Main page content

The International Solar Alliance gives India a place at the global high table

The International Solar Alliance being India’s brainchild as well as the first UN-sponsored and treaty-based international alliance to be headquartered in India, presents an opportunity for the country to redefine the global climate order. Dhanasree Jayaram argues that it will help India in leveraging its stature as a responsible global player to expand its sphere of influence. 

The first summit of the International Solar Alliance, after it entered into force in December 2017, was hosted by India along with France on 11 March 2018. It was attended by the heads of state of more than 20 countries and senior representatives of several global banks, including the European Investment Bank, BRICS Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Asian Development Bank.

As an enabling agency that could push the agenda of (a) reducing solar tariffs, (b) developing a risk mitigation mechanism, (c) advocating crowd-funding and (d) promoting cooperation in technology development (especially storage) and capacity building, the International Solar Alliance presents a real opportunity for global and local climate action, particularly for developing countries that have abundant sunshine but lack funding and know-how.

For India, the International Solar Alliance fortifies its position at the global high-table, something that has eluded the country for long on the climate diplomacy front. On the one hand, it would help facilitate India’s commitment to advance development and deployment of clean energy within the country. And on the other, it paves the way for boosting the country’s image as a responsible global player and a potential climate leader. Both these end-goals are somewhat complementary as India’s quest for energy independence, which is to a significant extent contingent on the clean energy revolution, could also translate into a great degree of geopolitical leverage on the global stage.

What is the International Solar Alliance all about?

The International Solar Alliance, as some analysts put it, “encapsulates the spirit of the Paris Agreement: what every country can do, and how we can do better together.” The new inter-state agency is yet another feather in the cap of the international climate regime, but more specifically, it concentrates on only one sector: solar. This is what makes it more concrete and perhaps more implementable in comparison to all-encompassing climate treaties or agreements. Therefore, there are great expectations that the coalition would bring about constructive outcomes, with its mandate to go beyond climate action (as conceived under the UNFCCC) to also cover Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG-7 on energy.

It is also of utmost importance to remember that the International Solar Alliance’s objective is not to provide funds or technology to countries that require it. It is rather an agency that could create the conditions for:

  • mobilization of investments (as capital costs are still high);
  • increased interest in solar-related businesses; 
  • joint research and development (R&D);
  • adaptation of technology to local conditions;
  • new financial mechanisms to make the technology affordable;
  • large-scale deployment of solar applications.

Also, the alliance reinforces the interests of developing countries in pursuing economic development for which “access, availability and affordability of energy” are critical and in the process, giving impetus to energy transition.

A diplomatic victory for India

Through the International Solar Alliance, India has sought to strengthen ties with other developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. Although domestically, the country’s renewable energy policy is being stewarded by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), it is the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that will be at the helm of affairs when it comes to the International Solar Alliance. This not only breathes new life into the role of the foreign ministry in international climate negotiations but also provides a fillip to the country’s foreign policy agenda. Hence, for India, it is a twin-pronged strategy – first, to rejuvenate its solar sector that has become somewhat stagnant due to various reasons, including import duty on solar modules and flat power demand, and which needs fresh investments; and second, to increase its sphere of influence through soft power. India has already announced $1 billion assistance for 23 solar power projects across 13 countries in Africa by offering solar panels manufactured by Indian companies at a lower cost than Chinese ones. 

Now that India has expressed its desire to include countries outside the inter-tropical zone, Germany, China, the US, Nepal, South Korea, Tunisia and others are likely to join the solar alliance - either as full members or at least as partners in certain projects. This is a major diplomatic victory for India and those pushing for greater climate action. Even the US, which has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, expressed interest in “examining” partnership with the International Solar Alliance. Also China, whom India had initially invited to the alliance prior to the 2015 Paris Summit but did not respond, has now announced that it plans to join. China’s change in position on the International Solar Alliance is a clear indication of not only the business opportunities the coalition presents to its solar manufacturing industry, which is the largest in the world, but also India’s success in pulling off a successful product launch that many believed would not materialize.

Both India and France are keen to set the ball rolling to achieve the International Solar Alliance’s 1000 GW target by 2030 globally, despite the fact that many have expressed scepticism regarding the coalition’s ability to mobilize the required funds to the tune of $1 trillion. Even though the goals are ambitious and the solar sector globally is fraught with challenges, the overall mood is optimistic. India needs to make the most of the coalition’s potential to transform the post-2020 climate order and align it with changing geopolitical realities by providing solutions that build on individual countries’ strengths. The International Solar Alliance shows the way forward by pooling countries with plentiful sunshine and those that have greater technological, financial and technical resources.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.


Dhanasree Jayaram is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education (Karnataka, India) and Research Fellow at the Earth System Governance Project.