Modi-Macron moment: The real Belt and Road Initiative

March 08
14:52 2018

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of the world’s fastest-growing economy, and Emmanuel Macron, President of the world’s most aggressive climate change saviour, have a rendezvous starting from March 9 in New Delhi.

They truly represent the strongest redeemers of the world’s most formidable challenges of today — climate change, terrorism and inequality. And no one knows more than these two leaders that combating these three enemies would require tremendous political will and resources. That is because confronting them is not an exercise of three separate encounters on three fronts. They are interlinked and complex clusters. Climate change is aggravating inequality that drives terrorism — creating a vicious spiral of storms.

The good news is that the two leaders are compatible and likeminded. Macron is a great listener and keen to learn from elders like Modi. And Modi is a staunch believer that young leaders like Macron would be tomorrow’s stewards to steer the world in the right direction in the milieu of a political quagmire. Modi is innovative and Macron is inventive.

That combination of attributes of these two leaders is giving shape to one of the path-breaking projects that has emerged from Modi’s brave innovative initiative — the International Solar Alliance (ISA) .

With 1,000 GW of solar installations targeted globally by 2030 with proposed funds of $1 trillion, the basic concept of the alliance is to pool together international collaboration for research, technology, best practices and standards on solar energy, including improving solar cell efficiency, material research and policies. ISA entered into force on December 6, 2017, after 15 countries ratified it. ISA heralds a new era of partnerships and collective actions to combat the effects of climate change, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce air pollution.

The region between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn — to which the ISA is confined — is really the “sunshine belt” around the Earth. The countries in this belt receive the most solar energy among the 196 countries in the world. Modi has scored over a strategic and diplomatic tactic of China’s President Xi Jinping, who has almost concurrently flagged the OBOR — One Belt One Road initiative. The ISA, a real belt of 121 countries, stands out in comparison with the OBOR initiative (now renamed Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI) on two counts.

Firstly, the BRI is aimed at enhancing connectivity for a quantum jump in trade, mainly between China and 68 other countries, without specific acknowledgement of the environmental impact of such a jump. The ISA aims at sustainable development of the 121 countries in the tropical belt. Then, the BRI is viewed by many as a project led by one country with its hidden interests. The ISA is a bilateral initiative of India and France that has now transformed into an inter-governmental treaty with voting mandates, leveraging the principles of the United Nations. Clearly, it is a wider and honest effort towards sustainable development.

Nature indeed plays a great balancer. Rich countries, mainly outside the belt of the Tropics, are replete with finance and weapon power whereas ISA countries are endowed with bright sunlight. The economic revolution in the oil-rich countries in the 1970s is likely to be repeated in the sun-rich countries — this time without any climate change impact. In fact, ISA would be the correction factor to the climatic damage done by OPEC countries.

Any country in the world, even outside the tropical belt, can join the ISA, except that those lying outside the Tropics would not have voting rights. Thus, France and recently joined Australia would not be voting. It is great experiment of a real multi-lateral treaty resulting from bilateral ingenuity.

The timing of the official launch of the initiative cannot be better. The prices of electricity from solar energy are reaching parity with the electricity produced by fossil fuels. The latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that the global investment in renewable energy over the last three years is more than that in fossil fuels. The employment generated in the renewable energy sector is more than in that of fossil fuels. Some experts say that increasing and intensifying trade wars and anti-dumping appeals on solar panels around the world are signs that trade in solar panels is “pole-vaulting”.

Clearly, the Modi-Macron mega moment has arrived.

The impending risk, however, is that unrelated political debates and military deals are likely to overshadow this aspiring global initiative. Numbers like three additional Scorpene submarines and 36 Rafale fighters are likely to take over, particularly in India’s argumentative and democratic media.

Yet another risk is the usual pitfalls of inter-governmental process well-known in the United Nations arena. Each of the 121 countries has one vote but also a stand-alone opinion. That may delay the decisions on joint research on solar cell efficiencies and storage technologies as well as allotment of funding for various projects.

It is important to recognise that there are a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that ISA can achieve. Its contribution to energy for all and climate change and eradicating poverty would be significant.

The key to success, however, is linking ISA to the common man at the bottom of the pyramid. What is more relevant for India is not to push ISA to meet its own pledges at the Paris climate agreement or its own renewable energy targets of 175 GW, but to anchor its efforts to mainstream solar and wind energy into all strata of society.

Emphasis on using solar power not only in the building sector but also in sectors that are socially important like agriculture, health, SMEs, IT industry and university campuses should be the key. It is important that ISA not only targets the funding and gigawatt targets but takes the targets to rural areas through solar vaccine coolers, solar vegetable cold storages, solar schools and solar colleges.

India and France should also set up an example by encouraging solar cell and panel manufacturing in the Tropical Belt countries and supporting the fair and just practices in trade in products related to solar energy.

It will not be an exaggeration to state that ISA, if it works smoothly and shows promise, can be a well deserving candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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