Like Asia, climate action is an opportunity for the South

OSLO – Something unusual is happening in the Gujarat desert. On my last visit, I saw hundreds of trucks moving under the hot Indian sun. Thousands of young workers from all over Bharat, as Indians now call their nation, are navigating an environment that was once empty and hostile.

The world’s largest solar and wind power plant was built here.

When completed, it will produce 30 gigawatts of amazing clean, green energy. This is equivalent to the total hydropower production of my home country, Norway. On our grid, our fuel is 100% hydroelectric, which is a rich country in a cold climate that consumes a lot of energy.

The Gujarat Miracle is the work of the Adani Group.

Gautam Adani told me his poignant personal story. They were eight brothers who lived with their parents in a room in Ahmedabad. There was no electricity, so if I wanted to study after dark, I had to go out and read under the street lights. At the age of fourteen he left home and started his business. He is now one of the richest men in India and also ranks very high on the global list.

Gautam Adani made a lot of money from coal. He now has huge renewable energy ambitions and supports the policies of his friend and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to turn the world’s largest country from gray to green. Adani is about execution, not just talking.

Let’s continue towards Indonesia.

Author Eric Solheim

Last year, the world’s second-largest rainforest country saw near-zero deforestation, an enormous disservice to Mother Earth. This happened because the Indonesian government implemented all the right forest conservation policies and because major Indonesian companies realized that they could live just fine without deforestation.

Take, for example, the RGE (Royal Golden Eagle) group, one of the world’s largest paper and pulp companies. RGE has decided that there will be no deforestation in its value chains. They can make tissue paper, packaging materials, sticky clothing and palm oil without cutting down virgin trees.

RGE even protects a vast, intact rainforest on the island of Sumatra. It is working well with firefighters and helicopters on standby in case of any problems.

And of course there is China. Last year, China invested a staggering $890 billion in renewable energy. This is equivalent to the entire economy of Türkiye or Switzerland. In 2023, China added more solar energy in one year than the second-largest solar country, the United States, ever added.

Chinese companies have produced ten times more solar panels than Norwegian hydropower, adding more than half of the world’s total wind or hydropower capacity.

China owns 60% of the world’s subway lines, batteries and electric cars, and 70% of high-speed trains. More than 95% of all electric buses operate on Chinese roads. China is an indispensable country in global climate action. No one can become environmentally friendly at an acceptable cost without China.

What do India, Indonesia and China have in common?

They are the three largest developing countries.

In climate discussions at summits in Glasgow, Dubai, and certainly later this year in Baku, intellectually lazy negotiators and commentators talk as if the West is leading the world on the environment.

They got it completely wrong. Europe was at the forefront ten years ago. Now is the time for the West to start learning. Asia is in the lead.

India, Indonesia and China don’t just see climate as a problem. Their leaders Modi, Xi Jinping and Prabowo Sibianto see climate as an opportunity. Taking action on climate makes sense economically, not just environmentally. They can create jobs, prosperity and eliminate poverty by going green.

Ola, India’s Uber, reflects this in a playful slogan: “Tesla to the West, first to the rest.” They believe they can make high-quality, low-cost electric motorcycles, and then cars, to capture global markets.

You can read the English version of this article here.

China had few shares in the old car industry.

While Western automakers have been ignoring or even cheating on emissions records, China has built the world’s dominant electric vehicle ecosystem. BYD recently surpassed Tesla as the largest electric vehicle brand.

CATL is the leading manufacturer of electric batteries. Last year, China overtook Japan as the largest exporter of cars. The transition to electricity makes great business and environmental sense for China.

For the first time in human history, there is a green path to prosperity.

Solar prices have fallen by 90% in a decade, thanks primarily to China. The price of wind energy is about the same. For two hundred years after the Industrial Revolution of the 1780s, any country that wanted to develop could only do so through fossils.

Solar energy is now less expensive than coal. Everywhere. A country that switches from coal to solar saves money. Being environmentally friendly has no cost.

In January, Prime Minister Modi launched a pilot program for 10 million Indian households to install rooftop solar systems. The homeowner registers the interest digitally. The utility company, state and banks cover the risk, not the owner. The size is amazing.

The gap between these facts and climate debates could not be wider. Last year, at the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) on climate change in Dubai, the focus was on losses and compensation.

This is a completely fair demand, as per capita emissions in the United States today are 25 times that of India, and eight times that of China, and the division is greater compared to Africa or small island developing states.

No one should blame developing countries for climate disasters.

But the weakness of this approach is not that it is unfair, but rather that it will not lead to the promised land. The money allocated by the West will be much less than expected, and will not even come close to what is required. Worse still, the funds distributed through global institutions will be slow, bureaucratic and often inadequate.

There is a lot of talk about reforms of global financial institutions. There were also many ideas about reforming the United Nations. In the last decade there has not been a single significant reform. The world’s largest country, and soon to be the world’s third largest economy, India, is not even a member of the UN Security Council.

Anyone looking for Indonesians in the UN or global institutions needs to mobilize the CIA to find them!

Reforms need support, but they will be slow, if they happen at all.

I have been Norway’s Minister for International Development for almost seven years. We have raised Norwegian aid to 1%, which is the highest in the world.

But if development aid created prosperity, some African countries would be the most developed countries on the planet. India, Indonesia, and China, as well as South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam, have received very limited aid.

They have access to markets and have developed strong national states and industries. What would South Korea be without Hyundai and Samsung? This is also how the green transition will happen in this century.

The highway to environmental development is through private investment and carbon markets, whether voluntary or not. This money is much larger, more flexible and faster than aid. The best thing any developing country can do is to leverage its internal strengths and take advantage of these capital flows.

It is true that the Asian giants have some advantages. It has strong countries with development-oriented leaders dedicated to the green transition. They have huge internal markets. The populations of India, China and the African continent are largely similar.

But India is a market from Tamil Nadu to Arunachal Pradesh, and China is a market from Guangdong to Heilongjiang.

Africa has 54 separate countries. When you succeed in the large price-conscious Indian or Chinese markets, the price is usually low and the quality is high. This makes you globally competitive.

Asia also has a higher level of education, and China has a large, highly educated working class.

But despite this, the green transition represents a great opportunity, not a problem, for developing countries. Going green saves money now. It makes it possible to jump into the renewable future without building fossil infrastructure first. Even the poorest countries can develop a digital economy without having to install phone lines.

The (limited) funds that will flow from Western donors and international institutions must be used decisively to boost private investment in the solar, wind, hydropower, and green industries. The expected risks of investing in renewable energy in Congo are higher than in Vietnam. This difference must be covered by donor funds.

Only for climate adaptation purposes when there is no business model should we resort to subsidies.

I really want to go to Baku, where COP 29 will be held. Perhaps this will be the defining moment when the world realizes that developing Asian countries in the 21st century provide global green leadership? They have shown that the world is turning green, and this is an opportunity.

Eric Solheim He is a Norwegian diplomat and former politician. He served as Minister for International Development and Minister of the Environment in the Norwegian Government from 2005 to 2012, and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) from 2016 to 2018.

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