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Why Indian states and cities need climate action

India may be on course with its net zero targets but most states are still unsure of how to deal with the climate crisis, says UNEP India head

Most cities and states struggle to address challenges relating to climate change and pollution.
Most cities and states struggle to address challenges relating to climate change and pollution. (istockphoto)

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Coastal cities around the world, including Mumbai, face the risk of being inundated by 2050, according to a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. As we look at solutions to mitigate and adapt to rapid changes in climate patterns, the economic cost developing nations will have to bear is worrying. 

On the sidelines of ‘Climate Crisis 2.0: Mobilizing Finance for Coastal Cities’, a conclave organised by the think tank Mumbai First this week in the financial capital, Lounge spoke to Atul Bagai, India head, United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), about climate funding, adaptation and climate change risks. Edited excerpts:

Which coastal states/cities are doing a better job of planning for risks?

At a macro level, India is one of the few, and one of the only G20 developing countries, to be compliant with net zero emission targets. If you look at the qualitative indicators of climate action, then India is performing very well. 

However, at the state and city level, I have observed a few big challenges. There is lack of understanding of the three planetary crises—climate change, pollution and plastic waste and ecosystem and biodiversity loss—how to address these challenges, and the solutions available. For instance, a state might ban single-use plastic but they are at a loss to find alternatives in the market, or how to bring that solution into the market at a price a consumer is willing to pay. 

The other thing is that the department of environment, considered to be the focal department to address climate change challenges, is either poorly resourced or not important in the chain of command at the state level. 

What I have found is that different departments, like power/energy, transportation or agriculture, don’t seem to be aware or realise that the policies or actions they take might contribute to climate change or environmental damage. Climate mitigation is each department’s responsibility but everyone thinks it’s the job of the department of environment. So that kind of coordination at a state level is essential and critical. 

Is any state doing anything tangible?

Well, some state governments have started understanding this. Bihar is perhaps the first state government in India to have taken a decision to follow a low carbon development pathway strategy, in February last year. 

Bihar and Odisha are the two states that are talking a lot about climate budgeting in their annual budget plan. In other words, looking at departmental budgets and investments through the lens of climate, and how it can be made climate resilient. All the other states should be doing this as well. 

In Odisha, I was very surprised that an industrial district, Angul, was taking the first step in developing a circular economy strategy for the district. Now, from a traditional perspective of the impact of resource use on the environment, Angul is an environmental disaster considering the kind of emissions and the scale of mining. What will their strategy be, how it will be planned is something that is work in progress. 

We talk about circular economy policy at the global and national levels and do studies but all these are theoretical discussions. And here’s an example of what it means to have a circular economy action plan at a district level.

One of the biggest concerns is climate funding. Where will coastal cities in developing countries get finance?

That’s the critical question developing countries are facing and the covid-19 pandemic has compounded the problem further. 

While it’s important that national and international budgeting takes into account urban climate action needs, there is a lot of discussion and narrative about what finance is available outside the public sector. Increasingly, the private sector is getting engaged in green financing, and, more so, the financial institutions are getting engaged in bringing the money to the table. That’s a very heartening development taking place. 

In India, it hasn’t reached those levels but there is a lot of discussion and thinking going on. If you look at private financing, they are looking at financial instruments that can bring in resources for fighting climate change.

What kind of resource mobilisation can be expected from private sector in from climate action perspective? 

I am seeing lot of private philanthropy in India looking at climate as a major area of investment. Private and individual investors are also looking at companies to invest in which are more green. In turn, companies are also realising that they need to adopt a green, sustainable culture to attract more investment. I think, this whole move towards private financing, though it may not add up to the $100 billion requirement, is an important source for the future. 

The other thing is, there are macro level studies as to how much money is needed for reaching 1.5 degrees centigrade target. But these are broad studies. India really needs to gear up and do a scientific study to ascertain what is the funding actually needed to achieve the net zero emission target. That will further help in determining where and how that money can be sourced. 

You are a big believer of individual action. How will that help in climate budgeting considering the scale of the problem?

This is not accounted for but, I believe, aggregation of individual actions needs to be scaled up and mobilised. Ultimately, individual action will bring in a lot of saving and will avoid cost for mitigation. 

A lot of projections on carbon emission are till 2050 or 2100. So, in the next decade or 50 years, if we can have a more sustainable consumption approach, resulting in sustainable production approach, whatever cost maybe needed for climate action will be minimised. 

It’s a question of demand and supply. You need certain amount of money to meet your net zero emission targets but you also need action that will minimise that amount of money needed. I think, the combination of all government, community and individual efforts will be very useful in the coming years. 

India had signed a resolution to reduce marine plastic waste at the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2017. How much progress has the country made in reducing marine pollution till now? 

What has been agreed upon in the resolution is that nations will enter into international treaty on marine plastic and plastics in the next two years. So, countries are negotiating various things including targets and whether to set it as voluntary or mandatory. We are hoping that the international treaty on plastics becomes reality in next two years by 2024.


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