One hundred years ago, 1919 was a really big year: Countries signed the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I, Mahatma Gandhi began his nonviolent resistance against British rule, and the Grand Canyon became a national park. And on a lighter note, pop-up toasters entered kitchens for the first time! A century later, 2019 also showed signs of being another big year—and a precarious one – when it came to global warming, climate change, Nature balance and environment. However, environmental concerns did generate global response and India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, showed the world that firm resolves were needed to take stern but necessary actions to nip the problems in the bud. Here are major ‘green’ happenings of this year that pave the path of the year to come—2020!
1. India’s geopolitics influences international climate action
Prime Minister Modi has been one of the world leaders who took a keen interest in Climate Change issues. Under his leadership India decided to adopt a more pro-active, ambitious and forward looking approach in the run up to the Paris Climate summit. This is reflected in the country’s INDC. It links India’s commitment to ecologically sustainable economic development with its age old civilizational values of respecting Nature, incorporating a sense of inter-generational equity and common humanity. The targets India has voluntarily committed itself to are unprecedented for a developing country. The energy intensity of India’s growth will decline by 33-35% by 2030 compared to 2005 base year, which means that for every additional dollar of GDP India will be using progressively and significantly lesser amount of energy. There is confidence that based on the achievements of the National Mission on Enhancing Energy Efficiency, this target will be met. India being one of the world’s largest emerging economy, which already has a large energy footprint globally, this constitutes a major contribution to tackling global Climate Change. The INDC has set a target of 175 GW of renewable energy by the year 2030 on the strength of the outstanding success of the National Solar Mission. It is reported that this capacity may well be achieved 10 years in advance. The government may raise India’s target to 227 GW for 2030. The target of achieving 40% of power from renewable sources by 2030 is likely to be achieved several years in advance. The figure is already 21% as of date. India is actively reducing the component of coal based thermal power in its energy mix. It is not widely known that the country has a very high cess on coal, of the order of Rs 400 per tonne, proceeds from which go into a Clean Energy Fund. India is also committed to not building any new thermal plants which are not of the most efficient ultra-supercritical category. India played a major role in assuring the success of the Paris Climate summit and Prime Minister Modi’s personal intervention in the adoption of the landmark Paris Agreement was acknowledged by several world leaders. His initiative on the setting up an International Solar Alliance for promoting solar power worldwide was welcomed. India is advancing on a broad front to ensure a clean energy future for its people, drawing upon its ingrained civilizational attributes and putting in place a wide range of policy interventions under the legal framework of the Energy Conservation Act, covering 15 energy intensive industries and the Energy Conservation Building Code, covering all new urban infrastructures. Some 32 states of the Indian Union have formulated and begun implementing their own State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC). There is also an active and vibrant civic society which is promoting citizens’ awareness of the threat of Climate Change and what each of us can do as individuals to meet this threat. It is hoped that India’s leadership in dealing with its own challenges of Climate Change and Energy Security will act as a spur to other countries to raise their own contributions to meeting this global and existential challenge. Failure to do so condemns humanity to an uncertain and possibly catastrophic denouement.
The Flop Show: Much-speculated plastic ban on Oct 2, 2019 did not live up
India has held off imposing a blanket ban on single-use plastics to combat pollution, a measure seen as too disruptive for industry at a time when it is coping with an economic slowdown and job losses. The plan was for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to outlaw six items on the 150th anniversary of the birth of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, as part of a broader campaign to rid India of single-use plastics by 2022. But government sources said there would be no immediate move to ban plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets and instead the government would try to curb their use. For now, government would ask states to enforce existing rules against storing, manufacturing and using some single-use plastic products such as polythene bags and Styrofoam, Chandra Kishore Mishra, the top bureaucrat at the ministry of environment, said. “There is no new ban order being issued,” Mishra said. “Now, it’s a question of telling people about the ill-effects of plastic, of collecting and sending for recycling so people don’t litter.” The government’s proposed countrywide ban had dismayed consumer firms, which use plastic in packaging for everything from sodas and biscuits to ketchup and shampoo. The Confederation of Indian Industry, a lobby group, said the move had become an existential issue for several economic sectors because alternatives were not immediately available. It said small-sized plastic bottles used for pharmaceutical or health products should be exempted as there is no alternate available. Sachets made from so-called multi-layered packaging should also not be banned, as that could disrupt supplies of products like biscuits, salt and milk, the confederation said. “There was a conscious decision within the government not to hit businesses hard for now and discourage use of plastic only on a voluntary basis,” said an official working on policy. He declined to be identified in line with government rules. Plastic waste is at epidemic proportions in the world’s oceans with an estimated 100 million tonnes dumped there to date, according to the United Nations. Scientists have found large amounts of micro plastic in the intestines of deep-dwelling ocean mammals like whales. India, which uses about 14 million tonnes of plastic annually, lacks an organized system for management of plastic waste, leading to widespread littering. “The toxins, poisons and persistent pollutants present in some of these plastic products leach and enter human bodies where they cause several diseases, including cancer,” said Chitra Mukherjee, head of advocacy and policy at Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.
2. Will India’s agenda include climate adaptation?
The impacts of climate change have never been clearer or more threatening. For India, climate change is already an existential threat. Coupled with mismanagement of resources and governance, India faces acute repercussions of climate impacts year-round in the form of extreme and unseasonal rainfall, droughts, floods and heatwaves leading to economic and livelihood losses, food and water security threats. India’s own positioning on climate change issues at global platforms appears impressive. Recently, at the UN Climate Change Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of revised renewable target of 450 GW, stress on issues of adaptation to increase coping capacity of vulnerable communities, which faces relative marginalisation as compared to industry-driven mitigation pathways, drew applause from the global community. Further, his award as the “Global Goalkeeper” for addressing Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) through the flagship ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ reiterated India’s commitment and necessity to rise to the climate crisis in a renewed context. The country faces challenges in the strategic transformation of the power sector. Coal contributes around three-fifths of India’s carbon emissions. India is still the third largest carbon emitter globally and its power sector is still highly fossilised with around 196 GW of total 347 GW installed power generation capacity by coal and lignite. During the financial year 2017-18, the country generated around 1228 billion-kWh units (BU) of electricity of which 1044 BU (around 85%) was through burning 540 million tonnes of coal and lignite, as per a Central Electricity Authority (CEA) report. The entry of new electric vehicles, clean electric cooking and proliferation of new electrical and electronic equipment is bound to give the Indian thermal power sector a rebound-effect increase. India’s quest for 450 GW addition of renewables can decarbonise the Indian power sector but will not be an easy task due to massive intermittence and identification for subsequent peak loads. Diffusion of renewable programme therefore requires proper guidance and restructuring. The existing position of renewable programme is also not very satisfactory. India has committed to generating 175 GW which is divided into 100 GW solar, 60 GW wind and 15 GW through other resources towards renewable integration by the year 2022. The solar element which forms the largest segment and political interest is sub-divided further into two segments, with 60 GW for utility scale and 40 GW for solar rooftops. While the progress on the utility scale solar, wind and other RE components is steady with 36 GW of installation realised by July 2019, the customer centric decentralised and grid-connected solar rooftop projects have gained least traction. The 40 GW solar rooftop (SRT) programme, mainly focusing on domestic households, agriculture sector and commercial establishments, is running much behind its targets with poor adoption rates and an added cumulative capacity of just 4.5 GW. Moreover, India’s industrial and domestic energy consumption structures have challenges in energy intensity and resource utilisation inefficiency. Every time an industrial entity produces aluminium, steel or any other consumer-oriented product without a strict adherence to recycling and/or emphasis on cleaner fuels for manufacturing process, it adds towards more fossilised economy pathways. An approach towards circular economy with emphasis on resource substitution, efficient and minimal resources utilisation, and thrust towards reusing and recycling can help in addressing climate change goals. This can not only decarbonise the economy but also reduce the challenges of environmental degradation and pollution. Further, the energy and energy efficiency programmes cannot function optimally when they are only focused on technical and economic potential without addressing the behavioural patterns of actual target audience. With India’s growing energy demand, energy planning has to be strategically thought within the limits of new technology paradigms, material criticality and human behavioural changes. Such programmes must not only be perceived from an investment-drive perspective but also from a necessity point of view. Mass mobilisation is central to tackle an enormous and encompassing challenge of climate change. In this regard, the role of youth is critical. For India, addressing climate change no longer remains a matter of choice. It is a question of survival of its communities in millions that face unseasonal rainfall, prolonged droughts and agricultural shortfalls. However, what is required is an integrated, ambitious and urgent approach which requires three-tier changes at policy and institutional level; industrial and applied segments; and consumer level behavioral interventions with community and citizen participation. Transition of course will not be simple and without sacrifices. Nevertheless, science provides basic foundations to design new pathways to address the energy transitions and coping with climate change through technological innovations.
3. Will ‘fast fashion’ slow down?
Western fashion brands–from Tommy Hilfiger to Nike to Zara–have recognized the enormous opportunity the Indian market opens up, and have been rushing in to woo Indian consumers. According to a report by Business of Fashion and Deloitte, India’s fashion market will be worth $59.3 billion by 2022, making it the sixth largest in the world, on par with the UK and Germany. India’s meteoric growth is dovetailing with a growing awareness of how the apparel industry’s pollution–from plastic waste to carbon emissions–is reaching a breaking point, both in the country and globally. As the number of consumers grows, it’s arguably a critical time to introduce eco-friendly products. This is part of the reason that global giants are pitching themselves to Indians as eco-friendly brands. At the same time, as they rapidly expand, it’s become clear that to truly tackle the looming threat of climate change (to which the fashion industry contributes mightily), brands need to rethink not only what they are selling customers, but also how much. A Nielsen study from eight years ago showed that Indian consumers were already becoming more conscious of environmentally friendly fashion practices, and this awareness is only growing. Groups like the Worker Diaries, which advocates for the welfare of workers in the region, and Fashion Revolution India, which pushes for sustainable and ethical practices in fashion, are helping make ethical and sustainable issues more visible. “India has a huge influence on how our fashion is made globally. We are also a huge consumer market,” Fashion Revolution India writes on its website. It encourages Indian consumers to ask fashion companies to explain where their clothes come from through social media–and reports it has received responses from over 1,000 brands so far. The American denim brand Levi’s was one of the earliest American fashion labels to enter the Indian market in 1995. The brand has been working to lower its environmental footprint globally, by reducing carbon emissions and using lasers to finish jeans instead of chemicals. H&M, a Swedish brand, is a far newer player in the Indian market. In 2015, it opened its first store in New Delhi, but now has more than 40 stores throughout India. H&M is working to introduce the concept of fast fashion in India–but it’s making the case that inexpensive, on-trend clothes can be made ethically and sustainably. The company says it is working to use entirely recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, and totally offset its carbon footprint by 2040. Yet the industry’s fatal flaw is that it is built on a business model of selling more and more clothes to customers faster and faster. According to data from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which helps companies and governments transition to a circular economy, the number of times an article of clothing is worn before it gets chucked out has declined by 36% since 2000, with many consumers discarding garments after just seven to ten wears. And in that same period, the number of units of clothes sold annually has doubled from 50 billion units to 100 billion units. “The reason we see so much waste happening is because we’re producing more and more, and wearing the clothes less and less,” says Francois Souchet, a project manager at the Foundation. Rather than selling more clothes that are marginally more sustainably made, a truly earth-changing solution would be to encourage consumers to buy fewer, more durable products. This may seem radical, but we’ve seen it work for brands like Patagonia, which mends customer’s well-worn garments to extend their life, and Eileen Fisher, which eschews fashion trends to encourage customers to wear the same outfits season after season. While these brands haven’t grown as fast as their more popular fast fashion counterparts, they are both successful, profitable businesses. A more radical approach to sustainability, both in India, and around the world, is for fashion brands to make durable products in classic styles.
4. Will commodity companies follow through on their commitments to curb deforestation?
Despite commitments from nearly 500 multinational companies to reduce deforestation in supply chains by 2020, 2019 saw the second-highest amount of tree cover loss since 2001, after 2016. (2018 numbers won’t be available until later this year). Commodities like timber, soy, palm oil and beef are largely responsible. So why is it so hard for companies to stop deforestation? As of March 2017, 447 companies had made 760 commitments to curb forest destruction in supply chains linked to palm oil, soy, timber and pulp, and cattle – principal forest-risk commodities – according to NGO Forest Trends. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, if current rates of tropical deforestation continue, the world’s rainforests will vanish within 100 years, eliminating the majority of plant and animal species on the planet, as well as uprooting the communities who live there. Around 70% of deforestation is linked to the production of agricultural commodities that end up in food products eaten around the world. And deforestation accounts for around 12% of global manmade greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study from Cornell University suggests deforestation contributes more significantly to climate change than previously realised. The UN’s sustainable development goals pledge to halt deforestation by 2020. A growing number of companies from McDonald’s to Unilever are also voluntarily committing to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, both in their individual sustainability policies and through participation in larger initiatives. However, one issue complicating these pledges is a lack of agreement about what a forest even is. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) offer guidance, but each country is free to define forests within these criteria. And while terms such as “deforestation free” and “zero net deforestation” are often used interchangeably, they are different. Zero net deforestation, for example, allows forest clearance provided an equivalent area is replanted elsewhere.
5. Will the Belt and Road Initiative support green growth?
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a major global development endeavor, involving the construction of roads, ports and other infrastructure in more than 100 countries. Yet while Chinese leaders advocate “eco-environment protection” in all aspects of the Belt and Road, research shows that most of the initiative’s energy investments currently favor fossil fuels over renewable energy. “We need to adhere to the concept of openness, greenness, and cleanliness,” Chinese President Xi Jinping had said at the Belt and Road Forum, held in Beijing from April 25 to 27, 2019. He had added that the Initiative needs to “promote green infrastructure construction, green investment, green finance, and protect the common home for the sake of human survival.” China has signed multilateral and bilateral agreements on eco-environmental cooperation with countries participating in the BRI as well as international organizations. A host of bilateral and multilateral environmental cooperation mechanisms have been strengthened, including those between China and Russia, Kazakhstan, Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, Arab nations and Central and Eastern European Countries, in addition to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Euro-Asia Economic Forum. It has also reinforced cooperation mechanisms with BRICS, the association of the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
6. Micromobility: A fad, or the future?
If you run a search for micro-mobility on Google, the first link you will find is that of Micro Mobility Scooter Worldwide, a company founded in 1999 to reinvent urban mobility. Shared bikes and scooters are taking off in cities around the world. Case in point: Bird, an electric scooter rental company, is the fastest startup ever to reach “unicorn status,” a $1 billion valuation. Wim Ouboter, the inventor of micro-scooters, founded the micro-mobility system with the vision to bring about a micro-mobility revolution in the ’90s. However, he failed to do so at the time. Now, just two decades later, the micro-mobility revolution has begun. What is micro-mobility? Micro-mobility —â€Š bicycles, skateboards, skates, mini-scooters, e-bikes, small electric vehicles with one or two seats —â€Š is making headlines around the world, not only for the huge sums of money raised (over $5 billion) but also for the concerns regarding safety and operational viability of these businesses. In general, micro-mobility is defined as small transportation modes propelled by humans or electric motors with speed in the range below 50 km/hour. Despite the presence of cab hailing apps such as Ola and Uber, the majority of the Indian population still travel by private or public transport —â€Š personal cars, buses, local trains, and metro. With an increase in traffic and congestion, governments have moved fast to strengthen public transport. However, traveling very short distancesâ€Š—â€Ša few kilometres or lessâ€Š—â€Što get from your origin to or from the nearest transportation hub is still a huge unsolved problem. A common example is walking 800 metres to the nearest metro station or from the metro station to your workplace or home. Here’s where scooters, e-bikes, bicycles, and other personal transit offer consumers a compelling alternative to bus transfers, pricey ride-hailing services, and long walks on India’s pedestrian-unfriendly streets, because of their low prices, predictable speeds in cities, and on-demand availability. “Congestion in major Indian cities is much higher than comparable mega cities in Asia. We believe scooter sharing is the right model to help solve this. The vast majority of commute in India is in the micro-mobility segmentâ€Š—â€Šunder 10 km. Scooter sharing fits the bill here, providing a hassle-free, affordable easy-to-use solution alternative for consumers of all demographics. This works across use casesâ€Š—â€Šbe it firstâ€Šor last-mile feeder to public transport, short intra-neighborhood trips or daily commute,” said Anand Ayyadurai, CEO, Vogo Rentals Solutions. Various micro-mobility startups have sprung up in the last couple of years, primarily in China, US, and now in India. There are two business modelsâ€Š—â€Šself-serve scooters or scooter rentals (the more popular one), and bike taxis. “We found a partner in the form of Uber; who not only believes in our vision but is also walking the talk with us. Uber’s partnership with Yulu will make the urban commute efficient and eco-friendly. People can now save their time by using Yulu’s e-bike and reduce traffic woes,” says Amit Gupta, co-founder & CEO of Yulu Bikes. In the last week of February, the company launched the ‘Yulu Miracle’, a dockless, lithium-powered scooter in Bengaluru alone. “Yulu is currently operating in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Pune and Bhubaneswar and has 8,500 cycles across locations and 800 Miracles in Bangalore. Yulu offers smart e-bike with swappable batteries. We have a plan to deploy 10,000 Yulu Miracles on roads in the next 3-4 months,” says Gupta. While the micro-mobility wave has definitely hit India, we will have to wait and watch just how much Indian commuters choose to do away with traditional means of transport to opt for the newer ones.
7. Is India’s climate action at a turning point?
Leaders from government, business, and civil society joined today at the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in New York to announce potentially far-reaching ambitious solutions in nine areas: a global transition to renewable energy; sustainable and resilient infrastructures and cities; sustainable agriculture and management of forests and oceans; resilience and adaptation to climate impacts; and alignment of public and private finance with a net zero economy. The Summit is expected to offer a turning point from inertia into momentum, action, and global impact. Many countries used the Summit to demonstrate next steps on how by 2020 they will update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) with the aim to collectively reduce emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030 and prepare national strategies to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century. Prime Minister Modi who was one of the early speakers at the Summit underlined that global actions to tackle climate change were not enough. He called for a comprehensive approach which placed emphasis on education, values, lifestyle and developmental philosophy. He called for mass movement to bring about behavioural change. Two days after, Modi, joined by the leaders of six other nations, helped inaugurate the Gandhi Solar Park and Gandhi Peace Garden at the UN headquarters, installing India-manufactured solar panels on the roof. As the world’s largest democracy, seventh-largest economy, second-largest nation by population, and third-largest carbon emitter, India’s actions are of utmost importance. There are accomplishments, like heavy investment in wind power, mass distribution of energy-efficient LED lights, and public transit development in major cities like Delhi. But these are then offset by continued dependence on dubious energy alternatives like biofuels and ‘clean coal’, failed busing plans, and steeply falling transit ridership rates (citizens are increasingly buying diesel-chugging SUVs and other gas-guzzling automobiles). Plus, India belches carbon at a significantly lower rate than China and the US, but it still outpaces other developing nations by bounds. Plenty of other Indian cities are experiencing severe water shortages, which portend environmental-linked violence. Heat waves have been more severe than ever this year, with summer temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). The state of Kerala was pummeled by monsoon flooding, killing hundreds. Air pollution reached emergency levels of toxicity in cities like Delhi. Climate change is not a distant reckoning for India — countless people are already suffering thanks to insufficient reforms. But maybe, just maybe, New Year could represent a turning point. Difficult as it is to extrapolate how far-reaching citizen climate activism is within India, grassroots movements are indeed gaining ground, fueled by citizens who understand that their fate, or at least their children’s, is linked to what they do right now. And the Indian government might finally be treating the issue with even more seriousness and urgency than before.