04/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Relying on Brain Power Instead of Carbon Power

Mumbai, India -- "Industry by and large gets it. Not because of climate change. But because they need to export and getting the environment right makes you a more interesting company. You almost have to do it." That comment, by Indian industrialist and WWF-India president Jamshyd N. Godrej, captures a key difference between India and the U.S. Here in India, when you sit down with the Chamber Commerce, you talk about how to solve the mismatch between the need of industry for a work force that can green their businesses and the skills that students actually bring to their interviews. Here, when a journalist writes about how India does not have adequate coal reserves even to maintain its existing fleet of power plants, and imported coal is likely to become more expensive and difficult to obtain in the future, it's presented as a straight factual story. The media here feel no need to find the one coal-reserves expert who is a dissenter and can give him equal space.

Perhaps the difference is that climate change is just one facet of a reality bearing down on this country. India's rapid growth comes in an era when cheap, easily available natural resources are gone. This country almost has to follow a different path -- relying on the resource between our ears instead of the kind we can we dig from under our feet -- because that's the only resource available in sufficient quantity.

India faces a severe coal shortage. Its existing power plants cannot burn imported coal unless it is mixed with domestic. So the more domestic coal it commits to new plants, the sooner it will have to retire its existing fleet. Already, the increase in the world price of coal is driving up the price of cement. Citizen protests have forced the cancellation of a major coal mine and power project in western India, near this city. Efforts to assemble land parcels for industrial facilities are becoming more contentious, with massive citizen protests building. Increasingly, public opinion is mobilizing against even proposals to allow mining companies access to India's reserves of iron ore and bauxite -- because they are under some of the nation's most important remaining forest habitat. Jamshyd Godrej says that threat still worries him greatly, because protecting that habitat involves a real tradeoff -- unlike the shift to cleaner energy, which is just good business.

India pays huge sums to import crude oil and then subsidizes kerosene for lighting and cooking, diesel for irrigation pumping, and LPG for cooking -- at enormous cost to the treasury. New proposals are being floated to reduce at least some of these subsidies -- but the idea is enormously controversial because neither the government nor India's poor can afford to rely on oil at today's world market prices.

At the same time, in only a year and a half, this country has shifted into high gear in its engagement on climate. Last year was the hottest on record in India. Rainfall patterns already have been disrupted over the past twenty years. Sea level rise threatens a quarter of the population.  The government doesn't want to sit on the sidelines, and its solar energy mission is already far more ambitious, if not yet funded, than anything the U.S. has put on the table.

The comparison with China is dramatic. India is not a "mandate from the top" country. China has just approved genetically modified rice -- while India is still engaged in a contentious public debate over proposed GMO eggplant -- seen by many as the thin wedge that allows unlimited access in this country for genetically modified seeds. Thirteen states have told the central government they want nothing to do with GMO eggplant. Environmental Minister Jairam Ramesh quipped at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit: "It's nice to have an audience that isn't throwing brinjal (eggplant) at me." There's a strong democratic dialogue here. That can slow things down -- both good things, like massive investments in solar power, and risky things, like GMO eggplant.

But, unlike much of the U.S. business community (and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in particular) India is not in denial that it must find a new economic pathway and cannot afford to hold on to the technologies and energy sources of the 20th century.

It's ironic that both the United Arab Emirates, which is the world's ninth-largest carbon power, and India, which has the greatest unmet need for electricity in the world, have acknowledged that clean energy is an economic necessity and the wave of the future -- while the United States, which invented most of this technology, still finds itself held back by the past.