India Inc must seize climate initiative

When US President Donald Trump declared in 2017 that he was walking out of the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, it did two things. While triggering waves of protests across the world, it also galvanised several American businesses, counties, universities and colleges into action. They came together to declare “We are still in”. It was an unprecedented moment, where the Head of the State declared unilateral noncooperation with a movement that had the planet’s best interests at heart, and some its most powerful citizens came out to say, “Even if America is not with you, Americans are and will be”.

At Walmart, 90 per cent of its carbon footprint originates from greenhouse emissions in its supply chain. Its “We Are Still In” commitment aims to eliminate one gigaton of greenhouse gases by 2030, which is the equivalent of getting 200 million cars off the American roads for a year.

Similarly, Google, whose global operations consume as much energy as the city of San Francisco, is committed to securing all its energy needs from renewable sources before the end of the decade. L’Oréal in the US has been as relentless — switching completely to renewable energy, more than halving its water usage and waste per product.

The Walmart initiative is known to have improved the bottom line by over a billion dollars. Being planet conscious is a profitable affair.

In India, we have a similar opportunity arising out of two seemingly unconnected events. First, the calamity in God’s own country and second our obligations to the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Kerala floods have evoked a wave of empathy and support from across the country and beyond. Not surprisingly, through Central and state government efforts, through efforts of the armed forces and of several thousands of private citizens, money, relief supplies, medical aid was mobilised swiftly. Corporate India also participated actively and did its CSR bit.

Illustration by Binay Sinha
As environmentalists are now lamenting, the Kerala disaster is man-made — the result of greed, apathy and neglect. The report of a committee headed by Madhav Gadgil, a noted ecologist, submitted in 2011, warned of the perils of unchecked industrial and tourist activity across the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats, including Kerala and Goa, and its likely apocalyptic consequences. 

India, the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter, ratified the Paris Climate change agreement in late 2016. Every country, party to the agreement, has obligations relating to what it would do to mitigate the risks of climate change across the planet. India’s obligations are easily quantifiable: Control temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, reduce its carbon emissions by a third by serving nearly half of its energy needs from renewable sources and adding 5 million hectares of good quality forest cover by 2030.

The two events provide India Inc an opportunity to do a “We are in”. While CSR is good, India Inc must go beyond what is mandatory. The first commitment is a moral one — no CEO must endorse a project that negatively impacts inter-generational equity — that is, plunder of natural resource for short-term profit that would take away from the next generation its rightful due. The Environment Assessment Impact reports (EIA) must be taken seriously and not “managed” creatively. Positive environment impact must be seen as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle. Much like how consumers now shun conflict diamonds, the CEO must commit to stop doing business with those businesses that cause adverse environmental impact. For example, stop using ports that are mired in coastal environment controversies or stop supporting mines that have dubious clearances. Or don’t involve in projects such as highways that pass through national parks and reserve forests.

The second commitment is to embrace India’s obligations under the Paris Agreement. Every corporate must commit to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy. This is now feasible as both solar and wind power costs have plummeted due to significantly lower raw material costs in China. Those corporates in the energy sector must motivate sell-back of excess renewable energy back to the grid as a means of propagating the use of renewable energy. Those industries that depend heavily on water consumption must find new processes that use significantly less water and less solvents. Green Chemistry is finding favor in the pharmaceutical and heavy chemical industries and its use can contribute a lot in this direction. Reducing dramatically the use of non-recyclable composite packaging materials is another step if we want to see cleaner oceans and lighter landfills. 

What can corporations do to improve India’s forest cover? Traditional public–private partnership (PPP) models have only spawned economic activities of dubious character or have resulted in monocrop plantations posing as forests. There is need for corporates to proactively support no-go zones even at the cost of immediate gains.

Who will take the lead? The traditional do-gooders from the Tata, Godrej, Mahindra, Cipla, Thermax vintage? Or young turks like Flipkart? Who will be the first to say, “We are in”?
The author is executive vice-president, Cipla. Views are personal

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