When it comes to talking about climate change in India our friends at Yale have identified six distinct audiences(https://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/article/Global-Warming-Six-Indias).From the informed urban elite to the disengaged rural poor Indian attitudes towards climate are as diverse as the country itself. But the report misses the reason Indians are ‘disengaged’ – because theyare paying the price for new coal plants in terms of health care costs, asthma in their children, displacement from their homes, water shortages, and continuing energy poverty. Whether you are for conventional energy or renewable energy, we should all agree that deploying energy solutions in India should directly address poverty, not just be built in the name of it.
India has more people without energy access than any other country in the World. The country recognizes that their GDP growth is linked specifically to filling this need for energy. But make no mistake, India does not have anything in common with its neighbor China, whose electrification rates link it more closely to the United States. India’s electricity situation is only slightly better than countries in sub-Saharan Africa. So when you think about the politics of Climate Change in India it is necessarily different than China or the United States.
The problem we have now is that the first of the six India’s is convinced that business as usual is the only way to solve energy poverty (even if the energy never actually reaches the poor). That approach – a coal fired grid, the one conceived of by the smartest people in India isn’t working. Whether it’sfuel supply shortages (https://t.co/2Ms2veZ6lO ), water shortages, or skykrocketing costs (https://bit.ly/15waSad ) coal can’t get us where we need to go. For god’s sake even Coal India uses distributed solar to keep the lights on in its offices (https://solartimes.in/?p=369)!
It’s time the first India recognized that even the coal sector sees it can’t solve this problem. But they don’t because most of these folks didn’t even experience the great Indian blackout. Their flat, where they shop, they work, all have backup expensive diesel generators. So they think business as usual is working. But it’s only working because over 50% of diesel subsidies for the poor are adulterated by the rich.
So how do we get universal energy access and a safe climate from here? By recognizing that servicing the energy needs of hundreds of millions of ruralIndians who have a cell phone but no means of reliably charging them (https://sierraclub.typepad.com/compass/2011/01/sierra-club-india-environment-post-piggyback-or-leapfrog-cell-phone-towers-and-community-power.html) is the greatest wealth creation opportunity available to India. The mobile phone revolution has ensured that almost every Indian is close to a mobile phone tower, but have no electricity to charge them. The rural mobile towers providing signals to these phones are powered by expensive diesel – 6-8X the cost of regular electricity. We can alleviate energy poverty, and address climate change bypiggybacking onto rural mobile phone infrastructure – if only we can communicate the enormity of the opportunity to the first of the six India’s.
So here it is: Entrepreneurs are reducing costs for mobile operators by providing clean ‘Tower Power’ (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/justin-guay/tower-power_b_3362603.html?utm_hp_ref=renewable-energy )to reduce costly diesel generators that cell phone towers need to relay mobile signals for wireless communication (our cellphones). These towers are everywhere and they are one of the few pieces of infrastructure in rural parts of the developing world. Entrepreneurs already have PPAs signed to service 15,000 towers with clean energy because diesel is just too expensive – but India has 400,000 half of which are under a government mandate to convert to clean energy. By building excess renewable capacity into those systems and selling it to local communities via mini-grids, transportable batteries, or by directly charging applications on site we can ‘talk climate’ to rural India by delivering where corrupt coal barons have failed.
The best part is that these solutions pay for themselves by offsetting the truly dominant fossil fuel in rural India, kerosene. That’s right despite all the emphasis on building coal plants the poor end up using kerosene because coal fired electricity never actually gets to them. Subsidizing kerosene and diesel costs the Indian government an extra $25 billion every year.It also costs poor consumers as much as 15% of their monthly budget. Removing these obscene fuel costs and the climate damage they create can boost GDP spur employment and generate a sustainable long term economy. An economy that for once starts by building value from the ground up.
I agree climate communications are vital. But talking impacts and abstract concepts to the ‘disengaged’ won’t cut it. We need concrete tangible improvements in the lives of the poor – and we need the first India to understand coal can’t get us there. Sharing the clean ‘tower power’ opportunity with India’s leaders, and more importantly its financial institutions, is the communication we need to solve climate and energy poverty once and for all.