Five challenges for India in the sustainability discussion

Few days back a professor presenting to a group of us about climate change, exhibited a map showing the emissions growth over the last couple of centuries. He pointed out how an island nation in northern Europe had contributed to the climate change using fossil fuels since the early 1800s. According to professor, the carbon(CO2) once emitted stays in the atmospheric system for as long as a century and a few thousand more before it completely sinks in.

While the next few paragraphs explain what is happening in India, you may scroll down the page to get to the five trends.

Industrialisation has a deep correlation with climate change. Developing countries like India aspire to be like Europe and America, where the fruit and pace of industrialisation has translated in a great amount of monetary wealth and increased lifestyle standards. While industrial countries realise the alarming issue of the climate change as potentially irreversible in future, if not checked right away; in India, we have another story going.

The story is of development based on an increasingly capitalist economy structure which outwardly look as an attractive proposition styled in steel, cement and information technology. We have recently made some decisions which might be regrettable in the future. These include enhanced stress on coal mining and its privatisation , power generation using coal, while simultaneously pushing coal based electricity in rural areas, enhancing consumption for textile and other goods to boost economic numbers, rapid cementing of water absorbing catchment areas such as mangroves, salt pans; and of-course deforestation en mass to create highways, for infrastructure and “development”. Bill Gates, in a recent conclave , stated that curbing aspiring citizens from enhanced forms of mobility, better fertilisers, making new structure, is against “human decency”. The solutions in his opinion range from industry innovation in agriculture, through better seeds, better water management, innovation in power/steel and government policies.

India, though had its own share of climatic events throughout this year ranging from floods, cyclones and extreme heat events. A high emission scenario predicts temperatures to rise by 4oC by 2080. It increasingly requires a new thought in its policies, especially of coal and even electric (as electric technologies also rely on coal as a feeder fuel). Suggestions for hydrogen or nuclear fuels offer alternate possibilities, but more interesting are those suggested by Prof Jeff Sachs: natural elements such as solar and wind, based on geographic location.

Next, I chanced upon a report by an organisation called “UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion”. This was launched by seven UN agencies.( UNEP, UNFCC among others)( Why are we just now hearing about it??). What is interesting is the definition of fashion by the alliance ”Fashion, as understood by the Alliance, includes clothing, leather and footwear, made from textiles and related goods.” So, basically they have put in the entire gamut of apparel and footwear into an ephemeris term of fashion (I have a quiz here which clarifies the term “Fashion”, used so loosely. At UCRF, some of us are also working on a glossary of the terms used in sustainable fashion, so hopefully we will have better definitions soon! Till then I prefer Kate Fletcher’s definition — “Fashion within planetary boundaries” as it aligns with Gro Brundtland’s definition of sustainability.)

It did however mention three points which in my opinion might affect India.

  • 8% of green house gases are caused by fashion industry (note: India contributes to 6% of the apparel industry)
  • Asia bears the burden of raw material
  • Women, almost 80% of the workforce, are at risk of being affected by occupational injuries and hazardous chemicals. Also, most affected by unemployment during the pandemic.

1. Depleting Finite Resources

  • India is a major source of emissions from burning fossil fuels such as coal for powering its electric plants but unlike its neighbour China, is doing less towards this area. The world and India itself, is soft on its self towards climate change, cashing to status of developing country filled with aspirational middle income buyers. Yes, I would be disappointed if one day if I didn’t have the coal powered electric energy to run my internet and phone to browse E Com sites providing disposable fashion (not!).
  • 2. Copycats!

  • India is rapidly forgoing its traditional organic and indigenous practices to blindly follow the discarded industrial system of the west, whereas it has an opportunity to leapfrog after learning from the problems towards new solutions.
  • 3. Borrowed Innovations

  • Indianisation required India needs to develop its own technologies rather than adopt technologies created out of western sensibilities. My mind goes to Mitti Cool. It is an indigenously developed refrigerator made from clay that works without electricity (no CFCs). Not surprisingly it has greater demand overseas than in our own country.
  • 4. Extreme heat

  • In future, India will be affected by climate change in the tropical belt, with increasing temperatures which will make living and working outdoors unbearable. Agriculture, food, plant and animal life will be affected
  • 5. Shrinking land

  • Extreme precipitation events are predicted for south India and the northern Himalayas. In future, the coastal India would be affected by rising sea-level, taking the coastal towns such as Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata under water. Maybe this explains the height of a certain rich man’s castle in Mumbai.
  • Conclusion

    India, is unusual in its structure of business with a history of cottage and small business. We need to rediscover our traditional methods of manufacturing along with retaining practices of value and letting go of wasteful practices. India with its populous billion, is like a big ship. If it is steered in a wrong direction to preserve a market for capitalist goods or a supply tank for natural resources, might lead it to disintegrate and sink. Or is it just my fear? The ideal approach is to redefine commerce and rewarding those practices which are beneficial for the environment. That means a lot of relearning and rewriting some textbooks. The Regenerating Product Life Cycle(c) might offer one such strategy, but plenty of alignments and policy directives are required to reach a sustainable future.

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