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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Road to Paris: why local stories matter

What happens in Paris is not just about what governments agree to. It's about our collective will to deal with the planet's most urgent problem

In December, more than 195 countries will come together in Paris to sign a new climate agreement. Countries from across the globe will gather under the aegis of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to set targets to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to prevent anthropogenic interference in the climate system.

Having covered three UN conferences, from Copenhagen to Mexico to Durban, I find the story on climate change is becoming dangerously boring and predictable. International negotiations can be frustrating; trying to get countries big and small to agree on language, let alone legally binding targets, is no mean task. This time around, the story at Paris is likely to be similar—the developed and the developing world will be gridlocked on this issue and the superpowers of the world will continue to dither on coughing up dollars for a climate fund.

That’s why in the build-up to Paris, it’s important to remind ourselves of what we are doing locally to tackle the elephant in the room. From states to municipalities to communities, there are efforts on at all levels across India that are making the climate change story local. Perhaps the best indicator that we are taking climate change seriously is that from industry to government everyone now wants to know what they can do.

Did you know for instance that every state government has a climate action plan? Or that almost 40 cities across India have solar master plans to help them go green? According to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), an international organization that works with local governments on environmental sustainability issues, the city of Rajkot in Gujarat has set itself the target of going carbon-neutral by 2020. Thane in Maharashtra is developing 10,000 energy-efficient street lights and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh is introducing rules for linking garbage dumps to energy generating plants.

Organizations such as ICLEI have been working closely with state governments to help them develop their own climate action plans, with a special focus on improving environmental conditions through cumulative local actions. Emani Kumar of ICLEI points out, and rightly so, that more than the environment ministry, it is ministries such as urban development that have taken the lead in making sure our cities develop in a green way.

Perhaps the toughest challenge of the climate change story is working with businesses that are high emitters. Damandeep Singh of Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an organization that works worldwide with businesses to help them lower their footprint, points out how businesses can no longer ignore climate change. He gives the example of the shares of Volkswagen AG falling by nearly 30% this week after the US Environment Protection Agency found the auto maker was using sophisticated software to cheat emissions tests.

CDP works with over 200 companies in India to voluntarily disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and to ensure that an effective carbon reduction strategy is made integral to their business.

A 2014 report by CDP, which tracks the GHG emissions of major global corporations, has for the first time put five Indian companies on its Global A-list. CDP found that over 60% of the surveyed companies are introducing energy-efficiency initiatives. As a result, 24% have reduced their absolute emissions and another 26% have reduced their emissions intensity while driving business growth and profitability. For instance, Infosys Ltd, which figured high in the CDP list, has set itself a target of procuring 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Similarly, Wipro Ltd had aimed to reduce its emissions intensity of operations by 48% per employee by 2014 by making greater use of renewable energy sources.

All of these are not easy targets. What they suggest is that Indian companies are concerned about the impact of climate change and, at the very least, wish to walk on the low-carbon path.

And then there are hundreds of non-profit organizations working with communities and villages across India to provide renewable sources of energy. One such example is the Vasudha Foundation, which has set up a biogas unit in Jharkhand run entirely by village women. Or the Timbaktu Collective working with 20,00 families in Rayalaseema on eco-restoration and sustainable farming.

That’s why what happens in Paris is not just about what governments agree to. It’s about our collective will to deal with the planet’s most urgent problem. The challenge lies in mainstreaming these efforts and making them the norm rather than the exception. These efforts may not stop the ill-fated rise of 2 degrees Celsius in mean temperature, but I would say a pursuit of low-carbon growth is still better than business as usual.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars.

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