- Cover Story
What Our Planet Needs Now
India’s leading eco-experts explain our biggest environmental challenges and what we can do to make a difference
Building a Climate-Ready India
Dr Navroz Dubash, Professor at the Centre for Policy Research
India’s climate ambitions are couched in ‘co-benefits’—actions that bring development and reduce carbon emissions at the same time. This is a productive approach, but our current governance fails to encourage officials, businesses and communities to actively seek such opportunities. Nor do we think about development through the lens of what allows for a low-carbon future, which is essential for a rapidly developing country. How can we grow in carbon-friendly ways? How do we build livable yet carbon-efficient cities? We need to empower states to experiment with low-carbon solutions, by supporting them with knowledge, capacity and finance. India must be re-tooled to more aggressively address the challenges of climate change, both in terms of reducing emissions and addressing impact.
The electricity sector is key to India’s low-carbon future—our journey to zero net-carbon is paved by greater shares of renewable energy and shifting uses such as transport (especially public transport), cooking and, eventually, industries, to non-oil, non-coal and non-gas energy sources. However, 20th century problems of black-outs (despite a surplus), low bill collection and poor quality supply must first be fixed. One way is to improve peoples’ capacity to pay for power, especially in rural areas, by subsidizing not consumption but productive equipment, creating a consumer base willing to pay for the transition to renewable energy. People will pay because their income and productivity goes up.
Individual contribution is important. As consumers, changing demand patterns, investing in energy-efficient appliances (which have higher up-front cost but pay for themselves quickly), choosing public transport, changing diets are important, but we must also act as citizens, by demanding governments pay more attention to climate change. Most importantly, we must educate ourselves to understand that while transition is hard, living with the existential challenge of climate change will be much harder.
The Future is Sustainable
Dr Arunabha Ghosh, Founder-CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water
You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to believe in sustainable development. Today, there are more jobs created from renewables than from coal power. So, if you are an automobile engineer, you better be designing electric vehicles. No major automobile company in the world plans to have internal combustion engines after 2035. Yet, I think the most overarching roadblock is that we still treat sustainability as something on the margins of our overall economic development discourse. We have not realized that the only economic development pathway for us now is a sustainable one. Till we internalize that, we will not be able build industries of the future.
India is leapfrogging to a cleaner energy future. We are the only G20 economy whose climate promises and climate actions are in line with keeping global average temperature rise under two degrees celsius. But there is more that we can do as a people. We have to first bridge the gap between us as citizens and as economic agents. When we are citizens, we want clean air. When we are economic agents, we want to drive a diesel car. You can, of course, drive your diesel car, but you have to recognize that air pollution impacts the mental development of your child. The second step is to pay that extra premium for the slightly more expensive product that is sustainable. Someone earning Rs 50 lakhs a year should certainly not be looking at a diesel car as their next vehicle purchase, and someone earning Rs 5 lakhs a year should now be buying a bamboo toothbrush, not a plastic one. The point is that prices come down when scale economies are at play. We each need to make a start.
Greener, Smarter Cities
Jaya Dhindaw, Director, Integrated Urban Planning at the World Resources Institute, India
With urban growth showing no signs of slowing down, cities have grown both in size and energy appetite, making them major contributors to climate change. Three things that need systemic change are urban planning, governance and capacity and finance.
Unchecked urbanization has pushed people to the peripheries of cities, and given rise to greater urban heat islands (due to loss of vegetation), congestion and rising personal vehicle usage. This has led not only to inefficiency in resource use and allocation but also greater environmental impact by way of ecological degradation, human stress, ill-health from pollutants and lost hours of productivity. We need to plan better to ensure compact, connected, clean, equitable and resilient cities. Moreover, institutional fragmentation, overlapping mandates and lack of a unified vision cause inefficiencies in plans and projects across sectors. India has one of the world’s least per capita municipal budgets, presenting deep concerns about infrastructure and utility provisioning to meet the water, housing, energy and transport needs for its people.
Innovative mechanisms for channelling finance from both private and public sector must be explored. Green finance for next-generation infrastructure, value capture for public goods and private investments directed at innovative, cost-effective and scalable solutions should be leveraged. As individuals, we can take steps towards building more environmentally efficient cities by opting for sustainable consumer choices and changing consumption patterns. We must demand accountability and transparency from the authorities. Remember that to build climate-compatible cities, every small effort counts—tree planting, cycling or taking public transport to work. Building community resilience and raising awareness can really make a difference.
No Time to Waste
Wilma Rodrigues, Founder-CEO, Saahas Zero Waste
We have seen the oceans bring back plastic. People living in cities are all familiar with waste burning. We read about landfill fires in the papers. I don’t think it’s a question of us not being able to see the problem of waste, it’s a question of us ignoring it. Every day, India generates 1,47,613 tonnes of daily municipal solid waste—waste generated in our households—and only 25 to 30 per cent of it gets processed. The rest all goes into our dump sites and landfills.
Our consumption habits and the tendency to moving towards convenience and low cost have resulted in huge quantities of packaging waste. The first thing to do is reduce—whether it is paper-based packaging, or single-use plastic. Carrying your own shopping bag is absolutely basic. We should be carrying our own containers to grocery shops, refusing packaging for even things like rice. We should carry our own water bottles, instead of buying plastic bottles. Instead of relying on food aggregators, go to a restaurant with your own containers and get your own food. This all needs a behavioural change, but given the health and environment issues at stake, this is required.
We must also start segregating waste at source. You need to have an understanding of wet and dry waste. You need to know how to keep the two separate. You then need to find a good waste management company who will take your segregated waste and make sure that it is properly recycled. There are municipal rules for waste segregation that first came out in 2001. Today, as citizens, as consumers, we need to take responsibility for the rules not being implemented. This is our waste, our collective problem.
Corporate responsibility for Climate Action
R. R. Rashmi, Distinguished Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute
For a developing country like India whose contribution to global climate change is almost negligible, the real challenge lies in preparing various sectors of the economy for low-carbon development without compromising on developmental goals. Emissions at the producer and consumer level cannot be held accountable without a national legal framework and regulations. Corporations must act as responsible economic entities and discipline themselves voluntarily in the interest of a global goal. Implementing this forcibly and transferring it into the international arena raises issues of competitiveness, and places unfair imposition of costs on other players.
In India, the top 1,000 corporate entities listed on the stock exchange are mandated by the SEBI to file Business Responsibility Reports (BRR) under the National Voluntary Guidelines on Social, Environmental and Economic Responsibilities of Business. Recently, a group of about 38 major business and corporate leaders have come together to form a voluntary group with the objective of pursuing low-carbon goals. Eco-labelling of products is a good way of introducing responsibility norms in production patterns but there is increased cost in the process which affects poor consumers in the developing world. Changing lifestyles and reducing emissions through sustainable consumption and production in the developed world—where per capita use of natural resources and wastage is the highest in the world—is the biggest challenge. Citizen shareholders should insist that board decisions should comply with business sustainability norms.
We cannot solve global environmental problems without international cooperation. This involves a cooperative framework for development and deployment of climate-friendly technologies in which corporations play a useful, prominent role. Industrial transition to a low-carbon or zero-carbon future will need such technologies at scale.
In Harmony with the Wild
Romulus Whitaker, Herpetologist, wildlife conservationist and founder of the Madras Snake Park
Our biggest stride over the past decade is expounding the message of the importance of wildlife and wildlands and getting people excited enough to support it. We now have top scientists and activists working on all aspects of wildlife biology and conservation to counter the threats that government and corporate machineries impose on our remaining creatures and wild places.
However, while we have plenty of good, meaningful wildlife protection laws, their implementation leaves a lot to be desired. With the official emphasis on development, without the required care to safeguard our natural resources, now, especially, is the time for conservationists to take a much stronger stand to make sure development doesn’t destroy the very biodiversity we depend on. The pandemic itself is indicative of this interdependency. It showed us how vulnerable humans are and how foolish we have been to continue being so blasé and selfish. We must consider the COVID-19 experience as a chance to drastically change our lifestyles in favour of the planet’s welfare and our wildlife’s survival.
To this end, probably the most important thing people can do is become better informed about what problems our wildlife faces and how to mitigate them. There is plenty of misinformation floating around out there. Some ‘experts’ expound the dubious wisdom that wildlife can only survive in Protected Areas, which is rubbish. Take just one high-profile species—the leopard— alone: half of their population in the country live in human-dominated landscapes. The tolerance of wildlife by rural Indians is one of the best reasons why we have so much biodiversity left here. Let’s all work together to make a real difference.
Forests of the People
Dr Amrita Sen, environmental sociologist, IIT Kharagpur
Let’s start with the Sundarbans. I have always been very interested to know what kinds of a relationship people here share with the forest. During my research, I learnt that for many communities, the forest was not a piece of nature. Rather, the forest was their habitation. It was sacred for them. It was cultural and social.
Similarly, in many parts of India, community-driven knowledge systems or natural resource management has been very deeply embedded. Over the years, however, legislations have led to abrupt eviction and dispossession. Communities have completely lost their existing rights to the forest—not only the right to livelihood, but also the rights of conservation. As a result, there was community marginalization, yes, but we were also dislodging these communities without incorporating their knowledge system into our formal methods of forest conservation.
One of our biggest challenges today is the commercial exploitation of the forest, the continual diversion of fragile, vulnerable lands towards the use of commercial and industrial developments. As citizens, we need to sign up for more sensitization programmes that are being run by environmental organizations. They tell us why we need forests, and also why we need to value community knowledge in our conservation efforts. Together, we must make a collective plea to the government—the unilateral approach of western scientific conservation is not a one-size-fits-all landscape. We need multiple forms of knowledge, more participation.
An Oceanic Agricultural Revolution
Dr Victor Shahed Smetacek, Professor of Bio-Oceanography, Alfred Wegener Institute
We are over-exploiting the ocean, and the seas are all overcrowded now. Also, since we’ve taken out all the big animals, ocean ecosystems have collapsed. Big marine animals, including large swamp fish, were instrumental in maintaining productivity and structuring ecosystems because they were recycling, too. We went out and captured them. Today, we talk about making marine protected areas, but the pressure is already unrealistically high.
I have a solution. We know the oceans cover 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, but what isn’t well know is that 70 per cent of that 70 per cent—roughly 50 per cent of the earth’s surface—are ocean deserts or subtropical gyres. These exist on both north and south of the equator. We’re not doing anything with them, because these are at the end stages in the normal succession of life in the ocean. I propose that we go to the subtropical gyres and establish fields over there by irrigating them. The pipes we use will be made out of seaweed, and with seaweed will come seafood—fish, mussels, etc. Also, because of its organic composition and strength, seaweed is a better alternative to plastic.
Upwelling deep, nutrient-rich water can be a nature-based solution for ensuring global food security, producing raw materials and carrying out massive carbon sequestration. But meanwhile it is important that we do our level best to reduce our CO2 footprint. We should already have embraced recycling and sustainability. There is, for instance, one mindset that says we shouldn’t remove our garbage from the oceans because that will encourage people to create yet more garbage. We have to move away from these arguments and find newer ways of thinking.