Climate entrepreneurship or green jobs can drive bottom-up climate action
At the COP26 in Glasgow, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi made five climate commitments to the world on behalf of India – he called them the panchamrit, referring to the five elixir-like foods that are believed to cleanse the human body. India would reduce fossil fuels, generate more renewable energy, reduce carbon emissions and intensity and eventually become a net-zero emitter by 2070. The goals are ambitious. They are built around the levers which, at the policy level, are most likely to create a positive impact on climate. Their epithet conjures up an enticing vision – swallow this panchamrit and the world will be cleansed.
Is it that simple, though? Can policy initiatives alone fulfil India’s commitments towards arresting climate change? History has some lessons to teach us here. Actions that are driven top-down, via government policy, no doubt set the stage for change. But unless people shift their attitude and behaviour in tune with the policy initiatives, change will not be able to retain its momentum. Ask anyone who lived in Surat in 1994, when this western Indian industrial town was at its filthiest. With garbage overflowing from bins and sewage pouring into streets, the town became the epicentre of a terrible outbreak of bubonic plague. Just two years later though, the very same Surat was declared India’s second cleanest city. How did this happen?
After the epidemic of 1994, the Surat municipal corporation went into overdrive, announcing a slew of measures to clean up the city. But none of them would have worked, had the citizens not cooperated. The eatery owner who threw his garbage out of his kitchen window, now dutifully brought it to the centralised garbage collection point. The slum dweller who defecated in the open now used public latrines built by the government. This behavioural shift didn’t happen because the government decreed it to be so – it came from within. It happened because an important question in the minds of Surat’s citizens was answered.
The key to getting people to change their behaviour is to answer the what’s in it for me (WIIFM) question for them. How will I benefit if I make this shift? The answer in the Surat case was a grim one – you will die of bubonic plague if you don’t change. But it could also be a positive response, one that paints a picture of a better life or better opportunities. The answer has to point to a tangible, time-bound outcome that directly affects the individual or group.
Over a decade ago, India’s rural solar energy pioneer SELCO had installed solar home lighting systems in hundreds of rural unelectrified homes. In their sales pitch, SELCO personnel did not talk about clean energy or climate change. Rather, they patiently worked out “kerosene economics” with the head of the household. They showed each family how the monthly installment on the loan they took to pay for the solar lighting system was lower than the monthly cost of the kerosene they burnt every night in their smoky lamps. With the financial upside clear, most families ordered the solar systems without hesitation. A whole army of climate warriors was recruited, without so much as a mention of global warming or carbon footprint.
India’s climate policy needs to embrace this learning. No doubt the five high-level commitments made at Glasgow will bring about a shift in the energy mix and carbon footprint at a national level. But to make each citizen a flagbearer of positive climate impact, the policy will have to drive tangible climate co-benefits at a community level. It has to answer the WIIFM question for every citizen of the country.
Y H Srinivasa is a climate warrior based in Chitradurga, Karnataka. He doesn’t identify as one, though, and his life as a farmer is far removed from Glasgow’s type of high-decibel activism and sloganeering. Srinivasa has installed a solar-powered hydroponic fodder station in his farm. Every day he produces 40 trays of nutritious green fodder, of which he sells 30 trays after feeding his own 10 cows. The green fodder is produced using a fraction of the energy and water that conventional fodder cultivation methods would use. More importantly, it is available all through the year, even in the dry season when this resource becomes very scarce. There’s another unexpected upside. Cows that feed on Srinivasa’s greens are less prone to flatulence, and that makes a dent on the 3.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (methane equivalent) released by livestock into the atmosphere each year!
The story gets even better. Dairy farmers in the region pre-book Srinivasa’s fodder trays, realising that their cows produce at least 12% more milk after feeding on the nutritious greens. Because of this steady demand, the fodder station is an economically viable proposition, allowing the farmer to break even on his investment in less than three years. During the rainy months, when green fodder is freely available in the countryside, the same unit can be used to grow mushrooms or wheatgrass that find their way to urban supermarkets. Srinivasa’s fodder unit provides better earnings for him and all his customers, besides giving direct employment to two staff members. Most importantly, every rupee he earns makes the world a greener place.
Vasanth Kamat and Jeevan M, co-founders of Hydrogreens (the start-up that designs and builds Srinivasa’s hydroponic fodder stations), represent a new breed of Indian climate entrepreneurs. They realise that they cannot “make, sell and disappear”, as many large corporates have done over decades. They choose to embrace sustainable business practices, even at the cost of profits, by being part of the larger continuum of their customers’ livelihoods. Hydrogreens’ role starts well before the sale itself, by creating awareness and training farmers on hydroponic practices. In several cases, they put in significant upfront investments in the fodder stations, providing “fodder-as-a-service” and recouping their costs over time. Most importantly, they play an active role in the forward value-chain, arranging for sales of products like mushroom and wheatgrass that are grown alongside the fodder. Without this active support from Hydrogreens, farmers like Srinivasa would find it hard to adopt new, climate-friendly products and practices.
PM Modi would do well to add two more elixirs to his Glasgow prescription – climate entrepreneurship and green jobs. This would truly make India stand out in its quest to achieve a cleaner earth.
The piece has been authored by Ananth Aravamudan, sector lead, Climate Action, at Villgro Innovations Foundation along with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water- run Powering Livelihoods, a programme that supports the scale-up of renewable energy usage in rural livelihoods.