The Glasgow conference came to an end last week, with over 100 heads of state and global leaders agreeing to take stronger action towards achieving the 1.5-degrees Celsius target. The conference, however, saw a parallel movement by young activists all across the world, pushing for more urgent climate action in the face of the ‘code red’ issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to humanity.
Sneha Shahi, a PhD scholar studying floods and droughts at Atree (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment), Bangalore, puts it succinctly, “The ambitions which have been set at this point will not be a problem for the people who are setting them right now. It will be a problem for us. Giving a deadline as further as possible only makes people procrastinate. The farther we keep the deadline, the less urgent we are making the situation.”
Shahi, 24, is a part of a larger cohort of the recently announced UN’s ‘We The Change’ campaign that shines a light on the innovative and sustainable strides taken by young Indians in their respective fields to combat climate change, whether it’s through solid waste management, water conservation or environmental education.
Last year, Shahi headed an initiative to clear plastic waste from the Bhuki stream in Vadodara, in collaboration with the Centre for Environment Education (CEE-Ahmedabad) and the UNEP. Her efforts revitalised the stream’s wildlife making the crocodiles and turtles more visible than before.
Her team ran local campaigns to spread awareness through radio and local news media in Hindi, Gujarati and English. “We wanted to show how even a small stream like Bhuki is as important as a river like Vishwamitri which sustains Vadodara. We were happy to see that vendors near the bridges from where people threw their waste into the stream were actually scolding them that it will cause floods and clog the drains,” Shahi tells indianexpress.com.
Urging young students to take on environmental issues, a 27-year-old urban planner from Mumbai, Berjis Driver, says, “many youngsters tend to get it wrong that the size of your contribution is what matters”.
“Students are confronted with the dilemma of an uncertain future. The fact that climate change is only going to exacerbate this further, tends to demotivate them at times to do something about it,” says Driver. He adds that the youth, however, must realise that everyone can create an impact – an average citizen segregating their waste or one with an idea in their mind.
He notes that according to a World Economic Forum report, India’s journey to decarbonisation could potentially create more than 50 million new jobs worth over $15 trillion by 2070. “So, the youth are going to play a very critical role going ahead,” the young activist says.
Driver’s paper calling for public open spaces won a competition set up by think tank Observer Research Foundation in collaboration with the city’s civic body to make suggestions for the draft development plan 2034 of Greater Mumbai. He went on to help the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority with its urban design guidelines on several aspects like village integration and greenfield development. He now helps indigenous communities through the NGO, Waatavaran
“The next brilliant idea doesn’t come from some higher calling or a really driven sense of global ambition, but from what little you want to change,” says Driver, adding that “no matter how many narratives come out or reports and fantasy pathways come up for net-zero, the real power behind climate action is purely local”.
Tech and data can enable climate action
A mechatronics engineer and self-taught programmer, Ganesh Subramanian, 30, is another example of how small actions can have a larger ecological impact. Enabling the waste-pickers of Chennai with the Internet of Things, the Kabadiwalla Connect, an initiative co-founded by Subramanian, provides decentralised waste management solutions.
A survey by the organisation of the scrap shops in the city found that over 24 per cent of the recyclable waste that Chennai generates is recycled by the informal sector, prompting the group to come up with ideas on how to make them more efficient.
“15 per cent of the greenhouse emissions is due to improper waste segregation. According to an Ellen McArthur report, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste is being dumped into the oceans every year and 80 per cent of that comes from Asia. There is an efficient network (of informal waste-pickers) that’s in place, so how do we utilise it to combat this problem? That’s where technology comes into place,” explains Subramanian.
In a project funded by Expo 2020, the Kabadiwalla Connect provided IoT-enabled smart bins with fill-level sensors to scrap-pickers in Mylapore, creating an environment safer than landfills to pick waste. When the bin is full, a mobile app alerts the scrap shop, which can then deploy someone to collect the waste.
The project also focused on teaching over 1,000 apartments how to segregate waste and only deposit plastic into the bins.
Siddhartha Sharma, 27, an entrepreneur turned climate activist, says: “Using tech like IoT, which can capture real time data on the spot, can drive policies around climate action in the future, but there has to be political intent.”
The Guwahati-based control systems engineer realised the importance of data while working with Assam’s task force in mitigating the floods as well as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Witnessing the plight of the flood survivors and migrants in Assam motivated the young activist to look into the gaps affecting flood mitigation efforts. “Back in 2016, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had pointed out that India does not have many real-time flood monitoring systems,” he says.
“When I looked at the data, I saw that in the last decade or so, after 2009, the frequency and the intensity of the floods have been increasing. There are more waves now and a greater number of people are going missing or dying,” Sharma explains. This prompted him to create data-based visuals to assist the officials in planning flood mitigation.
Empower the marginalised
Nidhi Pant, 28, a native of Uttarakhand and now residing in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad, too, employed a tech-driven solution to help small-holder farmers. Back in 2016, Pant launched the S4S Technologies, which helps reduce losses through its solar-powered food processing machines.
After noticing food wastage on multiple points across the food supply chain, Pant with her friends came up with a dehydration technology that helps preserve food for longer and helps farmers earn extra money through value addition.
“People look at farmers as beneficiaries of clean-energy products. We are also looking at them as customers. On a larger scale, the country should focus on enabling such marginalised sectors to have the power to purchase these products either through loan or rent,” says Pant.
Lack of financing among the small-holder farmers was among the initial hiccups that the start-up faced, along with establishing trust with the community. “100 per cent of our operations are carried out by women so we need buy-ins from other stakeholders like family or husbands. For these women it’s important to have the consent and support of their partners,” Pant explains.
She also states that while India has good early-stage investment, it needs to develop its later-stage investment into green initiatives. “If there is someone doing solar dehydration in Orissa, and I am doing it here, we need to come up with a standardised way to measure their outcomes – it will help us get more traction, interest, and investment,” she adds.
Pant along with Driver, Subramanian and Sharma, is also a part of the ‘We the Change’ campaign, which calls on the youth to lead the way to climate justice. As Berjis puts it, “The entire essence of the global narrative around climate action is about self-improvement and getting out of the deep, dark path that we are on. This presents an opportunity for youngsters to lead an ethical narrative as to how we perceive the world, how we interact with our resources and leave behind our societies, cities and the environment.”
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