U.S.-India Cleantech Cooperation: Energy Partnership Summit

Last week, leaders from the world's two biggest democracies met in Washington D.C. to discuss opportunities to collaborate on catalyzing innovation in efficiency and cleantech.  NRDC President Frances Beinecke and members of the NRDC India team participated in the US-India Energy Partnership Summit, a rare gathering of both Indian and American high level government officials, business leaders, and academics.  The Energy and Research Institute (TERI) and Yale University convened dignitaries from both countries - such as former Vice-President Al Gore, Senator John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Special Envoy Todd Stern from the U.S., and Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, Renewable Energy Minister, Farooq Abdullah, and UN IPCC Director, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri from India.

Mitigating dangerous climate change was at the heart of the discussion on how we rise to meet the incredible challenge of satisfying our global energy needs.  The tone of the day was both optimistic in terms of opportunities for cooperation and pragmatic in terms of the outcome at Copenhagen.  Interestingly, some of the dynamic mirrored my colleague Jake Schmidt's experiences half way around the world in Bangkok, where world leaders are making strides towards an agreement in Copenhagen.  At the Summit in D.C., Minister Ramesh and Minister Abdullah emphasized the welcomed breakthrough that India will commit to National Appropriately Mitigation Outcomes.  The shift by developing countries like India and Indonesia belies the retort that the U.S. should not act since the developing world is not willing to take action to curb carbon emissions.  This shift also focuses attention back on the U.S. to lead once again; this time in cleantech innovation. 

Senator Kerry emphasized the need for U.S. leadership through the future passage of a climate bill and reaching agreement at Copenhagen. John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress, stressed that U.S. and India cooperation is vital to the success of negotiations in Copenhagen.  Cleantech entrepreneur Clay Nester highlighted prospects for both U.S. leadership and cooperation, given that over 400 million Indians still lack access to electricity and 80 percent of infrastructure in India will be built in the next two decades.  NRDC's Frances Beinecke underscored that this rapid development provides a unique opportunity for innovation in energy efficiency - the fastest and cheapest way to reduce energy use and curb carbon emissions.  

The Summit participants were equally engaged and determined to find ways to promote policies for rapid development and deployment of clean technologies and opportunities to advance efficient buildings and lighting designs, heating and cooling systems, and harness renewable energy sources like wind and solar.  TERI's Lighting a Billion Lives initiative, as reported in On Earth, provided a sobering and moving model that addresses both development needs and carbon mitigation goals by providing solar lanterns to villagers who have never seen a light bulb - something that is hard to imagine here.   

The Summit's high-level concepts of über-efficient homes and a distributed energy revolution, like India's cell phone revolution, certainly inspire cooperation.  This inspiration is the first step toward actual innovation.  The real hard work of forging effective partnerships between U.S. technology innovators and Indian entrepreneurs remains to be realized on a broad scale for efficiency, wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, and other clean technologies.  The financing, policy, and technology to support these partnerships also need to be developed.  America's willingness to lead in this innovation is critical to both creating the technology needed to combat global warming and rebuilding the U.S. economy.   

Yesterday, hundreds of American companies echoed this call for U.S. leadership in Washington. CEOs and business groups such as Environmental Entrepreneurs urged Congress and the White House to get our country back in the business of exporting technology and at the same time creating jobs at home. The key to unlocking these opportunities, as implored by U.S. business leaders, is passing a climate bill and reaching a global agreement at Copenhagen.

The immediate need for U.S. legislation and a global agreement that accelerate mitigation of carbon emissions and adaption measures to climate change were again brought to real life by the recent devastating flood events in the southern India.  Torrential rains claimed more than 250 lives, left 2.5 million homeless, and decimated countless fields of staple crops like corn and sugar.   The Red Cross warned that the violent swing from drought to flood the region is experiencing will become more frequent, unless climate change is addressed rapidly.  These climate disasters needlessly wreak human and environmental loss that jeopardizes our global economy. 

The Summit's successful engagement in identifying opportunities for U.S. and India cooperation light a path for President Obama's first state visit with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's next month. Climate change will be high on the agenda for the two leaders, both of whom support a global agreement in Copenhagen and investments in cleantech.  The state visit provides both leaders a chance to put actions to their words and announce a groundbreaking U.S. and India partnership on green energy to spur the global cleantech revolution of our century.