies of scale unavailable to smaller countries. There is no question that nuclear efforts are essential as well, which is why the government should be applauded for seeking to end India's nuclear pariah status (currently, our nuclear scientists cannot even get visas to a number of countries as a result of the post-Pokhran sanctions) and to put the country on the road to energy self-sufficiency. But equally, we need to do everything we can to ensure that solar energy should be able to rival nuclear energy in contributing to India's needs by 2020. "Our vision is to make India's economic development energy efficient," the PM said as he announced the energy plan. "Our people have a right to economic and social development and to discard the ignominy of widespread poverty." He's right. May the sun illuminate the way forward.