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Guest Column

Published on: Nov. 10, 2022, 8:57 p.m.
New imagination, new methods
  • The losses from the droughts, wildfires and floods are now visible and have finally started to get counted – one estimate over the first half of the year pegs it at over $65 billion!; Pix courtesy: Pixabay

By Sameer Shisodia. The author is CEO, Rainmatter Foundation

The dictionary defines ‘unsustainable’ as /ʌn.səˈsteɪ.nə.bəl/: ‘that cannot be continued at the same level, rate, etc’. The last few years have been giving us not-so-subtle hints about the true meaning of this word better than any dictionary ever could. In 2022, the rate of apocalyptic disasters shot through the roof. The losses from the droughts, wildfires and floods are now visible and have finally started to get counted – one estimate over the first half of the year pegs it at over $65 billion!

Even so, there are larger losses from the underlying shifts in interconnected feedback loops across supply chains, food systems, watersheds, coastal erosion, soil depletion, air quality and many more finely balanced subsystems. These are already creating myriad stresses and growing trickles of migrations across the world.

Our efforts towards solving this will be a lot more effective, if we understand underlying causes instead of chasing silver bullets that address a symptom here and claim a small win there. Pathways that merely reduce the net harm will not slow the runaway freight train we’ve unleashed. We just have to dig deeper.

It’s not just carbon and transport and energy transitions: The familiar framing of the climate crisis is about the rising temperature caused by increasing GHGs due to our energy consumption and tailpipe emissions, mainly from fossil fuels. The answers are largely said to be found in rapid, scaled energy and mobility transitions in renewable energy and EVs.

There is little mention of the ecological degradation that had already happened, of the tipping points, some of which we might have already breached and of the 350,000 novel entities that we release into the biosphere – representing the planetary boundary we have transgressed the most! Of these, we understand only a handful, such as the worrying PFAs (per- and poly-fluoro-alkyl substances).

This opens up many questions about the source of energy and transport needs and the circularity of materials in our economy. Energy is a function of water, especially in food systems, and these intersect with soil health and forestry. The food systems also link with ever longer supply chains in a big way and then point to the plastics, packaging, transport footprint, and solid waste issues.

Fabrics cause some of the biggest environmental issues and link back to land use and solid waste. All this shows up in the rural distress, livelihood losses, migration, and eventually intersects with urban design and construction, and pollution. Over 30 per cent of the electricity of any state goes into food systems!

Cement, which contributes over 8 per cent to the world’s emissions, is directly linked to our home design and urban planning choices. All of these of course tell on our commons, our health and nutrition parameters and on our social well-being and equity.

It’s all connected: And, we’ve been making poor trade-offs for generations, the sum total of which has added up to what we’re now calling climate change. We need to acknowledge the complexity of the real world and account for the adjacencies of the systems and goals we work towards.

For instance, livelihood efforts would yield better outcomes if they accounted for local bio-diversity and natural capital and water-focussed work accounted for energy. Problem solving in silos not only fails to be efficient, but often causes net harm.

Climate is a place problem: As we explore the intersections and multiple dimensions of any problem, it starts emerging that the climate crisis is about what happens to the place; for too long, we have tried to solve things for one set of stakeholders or the other and ignored what happens to the place itself.

  • There is little mention of the ecological degradation that had already happened, of the tipping points, some of which we might have already breached and of the 350,000 novel entities that we release into the biosphere

The bad trade-offs at the intersections have not just a long-term impact, but also create a continuous economic loss for most of the country! Consider this: most village clusters across India are likely buying 60-70 per cent of their basket of needs from towns far outside their cluster, at MRP. Simultaneously, they try to increase the yields of the few commodities they produce and sell at subsistence prices.

This stresses their natural assets, reduces biodiversity, worsens nutrition and food security and still shows up in a negative surplus for the cluster. We then try to bridge this gap somewhat with subsidies, waivers, charity and remittances from poorly paid jobs elsewhere.

We came across a 200-household cluster in Kutch spending over a crore of rupees on vegetables! We learned of a 25,000-home cluster that lost Rs4.7 crore on soaps and cleaners. We came across similar staggering losses of value in pickle, brooms, farm inputs and a host of other daily needs -- all things that could be easily produced inside and by the cluster, capturing better value and reducing the transportation, packaging and storage footprint of this consumption.

Is having over 95 per cent of our places economically unviable, ecologically degraded and considered unattractive to live in, a great outcome as a country?

To bring visibility to this, there’s a strong need for place indices that tell the story of the overall economic, ecological and social outcomes for every cluster, allow for communities, administrators and ‘civil society organisations’ to baseline, track and benchmark progress over time, and evaluate solutions in the context of these goals.

As these communities develop a better sense of the house, we will hopefully start seeing better trade-offs. Specifically, most clusters aligning to local production-consumption loops can create a more regenerative and equitable economy overall, with a lower footprint to boot.

Responses and not interventions: As the communities understand their issues and seek solutions, the rest of us need to be available with a response -- be it policy support, know-how, capacity building or hand holding. The responses will need innovation in entrepreneurship and solutions that marry the best of traditional wisdom with learnings and knowledge from everywhere.

This is a shift from intervention led problem solving; both governance and CSO help often arrive in the form of a limited set of interventions often force-fitted into a variety of social, geographical and economic contexts, speaking without listening and bringing solutions that may not have been needed in the first place. A lot of these obviously do not stick too long beyond the project cycles and external focus. 

Just like problem solvers and those with social capital need collaboration and alliances to better serve community needs, funders across the board need to join forces, and start to respond to those rather than prescribe solutions. Grants must allow for the local discovery of needs and horizontal funding that helps assemble an array of tools, knowledge and shared playbooks in the commons, readily available to changemakers in every community.

Funders must also allow for organisational flexibility to enable partnerships and knowledge platform creation for non-linear impact possibilities. Finally, the idea of solving problems iteratively, with hypotheses and feedback loops at iterations is the key to actually moving needles. This has to allow for a certain amount of ‘failure’ and avoid the trap of showcasing success one way or the other in lieu of real impact.

  • Pathways that merely reduce the net harm will not slow the runaway freight train we’ve unleashed. We just have to dig deeper

Climate change investment into innovation and entrepreneurship is ramping up rapidly and poised to become the single largest focus of investors in the coming years. The approach towards investing, however, is borrowed from a more predictable world and doesn’t account for a rapidly changing problemscape.

Investment needs to shift to more patient capital, to support a larger set of entrepreneurs not only for innovations, but also for mainstreaming known solutions, and shoot for higher success rates with lower returns expectations than traditional venture funding has in the past. 

Industry is a problem-solver too: Industry, which has inadvertently played a role in exacerbating climate change, has a major role to play in trying to solve it. It needs to address the reliance on fossil fuels, the long supply chains with a huge footprint and the use of non-renewable resources at an ever increasing scale to feed growth targets that we’re locked into today. This is one of the toughest and most urgent transitions needed.

The mounting costs and risks from climate change are already apparent for individual sectors and corporations as well -- insurance risks, rising cost of operations, disruptions of supply chains and consumer distress and preferences and the mandates that will follow as this builds up. Like Nithin Kamath once quipped, “There will be no stock market left, if we don’t solve this”.

We need a narrative about these shifts and need better accounting that includes ecological outcomes. We need investments into the future for more regenerative and circular businesses and production across sectors. This may include lowered RoI expectations – after all, it might be a much better option when survival itself is a question.

We are living in times of unprecedented changes, risks and uncertainty. And patterns, beliefs and approaches of the past will not help us navigate these – as problem-solvers, as funders, as governments and businesses.

We need a new imagination, new methods of problem solving, a better accounting of our costs, losses and gains, and a new set of parameters that embrace the complexity of the planet and account for its health, because our continued survival and progress are deeply, intrinsically linked to it.

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