Climate change is real and staring in our faces, but all’s not lost

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Published: March 15, 2020 2:20 AM

There’s a collaborative effort across industries today to tackle the crisis. From fashion, energy and transport to beauty and food, companies across sectors are doing their bit to ensure a better tomorrow.

Climate change, Temperatures in Antarctica, Amazon rainforest, Baghdad, Australia, India Climate Collaborative, indoor air qualityIt’s true that sustainable transportation can enhance economic growth and improve accessibility.

Temperatures in Antarctica have hit over 20 degrees Celsius, Baghdad has witnessed snowfall, the Amazon rainforest drought has caused fires, a large part of Australia has experienced its worst wildfires… The catastrophic effects of climate change cannot be more pronounced.

While there is little political will to tackle climate change, rising consciousness among the public is certainly triggering a demand for sustainability, be it products or services or experiences, giving birth to a host of businesses and entrepreneurs to meet this demand. As coined by some corporates, ‘alternativism’ is the in thing.

In a bid to solve India’s pressing climate challenges, the country’s foremost philanthropists have formed the India Climate Collaborative (ICC) to drive solutions that will ensure that both the natural world and people thrive. The ICC marks the first-ever response by industry leaders including Ratan N Tata, Anand Mahindra, Rohini Nilekani, Nadir Godrej, Aditi and Rishad Premji, Vidya Shah and Hemendra Kothari, among others. “Our collective leadership will indicate to the world that Indian philanthropy is ready to be a leader in climate action,” Tata Trusts chairman Ratan Tata has stated. The ICC seeks to build a collaborative platform for diverse voices, innovative solutions, and collective investments without quantifying the money which the corporates are pooling together for the platform. “It is clear that the world cannot continue to pursue a business-as-usual approach and nobody can solve the problem on their own. Business, government, and philanthropy must collaborate to drive results quickly and at scale,” Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra has been quoted as saying.

Encouragingly, climate change is fuelling growth for not just the big names, but startups as well.

Efficient energy

Energy needs to be not only sustainable, but also saved and its use minimised. So while we have a host of green power enterprises like solar, wind and hydro fuel, we also have enterprises that use energy smartly, like San Francisco-based startup Rainforest Connection (RFCx), which uses old, recycled smartphones powered by solar energy to save trees. Closer home, Ecolibrium Energy, a clean-tech startup, works with SmartSense to address the need for demand-side energy management. It offers smart grid technology solutions to optimise power use with components, such as smart meters, renewable sources, distributed generation and storage, smart end-use device, and sensors.

“In India, where power cuts are rampant, a small 3-5% efficiency improvement in power-hungry industries can provide reliable power to thousands of households. Reduced energy consumption leads to a decrease in carbon footprint and, in turn, saves trees. We help in distributing the saved energy to those who need it. Large enterprises buy a mix of power from various sources like thermal, wind, solar, etc. SmartSense helps companies choose the most sustainable source at the lowest cost on a daily basis. It is able to detect energy leakages across the enterprise and recommends ways to fix them, making such companies energy-efficient,” says Harit Soni, director and founder, Ecolibrium Energy.

Smart building technology startup 75F offers a predictive building intelligence system by self-optimising solutions like HVAC, indoor air quality (IAQ) and lighting, based on inputs from sensors, weather data, configuration settings and predictive algorithms, to deliver up to 50% savings on energy and 10% improvement in occupant experience.

Azure Power, an independent power producer, builds, owns and operates solar power plants in India. Coimbatore-based cleantech startup Surya Power Magic provides solar irrigation solutions by making affordable solar water pumps for farmers in power-deficit regions.

Greenway Grameen Infra engages in the design, manufacture, and distribution of fuel-efficient, smoke-reducing, affordable home energy appliances for rural consumers in India. It offers smart cook stoves and jumbo stoves that are highly durable and portable, and can burn all biomass fuels (wood, cow dung, etc), while reducing smoke by 70%, fuel use by 65% and GHG emissions by 1.5 tonnes a year.

Recently, the Government of India, BIRAC, Tata Trusts, TATA Power and Social Alpha felicitated 15 startups for demonstrating impactful technology solutions to address issues of energy poverty, energy access and climate change. Of them, Elicius Energy, a fuel cell energy storage technology, provides an increase in power density as compared to the current market standard and lower initial purchase costs; Grassroots Energy developed a low-cost energy efficient technology to purify and compress biogas in a cost-effective manner; Temperate Technologies developed a new proprietary energy-efficient air conditioning and cold storage technology, which leads to up to 50% reduction in the overall energy consumption; Offgrid Energy Labs developed a ZincGel battery that can outperform current lead acid batteries in terms of power density, battery life and cost, significantly reducing the number of batteries.

Sustainable transport

To participate in the UN Summit last year, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic in a racing yacht to avoid travelling by air. In the process, the young climate activist sparked off ‘flight shaming’, propelling travellers to shun air travel.

It’s true that sustainable transportation can enhance economic growth and improve accessibility. For this, though, new fuels are needed that can reduce GHG emissions and comply with the limits on sulphur/carbon emissions. Some sustainable fuel options include bioethanol—which is made from corn and sugarcane, and can be used instead of petrol—and bio-diesel, which is made from vegetable oils and animal fats.

Current zero-emission vehicle technologies include plug-in hybrids, liquid nitrogen vehicles, flywheel energy storage vehicles, solar-powered cars, hydrogen vehicles (utilising fuel cells or converted internal combustion engines) and compressed air vehicles typically recharged by electric compressors. The Segway personal transporter, too, is 11 times more energy-efficient than an average American car, as it operates on two lithium-ion batteries.

No talk of sustainable transportation, however, can be complete without mention of carpooling, which not just eases traffic congestion, but reduces greenhouse emissions as well. Working in the field is sRide, a social carpooling and bike pooling app in India, which is present across 10 cities, helping over two million commuters everyday. Then there is urban mobility solutions provider Routematic, which helps companies with round-the-clock shifts. In 2019, in fact, it reduced 2.56 lakh tonnes of carbon emissions, covered a distance of over 167 million km (saving around 33.26 million litre of fuel) and powered over 42,000 shared trips equivalent to planting 6,250 trees. “With the launch of electric vehicles… we have been able to power a million trips every month for over 80 customers… we have emerged as a gamechanger for MNCs. Companies align their employee transportation goals with our vision,” says Routematic co-founder and CEO Surajit Das.

Car manufacturers, too, face the increasingly important task of providing safe, secure and sustainable mobility for all. As early as 2010, automobile giant Nissan introduced Nissan LEAF, a fully electric vehicle with the latest Nissan intelligent mobility features, including ProPILOT Assist, e-pedal and automatic emergency braking. “Since its launch in 2010, we’ve been able to put more than 300,000 zero-emission electric vehicles on the road worldwide, helping reduce the carbon footprint around the globe,” says Daniele Schillaci, executive vice-president, global marketing and sales, zero emission vehicle and battery business, and chairman of the management committee for Japan/AO (Japan, Asia, Oceania Business), Nissan Motor. The company launched Note e-Power, another electric vehicle in November 2016. In 2019, Hyundai Motor India, too, launched the electric SUV Kona, a long-range, zero-emission car.

Even Amazon, for which transportation is a key component, is doing its bit. The e-commerce giant has invested $440 million in Rivian, an electric truck startup, to accelerate the production of electric vehicles. The new vehicles will start delivering packages by 2021 with 10,000 new vehicles on road and all one lakh vehicles on road by 2030, saving 4 million metric tonnes of carbon per year.

Plastic-free homes

There’s still a long way to go for India to become completely plastic-free, but some startup ventures have taken baby steps towards that future. Take, for instance, Chuk, which manufactures green tableware using bagasse. “The products are 100% compostable and decompose within months. The pricing ranges from `1-7 (for the entire product range), which is cheaper than good-quality plastic,” says Ved Krishna, strategy head at Yash Pakka, the parent company of Chuk, adding that bagasse pulp makes products lightweight, flexible, strong and suitable for use in microwave ovens.

But what makes Chuk truly stand out is the fact that its products are oil- and water-resistant, a differentiating factor for tableware. This has been possible due to the incorporation of food-grade chemicals during the manufacturing process, explains Krishna, adding, “All these chemicals are FDA-approved and used in minuscule quantities during production. So they have no adverse effects.”

Clearly, recycling is the way to go—at least till we find suitable alternatives to plastic. That’s the mantra being followed by The Rug Republic as well. The international home fashion brand uses recycled bicycle tubes, PET yarns extracted from recycled water bottles, recycled silk yarns and other multi-fibre textiles to create unique and vibrant rugs and carpets. Another company Carpet Couture curates outdoor rugs made with recycled plastic.

Amazon.in, too, is developing plastic-free alternatives for packaging, including bubble bags, stretch wrap, tape, etc. “We will continue to invest in sustainable packaging solutions to minimise our dependency on plastic. Sustainability is integral, as it ensures a triple win—it’s good for the planet, customers and community, and business,” says Akhil Saxena, vice-president, customer fulfillment, Amazon India.

Suraj Chaudhari, co-founder, Zlade, an online brand of men’s grooming products, agrees: “We focus on not adding unnecessary layers to a package, and not use any plastic to wrap or fill the package. Recyclable and biodegradable materials—like corrugated boxes, paper, cloth paper bags instead of plastic, bubble wraps and shrink wraps—can be used in packaging.”

Water woes

Responding to the increasing shortage of water in the world today, many companies are coming up with innovative solutions to cut water use. Unilever, for one, introduced Domestos Flush Less, a toilet spray that disinfects and eliminates odours without the need to flush, in South Africa in 2018. The smell of urine is neutralised and eliminated by the spray’s sophisticated fragrance. “The fragrant odour-killing spray is effective and gives residents some reprieve from the dire situation they face. It helps households and businesses save water by reducing the number of times they flush their toilets,” says Elizabeth Mokwena, marketing manager, South Africa, Domestos.

Then there is Altered, a Swedish innovation company, that provides low-effort, high-impact solutions in the form of faucets and showers that radically reduce water and energy use. Traditional faucets use 10-12 litre of water per minute. The new EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standard is, however, 8 litre per minute. “We only use a fraction of that,” asserts Mikael Abbhagen, co-founder and head of design, Altered, which was founded in 2016. “When we wash hands… billions of gallons goes down the drain literally. Hence, we atomise water, breaking it up into millions of drops. Each drop has its own surface area, which means you use every single drop of water coming out of the tap,” explains Abbhagen, adding that in less than two years, the brand has sold over 90,000 units of its water-saving device.

Carbon-neutral food

Transporting food by air, too, results in significant carbon footprint. According to a post published in January 2020 on Our World in Data, a scientific online publication, carbon emissions are high for food products transported by air, resulting in 50 times more CO2eq (equivalent carbon dioxide) than if these were transported by, say, a boat. One kg of avocados from Mexico to the UK, for instance, would generate 0.21 kg CO2eq in transport emissions, which would be around 8% of the avocados’ total carbon footprint.

One solution here is to eat as much local produce as possible. It’s no wonder then that chefs around the world are increasingly using local and seasonal produce. Simran Singh Thapar, executive chef, JW Marriott, Mussoorie, for one, uses local millets extensively while cooking. Some restaurants like New Delhi’s Pluck restaurant at Pullman, Aerocity, even grow their own vegetables. “The satisfaction of cooking and serving what we grow is unmatched. Our ‘rooted in nature’ buffets focus on microgreens and fresh seasonal produce,” says Neeraj Tyagi, culinary director, Pluck at Pullman.

Eating local is especially important considering the fact that agriculture is one of the worst affected sectors due to climate change. The situation is getting aggravated as farmers, in the face of harsher weather linked to climate change, are experimenting with new crops in areas previously unsuited for agriculture. Experts believe some of these areas have carbon-rich soil and this can lead to more emissions. Russia and Canada, for instance, have about a third of the world’s organic carbon stock found in the top layer of fertile soil. If that land is cultivated, half of that carbon could be released into the atmosphere within a decade. If agriculture were allowed to extend into all such areas, there would be little chance of meeting the Paris Agreement goals.

Another way to cut carbon footprint is to eat less meat and dairy or switch from meat to plant-based alternatives. Scientists, in fact, have repeatedly advised adopting plant-based diets and regulating meat consumption to curtail the adverse effects of climate change. A 2019 special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that adoption of plant-based diets is a major opportunity for mitigating climate change. “We don’t want to tell people what to eat, but it would be beneficial for both the climate and human health if people in many countries consumed less meat and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.
But for those who may find it difficult to quit eating meat altogether, there’s hope in the form of mock meat products. In India, there are many mock meat brands such as Veggie Champ, Good Dot, Vezlay, Vegeta Gold, etc, which are utilising the goodness of grains and plant proteins to create healthy and affordable meat alternatives. Nestlé, too, has resolved to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and plans to launch plant-based burgers in the US and Switzerland.

Nutritionists, however, have their doubts about mock meats and turning 100% vegetarian. “I believe in a 70:30 ratio for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food consumption. And I’m definitely not in favour of mock meats, as we are not sure what chemicals are being used in the process. The long-term benefits of consuming mock meats are still unknown and it may be a long time before we discover those,” says nutritionist Kavita Devgan.

The amount of methane generated on dairy farms is another major concern. But there are concerted efforts to curtail this by many players. One of the earliest movers was Finland-based dairy cooperative Valio Group, which has cut the amount of methane it produces on its dairy farms to half over 50 years. Not surprisingly, cow health has improved and the emission per litre of milk has also reduced.

Washington-based milk brand Neutral, too, is working on reducing the methane produced by its 1,200 cows through responsible practices. The methane that is produced is converted into electricity which, in turn, powers the dairy farm.

Flexi working

Amidst all this, an unlikely weapon in the fight against climate change is the concept of flexible working and co-working spaces. And why not? Commuting is not just time-consuming but also extremely damaging to the environment. “Commuting can be uncomfortable, unfriendly and incredibly time-consuming. It’s a huge source of global pollution,” says Harsh Lambah, country manager, India, International Workplace Group (IWG), the global leader for flexible workspaces, which is present in over 100 countries and 1,000 cities across the world. The Switzerland-based company operates two co-working brands in India: Regus and Spaces.

Co-working spaces located outside major city centres provide ease of access to workers, cutting long and tiring commutes. New research, in fact, reveals that by 2029, outer city office spaces will reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent of 12.8 lakh transatlantic flights between London and New York each year.
In 2020, Regus came out with a report titled The Flex Economy, which analysed the environmental benefits for local economies by the growth of flexible workspaces in secondary towns, cities and suburban locations of major cities in 19 countries—Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and US. The report found that flexible working spaces boost local economies, improve job opportunities, enhance local communities as well as improve the environment. If we just talk of India, the country, as per the report, will see a reduction of 181,000 metric tonne of carbon emissions per year by 2029. “Urban commuting is one of the most energy- and pollution-intensive activities in India, increasing carbon emissions exponentially. Growth of opportunities in suburban cities and options for people to work closer to home can have a tremendous effect not just on them, but on the environment too,” says Lambah.

Fashion alternatives

Sustainability is an omnipresent phenomenon on runways, street and fashion brands. From fashion shows in New York and Milan to London, Paris and India, designers are increasingly becoming conscious of how damaging fast fashion is to the environment. This year, the Oscars saw actor Jane Fonda wear a recycled, six-year-old gown and a red coat she previously declared was “the last article of clothing I will ever buy” as part of her ongoing campaign to raise awareness about the climate crisis. “The movement towards slow fashion has been fairly recent, particularly among millennials, who are realising that their buying pattern is not eco-friendly. It is especially not fair for those who are involved in preparing the garment,” says Sharda Gautam, head of crafts at Tata Trusts. “For instance, if you have a cotton top, it consumes 700-800 litre of water, depending on the design. This is mere wastage of resources,” he adds.

Skill and local ingenuity, focus on energy conservation and (industrial) greenhouse gas emissions are a few factors that differentiate the handloom industry from power looms. The dyes are extracted with less energy-intensive means in the former. Also, a handloom is operated manually without the aid of electric power.

Austrian fibre brand Lenzing Ecovero has integrated sustainability from the start. It has partnered with brands such as UGG, Converse, Native, Gant, TOMS, Allbirds, Alceste, Veja, H&M, Soludos and Leguano for footwear. The brand also plans to enter the footwear segment with a botanic shoe concept in India soon. It has conceptualised Tencel fibres for footwear, using ingredients from nature and substituting multiple components—the raw material wood, for instance, is from responsibly-managed forestry. It also follows an environment-friendly production process. Other factors like compostability, breathability, the shoe being smooth to the skin, performance parameters (moisture management, reduced bacteria growth) are also kept in mind while making the product.

Indian designer Ritu Kumar used their fabric for her AW20 collection. She says, “The trendsetting styles made of sustainable viscose fibre depict a shift to responsible fashion. The industry is doing its bit to promote eco-friendly clothing and Lenzing’s commitment would result in contributing to a healthier environment.” Avinash Mane, commercial head, south Asia, Lenzing Group, adds, “Such collaborations can create a larger outreach among the industry on adopting alternative resources and processes in their brands.”

Adidas has recreated three editions of its UltraBoost shoe, and a new version of its Adidas Originals shoe under Adidas Parley—the official collaboration product line between Adidas and Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organisation—produced with recycled plastic, which helps mitigate the amount of plastic in the ocean debris.

In 2013, Levi’s launched its WasteLess range of jeans composed of a minimum 20% post-consumer recycled content from an average of eight plastic bottles. Even though the WasteLess range is no longer marketed, Levi’s has continued to offer sustainable fashion with its current Wellthread, featuring the first-ever commercialised use of cottonised hemp and fully recyclable nylon board shorts.

Conscious beauty

Beauty brands, too, are seeking to adopt natural ingredients and sustainable practices to grow within the market. So while brands like Batiste and Bblunt offer dry shampoos that eliminate the use of water, others like WOW Skin Science have products which do not use harmful chemicals like sulphates and silicon. There are 100% vegan brands as well such as Plum, which use recyclable plastic. Other personal care brands such as Pepsodent, Vaseline and TRESemmé are also making use of recycled plastic.
Then there is Ohria Ayurveda, which makes environment-friendly and palm oil-free products (moisturising lotions, clay masques, etc) and uses glass instead of plastic bottles to store these. In 2018, the brand also launched cotton muslin cloth potlis, an ancient and sustainable way to store items and gift presents.

Hindustan Unilever (HUL), too, has announced to halve the use of virgin plastic by 2025. It has invested in multiple-use (reusable and refillable) packs, ‘no plastic’ solutions (alternative packaging materials and naked products) and a reduction in the amount of plastic in existing packs. In 2019, the company also launched the personal care label Love Beauty and Planet in India, with products like shampoos, conditioners, bodywashes and body lotions infused with natural ingredients and packed in 100% recycled plastic bottles.

Decentralised workspaces

A 2020 study analysed the environmental benefits for local economies by growth of flexible workspaces in secondary towns and cities and in suburban locations of major cities in 19 countries. Four main benefits found were…

Job creation

218 new jobs are created with a new flex space. Of this total, 121 jobs would be based in the local community

Time saving

A flexi workspace can save employees based there 7,416 hours each year by reducing commute times*

Value creation

$16.47 m per annum of gross value add is created with an ‘outer-city’ flexible workspace, of which $9.62 m would be retained by local economies*

Carbon saving

A new ‘outer-city’ flex space can save 118 metric tonnes of CO2 every year

* on average

Source: The Flex Economy, a 2020 report by Regus

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