The Pursuit of Innovation in Building Climate Sustainability I: Defining the Area of Battle

At the onset of the AIF Fellowship, as I entered a space I was rather hesitant and nervous to navigate, given its depth of understanding and tides of nuances – I stepped in knowing that this is a battle I want to march along in, one where I want to make sure that I take a step closer every day in fighting for the harmony of nature and one where I want to strive to be a better warrior every day.  The battle to combat climate change, to become climate resilient and to attain climate sustainability – is one that is long drawn yet immediate and thrives on building the collective consciousness of the world. 

Photo defining the fellowship journey of Mehar Jauhar as "The Pursuit of Innovation in Building Climate Sustainability"
My Fellowship Journey: “The Pursuit of Innovation in Building Climate Sustainability” [Graphic by Mehar Jauhar | AIF W.J. Clinton Fellow 2020-21]
However, before picking up the weapons and riding the cavalry into the horizon, I realised it became of utmost importance to understand the battlefield, to acknowledge the geography of the battle and the underlying principles behind the same. Whenever we talk about a battle, whenever we wish to conjure up an image or imagination of a battle rather, we always first endeavour to paint where the battle took place – and that was my first learning in this journey. Where are we fighting, most pressingly, in my fellowship journey, to combat climate change? So as first steps, in part one of this series of blogs, where I wish to walk you through my past year serving as an AIF Fellow, let’s begin by narrowing down a bit of our geography for this battle. 

An image of the world map where the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia is encircled with countries of focus named as "India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand"
Region of Battle for Building Climate Sustainability: South Asia & Southeast Asia [Infographic by Institute for Sustainable Communities]
The picture above, in the words of my project supervisor, Mr Suresh Kotla (Director, Energy & Environment, Institute for Sustainable Communities), speaks a thousand words – and the circle right there, representing the regions of South and Southeast Asia, does wonders in telling us why climate change is a battle of equity and not only numbers in the years to come – subsequent to our prime of present enjoyment. It is not just because more than half of the world’s population lives inside this circle but in fact, this is the key manufacturing hub for the world, thereby carrying on its shoulders the burden of fulfilling the industrial needs of the rest of the globe, with a majority of manufactured products coming from here; and wherein the world supply chains, mainly comprising of MSMEs operate in this region. This implies that the countries in this region continue to provide for most of the manufacturing and product demands for the remaining populations of the globe, whilst consuming or rather over-exerting their own limited natural resources – which also has a detrimental effect on the socio-economic indicators of their population as well as their standard of living. It is a vicious cycle really, of overlapping inequalities, thereby making this region an extremely critical one to focus on and contribute to the ever-so imminent need for the countries within this region and especially the industrial ecosystem therein to transition to more sustainable sources of energy for a more sustainable and energy secure future.

The facts indicate nothing less. With the economies of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries growing at an exponential rate, the total energy consumption is expected to grow by 1.6 times over the next two decades under the business as usual scenario, with sustained population and economic growth [Southeast Asia Energy Outlook, 2019, International Energy Agency]. Such increased energy demand is a major contributing factor to the throes of climate change with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in Southeast Asia having grown more rapidly than in any other region of the world from 1990 to 2010 [Southeast Asia and the Economics of Global Climate Stabilization, Asian Development Bank, 2015]. Hence, the region is on a trajectory that will make it a much larger emitter in the future thereby intensifying the threat of climate change where the Asian Development Bank (ADB) further estimates Southeast Asia to suffer bigger losses than most regions in the world owing to the effects of the same. Unchecked, climate change could shave 11 per cent off the region’s GDP by the end of the century as it takes a toll on key sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and fishing—along with human health and labour productivity [Southeast Asia and the Economics of Global Climate Stabilization, Asian Development Bank, 2015]. 

There exists a potential of 15-30 per cent reduction in the energy demand if such countries adopt and implement climate resilience strategies i.e. energy-efficient, clean energy, and alternative energy measures [Energy Outlook and Energy Saving Potential in East Asia 2019, ERIA for ASEAN and East Asia] – the motivation for which is plentiful given the region’s commitment through respective Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Accelerating the adoption of such climate-smart sustainable manufacturing practices (energy-efficient, clean energy, and alternative energy measures), especially energy efficiency (improving the efficiency of every unit of energy used in industrial production thereby reducing the overall energy consumption and cost of production), is an extremely cost-effective way to mitigate climate change, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimating that energy efficiency improvements could contribute half of the GHG reductions required to limit global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Being the largest consumer of electricity in the world, the industrial sector [Energy Outlook and Energy Saving Potential in East Asia 2019, ERIA for ASEAN and East Asia] holds a huge potential for energy saving and GHG emission reduction through the implementation of such sustainable manufacturing measures. However, despite the environmental, technical and financial benefits of sustainable manufacturing for industry, the utilisation of this potential remains largely sub-par and ineffective. Therefore, there is an urgent need for breakthrough interventions within the region in order to enable the achievement of its country-wise NDCs through implementing innovative improvements at scale thereby combatting the barriers of high up-front costs and barriers to accessing finance, limited knowledge and awareness, inadequate policy incentives as well as lack of technical awareness, baseline data and the low credibility of Energy Service Companies (ESCOs). Although there exist policy-based interventions and initiatives to promote the adoption of sustainable manufacturing – the large-scale adoption of sustainable manufacturing practices still requires a range of interventions including unique business solutions, capacity building initiatives and affordable financing mechanisms to address different technical, informational and financial barriers. This paints a window of opportunity for the implementation of innovative and comprehensive business models – presently limited in number – that can effectively persuade and support the industries to undertake the shift towards sustainable manufacturing and enable the ecosystem to drive the energy transformation for the region. Such models, successfully demonstrated within the region of South and Southeast Asia, shall also leverage the current global crisis of COVID-19 and combat its tremendous economic fallout by enabling the industrial sector to build back better and stronger through making the shift to greener, and more energy-efficient as well as clean energy practices.

All of which brings me to my fellowship project – as an AIF William J. Clinton Fellow 2020-21, I had the opportunity to serve with the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) which is presently implementing the Energy Efficiency for Alliance for Industry (E2 Alliance) Project, accelerated by P4G (Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030), which aims to scale and replicate innovative interventions to drive the adoption of energy efficiency interventions by industry in India, South and Southeast Asia.  Before I delve deeper into the immense learnings I gathered and elaborate on the perspectives from the ground, I think it is rather essential to understand the role of innovation within climate sustainability and how the E2 Alliance Program aims to drive the innovative energy transformation within the region of South and Southeast Asia. Please stay tuned for the next part in the blog series to explore the need for enabling ecosystems and deriving innovative solutions in order to move towards a climate sustainable tomorrow. 

Mehar is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Sustainable Communities India Private Limited in Pune, Maharashtra. For her fellowship project, she is developing innovative business models for accelerating the adoption of energy efficient technologies in India as well as South-East Asian countries. Growing up in various locations across India and exploring diverse cultures, Mehar believes in the importance of communication and adaptability for understanding the needs of different groups and strengthening them through sharing ideas, knowledge and creating cooperative communities. Through her interactions with vulnerable groups in conflict regions, she recognises the value of empowering communities and building their resilience to adversity by developing systems for sustainable livelihoods. Mehar began her career as a Policy Analyst at Swaniti Initiative with a focus on bridging the gap between the community, civil society organisations and parliamentarians, as well as delivering development solutions to strengthen democratic institutions. Over the past year, she has facilitated the policy engagement efforts of a network of grass-root organisations across India on issues surrounding human trafficking and protection of migrant workers. She has also conducted capacity building workshops for women artisans in North India with an aim to increase their market linkages. Her recent project gave her the opportunity to assist the State Government of Jharkhand to strengthen climate change resilience within the state and assess the absorption of returning migrant workers into large-scale employment programs such as MGNREGA. Serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Mehar endeavours to build her experience in the development sector as well as understand the nuances of designing and implementing scalable and sustainable projects that drive social impact. She is keen to learn and foster innovative approaches that create synergies between the goals of economic growth and environmental preservation. An avid reader, she is fond of writing poetry and enjoys playing the guitar.

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