At Cochin International Airport, the world’s first solar powered airport, switching to solar was not just an environmental decision, but also a business decision. Airports have a high electricity demand, estimated to be equivalent to an average city of 100,000 inhabitants. Faced with the dual challenges of dealing with volatile energy prices and ever-increasing reminders of climate change, the airport invested in 46,150 solar modules, producing an average of 48,000 kW hours of electricity every day. Part of this effort involved installing a solar plant over 45 acres of land. In all, the solar panels are expected to avoid approximately 300,000 metric tons of carbon emissions during their lifetime - the equivalent of planting three million trees, or not driving 1.2 billion kilometres.
It was a huge investment, and a huge installation, made possible only through trade in environmentally sound technologies. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a domestic market anywhere in the world capable of fully satisfying the technological needs required to transition to a green, circular and resilient economy, and to fully employ low-emission energy alternatives.
And the demand for solar energy and solar energy infrastructure is set to dramatically expand in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recognized the enormous potential of the sun in a country that mostly receives over 300 days of sunshine per year, but in which 31 million homes lack access to electricity. Earlier this year, Modi set a target for increasing India’s solar power capacity by 100 gigawatts by 2022 - four times the current capacity.
International trade plays a key role in promoting and disseminating renewable energy and energy efficient technologies. Trade, through its role in bringing innovative solutions to scale, makes environmentally sound technologies more affordable and supports their distribution around the globe. Cochin International Airport was able to secure the services of German company Bosch to install the components for the solar panels, who in turn sourced their photovoltaic modules from a Chinese company and their inverters from a Swiss company.
There is building momentum for using trade as a mechanism to enhance environmental sustainability—not only in India but worldwide. On 2 October 2018, the Executive Director of UN Environment, Erik Solheim, and the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Roberto Azevêdo, co-hosted a dialogue and jointly launched a report, Making trade work for the environment, prosperity and resilience, alongside a host of renowned panellists, including UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador Bertrand Piccard. The dialogue highlighted how these two critical spheres can, and must, work together for the future of the planet and of the global economy. This message also featured strongly in the discussion at the opening plenary session of the World Trade Organization’s Public Forum, an annual event which regularly attracts over 1500 participants. Solheim played a key role on the opening day of the Forum, emphasizing trade’s reliance on the natural environment and its contribution to the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda. The day also featured sessions on the circular economy, fossil fuel subsidy reform, and climate change and trade, among other topics.
Now that Cochin International has set the standard for solar airports, they have realized that they too have a tradable resource on their hands: their experience and expertise. Airports across the country and the world - from Liberia to New Zealand - have approached Cochin in search of their own solar solutions. They are now providing consultancy services to Ghana, to assist in installing solar-powered facilities in their airports. Ensuring that markets are open to send and receive technology and expertise like this is critical for scaling up environmental innovations and high-impact solutions.
Cochin International Airport intends to stay in the vanguard for solar airport innovations, confident that renewable energy is critical to sustainable development. They have an eye on carbon-neutral and solar air travel as the next big frontier and they know, as does the Indian government, that trade will be central to reaching their ambitions and scaling the ‘next big thing’.
As affirmed last week by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, “Those that will bet on the grey economy will have a grey future, and those that, like in India, are betting on the green economy will have a dominant role in the global economy in the decades to come.”