A speech by Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, at the Shri Ram Research Festival hosted by the Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi.
We are coming together in the wake of COP26, from which we expected much. At this summit, we were looking to nations to come up with stronger commitments to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees C.
Yes, the final agreement kept “1.5 alive”. Promises were made on reducing coal use and ending fossil fuel subsidies. The agreement pledged more climate finance for adaptation. The agreement recognised the need to support vulnerable countries that have suffered climate damage.
We saw other promises to end deforestation. Reduce methane emissions. Mobilise private finance around net zero. For its part, India pledged more ambitious goals. These include 2030 targets for renewable energy and emissions reduction, and a net-zero commitment for 2070.
This all sounds good. But when we add everything up, the world is still on a path to a temperature rise well above 2 degrees Celsius. This will mean more of the climate impacts we are already seeing. Storms. Floods. Wildfires. Displacement. Damage to human health, economies and businesses.
1.5 is alive, but it is on life support. Now the world must almost halve greenhouse gas emissions over the next eight years. We have a serious job of work to do.
We must also not forget, amidst the focus on the climate crisis, that is one prong of what we at UNEP call the triple planetary crisis. Of climate change, which I have already spoken about. Of nature and biodiversity loss. And of pollution and waste. Together, they pose a huge threat to human peace and prosperity.
Let’s look at nature and biodiversity loss.
Humanity has altered 75 per cent of land and 66 per cent of marine environments. More than 4 million hectares of tropical primary forest, the size of Denmark, are lost each year – mainly due to agriculture, livestock and infrastructure expansion. Approximately 30 per cent of India’s land area is degraded. A 2018 study concluded that this degradation leads to a loss of 2.5 per cent of India’s economic output annually.
This is significant because nearly half of India’s 1.3 billion citizens directly depend on agriculture and forests. Approximately 20 per cent – including indigenous communities, women and marginal farmers – are dependent on forest resources.
Now let’s consider pollution and waste.
I speak knowing that you are sitting in Delhi, in the toxic Delhi smog. Schools and colleges are shut. And I understand people are being encouraged to work from home. Sounds like COVID-19, but it is not. Poor air quality is the reality of life in more than 75 per cent of Indian cities. This despite significant progress on clean cooking fuels and a programme to control ambient air pollution. Based on global estimates, more than 1 million deaths were attributable to air pollution in India in 2019. By affecting children’s health and development, air pollution threatens India’s future growth and development. Meanwhile, only 37 per cent of India’s urban municipal solid waste is treated.
Tackling the crisis
We need urgent transformations in three areas to address the triple crisis. We must tackle the Earth’s environmental emergencies and human well-being as one indivisible challenge. We must transform our economic and financial systems to power the shift to sustainability.
We must transform our food, water and energy systems to meet growing human needs in an equitable, resilient and environmentally friendly manner.
India can and must be a leader in these transformations.
India will soon be the most populous country in the world – and home to one of the youngest populations. India is the world’s third-largest energy consuming country, with 80 per cent of demand met by coal, oil and solid biomass. Despite its efforts, India is predicted to be among the top three emitters by 2030. Millions of Indian households are set to buy new appliances, air conditioning units and vehicles. Rapid growth is expected in building stock, other infrastructure, and construction materials.
Amid this backdrop, India has made commitments. India is making progress.
In recent years, India created a massive expansion in renewable energy. India’s efforts at promoting LED lighting are a huge success story. Over 367 million LED bulbs, 7.2 million LED tube lights and 2.3 million energy efficient fans have been distributed. This has brought big savings in power use, greenhouse gas emissions and household bills.
India has also taken steps to control plastic pollution, including bans on single-use plastic and strengthening extended producer responsibility. India has also committed to restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.
But India, like every nation, must do more. And doing more is in the best interests of the entire nation. IEA studies show that a transition to net-zero carbon can catalyse new industries, create millions of jobs, and drive trillions of dollars of economic value. A recent World Economic Forum estimate suggests that India’s decarbonisation journey represents a USD 15 trillion economic opportunity by 2070. This journey could create as many as 50 million net new jobs. With an estimated 10 million Indians having lost their jobs from the second wave of the pandemic, investing in ecosystem restoration becomes even more important for sustaining household incomes.
But we cannot leave it all up to the government.
We need whole-of-society action for a whole-of-society problem. We all need to take responsibility, in every aspect of our work and professional lives. Look, it can be difficult to make sustainable choices in a system that doesn’t encourage them. It can be difficult to refuse a good paycheque on moral grounds when you need to put food on the table. But we all have to try. We need to challenge ourselves to live a more holistic life by following green guiding principles in our work and personal lives.
First, let’s look at what this means for business.
The triple planetary crisis is a massive risk to profitability, so sustainability is in businesses own best interests. Even putting aside the direct risks from climate change and nature loss, for example, consumers are increasingly making choices based on sustainability criteria. No business that wants to stay afloat long can afford to keep backing the status quo.
So, how do businesses go about transforming their operations?
The first step is to start accounting for the value of nature. UNEP can already estimate the value of natural capital – the planet’s stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources. We are encouraging governments to use this alongside produced and human capital to give a true, inclusive measure of growth. The same applies to businesses. If a business is making money in the short-term, but damaging the planet in the long-term, it needs to reflect this in the balance sheet.
The next step is to set science-based targets for nature, climate and pollution. This means adopting a time-bound plan to make operations net-zero. It means adopting circular models, to reuse and recycle as many resources as possible. It means being mindful of the toxic trail of pollution pledging to deal with it.
Many large Indian industries have already set science-based climate commitments. As many as 57 Indian companies have committed to more than 95 emission reduction targets. Many others have set renewable energy and energy efficiency targets. 400 Indian companies are signatories to the UN Global Compact – a voluntary commitment by businesses to implement universal sustainability principles. These companies need to get busy. Others need to join the movement.
The third step is to hold suppliers and trading partners to the same standards. We are talking about being comprehensive and holistic. A business’s internal operations can be squeaky clean, but if it is outsourcing environmental damage, it is still part of the problem – something that is even more important in our globalised world.
All of this applies just as strongly to investors, banks and insurers – because we need all investments to back sustainability. In our work at UNEP, we are seeing ever-stronger commitments on this front More 250 commercial banks worth US$ 65 trillion have signed on to the UN Principles for Responsible Banking aiming to align their businesses to society’s biggest challenges.
Members of the UNEP-convened Net Zero Banking Alliance have, since inception in April, grown to 84 banks, with USD 64 trillion in total assets – 41 per cent of global banking assets. A longer standing group of investors established in 2019, called the Net-Zero Asset Owners alliance comprise investors that realise they cannot decarbonise themselves unless the underlying industries they support also head in this direction. The Alliance now has 61 asset owners collectively responsible for USD 10 trillion in assets under management.
Those that are insuring our futures are also beginning to feel the climate pinch. The UN-convened Net-Zero Insurance Alliance now has 13 members with gross premiums of USD 565 billion are aiming to accelerate the net-zero transition by 2050.
We have more than 200 banks, covering 45 per cent of the global banking industry, signed up to the UN Principles for Responsible Banking.
Crucially, all these processes and commitments I outlined above need to be fully transparent, third party assessed and grounded in science. Why? To avoid greenwashing. Greenwashing is a cynical attempt to gain the financial benefits of a sustainable profile without doing any of the work. It has to stop.
Second, let’s look at what this means for students and young people such as yourselves.
Previous generations have left youth with a legacy of environmental devastation. It is unfair, but youth – as the next generation of leaders – can be the changemakers. Students entering the workplace could easily go and work for the businesses that are doing the things I outlined above. This is a valid choice. But they can also become changemakers within the broken system.
We need brave and fearless people inside corporates to force them to move beyond lip service to sustainability and start doing something meaningful. Another option, one that is just as valuable, is for youth to start their own green business. This is why in September 2021, UNEP launched the India Green University Network to provide higher educational institutions a common platform to collaborate. The Network aims to help students build green and environmental sustainability skills through education.
If the old companies won’t change, new ones can displace them. Young entrepreneurs can take advantage of the growing demand for green and sustainable products, services and companies.
And we are in desperate need of new ideas and innovations. The good news is that we are seeing many youth-led innovations in India. We have seen furniture from risk husk. Replacement of plastic packaging with jackfruit and banana leaf-based packaging. Processing natural dyes from withering flowers. All of these inspire a zero-waste culture and find solutions to deforestation and air pollution.
Third, let’s look at personal responsibility.
Even if we green our business operations, take on the system from within or come up with something revolutionary, we have to carry the fight over into our personal lives.
We all need to choose greener forms of transport. Adjust our diets. Cut our food waste. Move away from fast fashion. Buy second-hand, repair, reuse, recycle. Choose green energy providers when available. Put our money to work through ethical finance.
We can also choose to take direct action. For example, beach clean-ups organized by Afroz Shah, an environmental activist who was awarded the UN Champion of the Earth award, have grown into a movement inspiring people around the world to clean up beaches.
Indians have also pioneered community-based agriculture. Just this month, Tulsi Gowda, a 72-year-old tribal woman was awarded India’s fourth highest civilian honour for her contribution to protecting and reviving native plant life in the Indian state of Karnataka.
And we must always remember that we have a vote. We need to get on the right side of history, and vote for the leaders who will do the right thing by the planet, and so by us.
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We clearly have a massive challenge on our hands. One that no nation, or company, or investor or individual can tackle alone. But what COP26, and the attention and protests around it, have shown is that climate change is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. People want action. They want to act themselves. The same applies to nature loss and pollution.
If each of us does our part, we can put humanity back into harmony with nature. We can find a way to live together on a planet of peace, prosperity and equality. We can all be changemakers.
Learn More: United Nations Environment Programme