How India can 'tech up' the climate challenge

A three-stage plan for India to become a leader in climate tech

India Climate Budget Power pack: A worker arranges solar cells at Premier Energies on the outskirts of Hyderabad | AP
Anirudh Suri Anirudh Suri

As India’s historic G20 presidency approaches its crescendo, it is worth looking back at history to decipher the significance of the moment we are currently living through. History offers interesting lessons for where India may be―and should be―headed in the near future.

In history, humans have lived through various ‘Great Games’―epochs or eras that have indelibly shaped the geopolitical, economic and societal aspects of our world. From the advent of agriculture to global trade to industrialisation and capitalism, these great games have shaped the key winners and losers of that time. Today, we are living through the ‘Great Tech Game’―an era where technological innovation and leadership is shaping the world order and the economic destinies of nations. Unshackled from the political and economic constraints that colonisation placed in our industrialisation journey, India is now equipped to participate and lead in the Great Tech Game.

But leadership doesn’t ever come easily. The key to win, especially when a country is not an incumbent leader, is to catch a technological wave early and establish leadership in it. Today, one of those emerging, early technological waves involves climate technology. A suite of technological innovations that will help the world in its climate transition has gathered steam in recent years: from solar panels to EVs to lithium batteries. Others, such as green hydrogen and carbon capture technologies, are beginning to show signs of potentially becoming mainstream in the coming years. These are all being broadly classified as ‘climate technology’.

India needs to carefully design its own strategy to not just adopt climate technologies, but also invent, create and produce them. Achieving a high share of renewables such as solar and wind in our energy mix is a pre-requisite, but not sufficient for India to establish leadership in climate technology. For that, India must adopt a three-stage plan.

First, India must further expedite its adoption of existing mainstream climate technologies. In recent years, India has already made significant progress in building up its renewable energy capacity, with the solar- and wind-installed capacity increasing rapidly. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly shared with the world at the last COP summit, India has met its targets on this front earlier than committed. Yet, China’s adoption rates have been even faster. Fast adoption not only brings associated benefits in terms of reduced emissions, it also helps drive the costs down through economies of scale. India must therefore continue to press the pedal faster.

Second, India must immediately identify India-specific problems that can be solved through technologies that have already been invented but not achieved mainstream status yet. By identifying these technologies and incentivising their manufacturing, production and adoption domestically, India can drive the costs of these technologies down. This is similar to what China did with solar panels over a decade ago. By driving the costs down, these technologies will also achieve mainstream status. Moreover, by incentivising their domestic manufacturing and production, Indian companies in these categories can actually become wealth-creators.

The third, and the most important, stage is for India to invent climate technologies. India must attempt to get to this stage within the next two-three years. And to do that, India must capitalise on its comparative advantages and existing strengths.

Agri-tech, biotech, food-tech, space-tech, climate intelligence, data analytics and climate software technologies are examples of spaces where clear winners have not emerged yet, and various problems remain unsolved. For example, chemical fertilisers remain a key source of greenhouse gas emissions. India, with its large dependence on the agricultural and farm sectors, is one of the largest users and importers of chemical fertilisers. Not only is it a big burden on the Indian exchequer, such widespread use of chemical fertilisers also adds to India’s own base emissions. India must pour its energy, financial resources and research talent to develop alternative fertilisers―bio-fertilisers, for example―that can help solve this particular problem.

Similarly, India, with its thriving software, IT services and startup ecosystems, is well positioned to develop as a leader in climate intelligence and data analytics and other such technologies. Even as India builds up its hardware and manufacturing prowess, it must not under-emphasise its existing strengths in software and software as a service (SaaS) solutions.

These three stages of establishing India as a leader in the climate technology arena provide an important framework for India to assess its progress and benchmark itself against other countries that are similarly racing to get to the third stage. The US, China and Europe have started to put enabling policy frameworks to drive innovation in this area.

For India, the key stumbling block may lie not on the legislative or policy front, but on the climate finance and research and development (R&D) readiness fronts. India’s need for affordable and accessible climate finance to fund its climate transition cannot be over-emphasised. Not surprisingly then, climate finance and Multilateral Development Bank reform have been a key pillar of its G20 presidency agenda.

At the same time, to win at the technological innovation game, a country must have deep R&D capabilities and prowess. The recent approval accorded to the National Research Foundation by the Union cabinet has provided the right signal that India intends to bolster its R&D capabilities, and bring the
research-industry- government troika together in innovative and sustainable ways. However, India has a fair bit of work to do to make sure that India’s R&D talent can be retained in India to work on India-specific problems.

India must continue to build on the positive momentum built during its G20 presidency to push forward on its climate transition agenda, and aim high for technological leadership in climate. The vision and path are clear, and the stars couldn’t be better aligned for India. As always, it will come down to successful execution.

The writer is a tech venture capitalist and the author of The Great Tech Game: Shaping Geopolitics and the Destinies of Nations.