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Indian elections: What does it mean for climate?

Indian Elections

Narendra Modi became India’s new Prime Minister in a landslide victory last week. Creative Common: Al Jazeera English, 2009

India, the world’s third largest emitter has a new prime minister, and with a timely re-commitment to solar energy many commentators believe the change in government could be a positive move for the climate. Others, however, remain to be convinced.

This year’s elections have been seen as a monumental moment for Indian politics.

A landslide victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – winning 272 seats – the scale of the win was gigantic in India’s fractured polity, where no party has managed to get a simple majority since 1984.

Commentators have hailed the results a “thumping endorsement” for the BJP’s charismatic and controversial prime minister candidate Narendra Modi.

With a strong history of supporting clean energy – and strong support for ambitious climate policy and renewable investment in the BJP’s manifesto – Prime Minister Modi’s leadership has been welcomed by some as having the potential to accelerate a new era of green growth.

As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi oversaw the creation of over 900 MW of solar power capacity in the state – more than a third of the total capacity in the entire country.

Wind was also seen to rise under his leadership.

Krishnan Pallasanna, India Director of the Climate Group said:

We are optimistic that the government will face the challenges of a low carbon growth paradigm head on, putting renewable energy business at the top of their economic agenda, and demonstrating political commitment toward a clear and progressive policy framework for low carbon business to flourish.

With the new government expected to boost economic growth through next level reforms,there is a now or never opportunity that begs to be exploited; the opportunity to showcase and champion a low carbon growth model. Demand for clean energy in India is huge, is growing and has the potential to change the lives of millions of energy-deprived Indians. 

One party official has already re-confirmed the new government’s commitment to solar power, saying it plans to take lessosn from Guharat’s programme, and harness clean, solar energy to enable every home to run at least on light bulb by 2019.

“We look upon solar as having the potential to completely transform the way we look at the energy space”, Narendra Taneja, convenor of the energy division at the BJP told Bloomberg.

With around 400 million people still living without access to electricity in India – that’s more than the combined population of the US and Canada – Taneja says expanding clean-power generation will be the administration’s top energy-related priority.

Not only will solar help supply millions of scattered households, not connected to the grid, with energy, but also has the potential to create jobs across the country.

Tanaja said if successful the five-year goal could see solar panels allow every home to have enough power to run two lightbulbs, a solar cooker and a television.

The future of coal

While the solar announcement is welcomed, the world will closely be watching what other energy pathways the country may now head down.

While the BJP’s election manifesto promised to “generate more, use rationally, waste less” when it came to energy, what energy sources Modi chooses to pursue could help determine the planet’s chance of staying within safe level of global warming.

“The question is what won’t they do as much as what will they do,” Nitin Pandit, managing director of World Resources Institute India told RTCC.

He warned that as Modi seeks a ferocious push towards national development, he could find it hard to reject the development of proposals that look “wonderful on paper.”

While the manifesto promised to “pursue national growth objective through an ecologically sustainable pathway that leads to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions,” it also pledges to “maximise the potential of oil, gas, hydel power, ocean, wind, coal and nuclear” as well as detailing the party’s desire to “take steps to increase the domestic coal exploration and production” in India.

But while climate change may have taken a back seat to development when voters went to the poll, any attempts by the new government to pursue a dirty energy future could meet strong resistance across India.

The fight against big coal in India has gone bicoastal in recent months.

On the coast of India’s Gulf of Kutch in Western Gujarat – Modi’s former State – a protest of local fisherman against the Tata Mundra coal plant, has become the epicentre of the country’s struggle against coal expansion.

Hot on the heels of this clash, in the east, local fishing communities are now fighting back against a proposed 4,000 MW “ultra-mega” coal power plant near Cheyyur. The project is expected to be built in Tamil Nadu, on the very spot where local fisherman have lived and created a livelihood for decades.

International politics

When it comes to foreign policy, Modi and the BJP will have to hit the ground running, not least because there are major multi-lateral climate negotiations just around the corner.

With the Ban Ki-moon leaders summit this September, and big conferences to follow in Lima, Peru and Paris, France, the BJP’s manifesto pledges to “take climate change mitigation initiatives with all seriousness” and to “champion uniform international opinion on issues like Terrorism and Global Warming”, will truly be tested in the coming 18 months.

While on a broad scale, analysts are positive about the role Modi could play on the international stage and potential to revive India foreign policy, some believe such a revival is unlikely to trickle down to the issue of climate change.

Padit warns that adaptation is likely to remain a priority and that India is unlikely to be pressured into taking on mitigation action equal to those of developed countries.

“The belief there is the largest per capita contributors to the problem have been the developed countries, and frankly until they make a dent in their emissions the issue is not going to be resolved,” he said. “That opinion is shared quite commonly among a large spectrum of Indians, and there’s no reason why the Modi government will differ from that.”

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