India and France have partnered to start a solar revolution and will undertake the first ever summit of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) here on Sunday. Inaugurated by the visiting guest of state France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ISA is set out to sail on clean energy.

For India, ISA is a means to get itself on the positive side of the climate debate where most developing countries find themselves on the back foot. While India tries to become the beacon-holder for developing nations in clean energy, France is looking for markets to sell its innovations and try to bridge the gap that has been left open by the exit of the United States  from the Paris Agreement. 

France-India’s partnership on environment can also be seen reflected in President Macron’s visit to India. 

While there are other countries which are acing the green energy race, India chose to partner with France for strategic and diplomatic reasons. Though ISA is India’s brainchild, France’s involvement is seen as a default requirement since the Paris Summit is an initiative majorly led by France.

Dhanasree Jayaram, project associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group, said, “Nonetheless, it won’t be unfounded to say that it is France that needs India more right now. France is not the world’s best innovator in green energy, but it still is one of the best. So it is a good trade opportunity for France to export green technology to India and member countries of ISA.”

France has publicly addressed the concerns of scientists who have been rendered jobless or are on the verge because of US’ exit from the Paris Agreement. Macron recently even promised jobs for people in environment technology.  

Geo-politically, ISA is one more way for France to strengthen its ties with India for a better cooperation in maritime security and trade. The cooperation in solar energy comes in the backdrop of deepening of India-France relations in energy security, nuclear deal, and naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, India needs new partners within the EU that will help trade and investment. France can take this place, such that Indian manufacturers can take advantage of free trade within the EU.

As a climate diplomacy tool for India, ISA has crucial administrative challenges to tackle at home.  Vivan Sharan, partner, Koan advisory group, said, “Our National Solar Mission has gone stagnant; there is no grid parity and tariff is still a crucial concern. To be used as a geopolitical tool, the MEA is responsible for indulging in climate negotiations and not the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). But we hardly see the MEA being dedicated full-time on this front. We can hope for this to undergo change with the ISA.”

Another challenge for the ISA is the threat of increased protectionism. The US imposed a 30% tariff on solar panels and cells imported from China. India had also considered a 70% safeguard duty on solar panel and cells imports from China, which fortunately did not go through. However, the Indian solar manufacturers have filed a fresh anti-dumping petition recently, to which the industry observers say that the government should not accede. 

Some are of the view that India should not try to protect its domestic solar manufacturers. Anupam Manur, research fellow, Takshashila Institution, said, “The key focus should be on having a sustainable and inexpensive power source. If China, Taiwan, and Malaysia can provide this at low cost, India shouldn’t block this. In fact, India should strongly argue for lowering all trade barriers on renewable energy.”

ISA is the first ever treaty recognised by the United Nations and is headquartered in India, thus putting the onus of success on India’s shoulders. An impressive number of 121 countries—almost all the countries that are loacted between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn—have joined the alliance led by India. 

Jayaram said, “The reason why India has found support from fellow developing nations is because of its pro-clean energy tone that does not get tangled with emission reduction. We are focusing more on propagating clean energy to help make a difference in environment protection.”

The Solar Mamas in Tanzania are one example of India’s strategy to fight climate change by promoting alternative sources of energy and how India’s know-how in solar energy can benefit fellow members of the ISA. The Solar Mamas is a group of African women trained at the Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan, in fabrication, installation, use, repair and maintenance of solar lanterns and household solar lighting under Government of India supported programmes. Other than strengthening bilateral relations with France and promoting green energy in developing nations, ISA is a means for India to make deeper inroads with countries in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. 

Manur said, “With the increased presence of China in the African continent, India seems to be lagging behind. This is an opportunity for India to play a larger role in Africa. Like India, Africa needs energy security and solar/renewable energy definitely has potential. Over time, India can use the expertise gained from partnership with France to export many of these products to Africa and compete on the world stage.”

However, a source in the MEA said, “India’s efforts at foreign policy cannot be solely looked at from ‘the China-prism’. ISA is an example of pro-active diplomacy done by India in Africa and Oceania. Environment is a crucial tool in foreign policy and India is tapping the potential it has to strengthen its ties.”