Trading Coal Plants for Solar Farms in India

Senior attorney and India program director Anjali Jaiswal leads a small team that’s accomplishing big things in one of the world’s most polluted countries.

Indian workers install solar panels at the Gujarat Solar Park.

Ajit Solanki/AP

When President Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, he singled India out, claiming (falsely) that, under the accord, the country of 1.3 billion could “double its coal production by 2020” while “we’re supposed to get rid of ours.” But the reality is that India has made a bold commitment to move away from such dirty fuels and toward a clean energy future, making huge strides in the global fight against climate change. Since 2009, NRDC has been working with partners there to encourage that transition as part of its India program, spearheaded by senior attorney Anjali Jaiswal.

Jaiswal, who was born in India and moved with her family to the United States when she was a child, joined NRDC in 2001. After six years in the Water program and a stint on the Litigation team, she was selected by NRDC founding president John Adams and immediate past president Frances Beinecke to lead the organization’s efforts in India. Though based in San Francisco, Jaiswal was thrilled by the opportunity to also work in her native country again, having studied environmental science there in the 1990s and, more recently, worked with local nonprofits in New Delhi through a Fulbright program. She looked forward to applying her India experience, both personal and professional, as well as her background working on local environmental issues in California, to her new role.

© Rebecca Greenfield

“Anjali’s vision, which has proved to be very, very effective, was to work with people and institutions on the ground in India who are known and respected,” Beinecke says. “That’s been the model since we started, and it’s really worked well.”

Jaiswal points out that India ranks as the third-largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the United States and China, but in terms of per capita emissions, it lands far down the list at 128th. The United States, by comparison, is 12th, and the average American uses 10 times as much energy as an average Indian, Jaiswal notes. “What India is trying to do is really hard,” she says. “It’s building out an economy, increasing prosperity, and bringing millions of people out of poverty while fighting climate change.”

Problems in the country loom large—200 million Indians don’t have reliable electricity, and the devastating effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc across the country. The key, Jaiswal says, has been to focus on building relationships and creating realistic, human-centered, scalable solutions.

Solar panels have made a big difference in Tinginaput, India.

© Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos Pictures/Dept. for International Development

“We’re a small, lean team, but our impact is much greater than our size,” Jaiswal says. In the eight years since NRDC’s India Initiative was founded, the team of seven (along with other NRDC experts) has worked with partners to launch several projects that address the country’s public health, energy, and climate challenges. One focus is to strengthen climate resilience among some of India’s most vulnerable populations, such as slum communities, outdoor workers, pregnant women, and children.

For example, the team has devised a revolutionary—and increasingly popular—heat-preparedness plan and early-warning system for heat waves. “It's a great example of how we’ve been able to take the work to scale,” Beinecke says. “It started in Ahmedabad, but now there are 11 states and 30 cities in India that have adopted the same model.” Beinecke adds that the project’s success is due in large part to Jaiswal’s knack for developing strong partnerships with NGOs in India.

Jaiswal has also worked with local partners on an innovative finance model to help nearly 43,000 saltpan farmers in the remote, scorching desert of Gujarat (also home to her father’s village) gain access to clean energy and improved living conditions. One local group, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), founded by the inspirational Ela Bhatt in 1972, has been instrumental in helping the farmers replace expensive diesel-powered pumps and generators with solar panels, allowing the farmers to save money while helping to bring about a more sustainable future. In the two years since the project began, Jaiswal has seen nearly 500 solar installations crop up across the salt flats.

Saltpan farmer in the Gujarat Desert

© Bhaskar Deol

On a trip to Gujarat earlier this year, Jaiswal and Beinecke sat with a family in their tent while the mother explained how the project is enabling them to send their young children to school for the first time. “You felt, wow, you’re really having an impact on the lives of people who live in very meager circumstances to improve their standard of living and their quality of life,” Beinecke says. “That these three or four children sitting with us were going to be able to have a different future was very inspiring. It was fantastic.”

The India Initiative has also helped introduce energy efficiency standards for buildings that will set a strong precedent for new construction in rapidly developing cities: As of 2014, only 30 percent of the buildings projected to exist in India by 2030 had been built. It’s an exciting thought for Jaiswal and Indians alike, who are eager to see the country develop with climate solutions in mind. “It has changed so rapidly, and people are really seeing how things can get better in India,” Jaiswal says. “India is a technology-loving country, with a lot of people helping to develop solutions we use every day, and these climate solutions can make life better and grow the economy.”

Jaiswal was impressed with India’s commitment to renewable energy development before the Paris Agreement, and she remains so now. “When we started in India, the country was producing 17 megawatts of solar energy—that’s very little,” she says. “We’re talking gigawatts in terms of amounts now.” One gigawatt of energy can power 544,000 Indian homes a year. Over the past three years, India quadrupled its solar capacity to 12 gigawatts, and it will add another 10 in 2017. The country is also ramping up wind energy production as part of its goal of installing 160 gigawatts of solar and wind power by 2022.

India’s ambitious commitment to renewable energy will be central to helping the country reach its Paris climate accord goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent to 35 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. But India’s formal commitment wasn’t necessarily a sure thing during negotiations back in late 2015. The country took the lead in fighting for an equitable agreement for developing countries—not because, as Trump thinks, it wants to increase its coal production, but to make it work for its population’s immense needs.

“Paris showed us that we can develop an international structure that works for countries around the world—not just rich countries,” Jaiswal says. “In order for it to work, it has to be designed for everyone.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called failure to respond to climate change “an immoral and criminal act.” Accordingly, “we’re seeing India really stepping up,” Jaiswal says. “India is investing in clean energy technologies and innovation while folks like Donald Trump are investing in our grandfathers’ technologies.”

Jaiswal and the India team are determined, now more than ever, to foster India’s newfound leadership role on climate, and she stresses just how motivating the idea of reducing poverty and promoting economic prosperity is for the country. “While there are many challenges, development is skyrocketing in Asia. Innovation and the spirit of wanting to build a brighter future are very much part of the culture that exists in India right now.”

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