Cover story

Climate call

The India Climate Collaborative has brought together a diverse set of stakeholders to help the country tackle a crisis of catastrophic proportions

The portents get grimmer by the day. Mumbai and its 27 million population face a high risk of floods and sea-level rise by 2035. In Ahmedabad, 11 million people are at high risk of living in an urban heat island.

These are two possible Indian scenarios as stated in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body responsible for tracking and explaining human-induced climate change.

The dire reaping represents only a portion of the catastrophic threat India faces from climate change, an existential menace like no other this planet has endured. Adding to the distress are diminishing and contaminated water tables, soil degradation, an increasing number of extreme climate events, erratic weather patterns, and rising sea levels.

These are not perils that have sprung up overnight, and government bodies, policymakers and numerous institutions and individuals are doing their all to counter the cataclysm in our midst. Their exertions are sincere but scattered, effective in parts but stymied by shortfalls in cohesiveness, synchronisation, and resources. The biggest deficit, though, is the lack of an integrated and collective response to a clear and present danger.

Bridging the gap between intent and action is the goal of the India Climate Collaborative (ICC), an organisation as much as a movement that is working to help the country stem the hydra-headed challenges unleashed by climate change.

A potent combine

Seeded and supported by the Tata Trusts, ICC has endeavoured since its inception in early 2020 to create an ecosystem that brings together a diverse set of stakeholders, from government bodies and corporate entities to philanthropies, research establishments, implementing agencies and communities.

The need for a unified and interconnected approach to tackle India’s climate change hazards is urgent and immediate. Events attributable to climate change cost the country an estimated $87 billion in 2020 alone, according to a World Meteorological Organization report. And an ICC-backed study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a New Delhi-based research institute, has stated that 638 million people in India are at risk due to climate change and its fallouts.

“It’s important to recognise that climate change exacerbates existing problems of poverty among vulnerable populations,” says Shloka Nath, who heads ICC. “They tend to be the most impacted by climate-induced challenges, but they also often lack the resources needed to adapt or protect themselves.” This reinforces the point about the world’s poorest bearing the brunt of climate change, though they have done little to cause it.

ICC began its journey with a mapping of the climate change landscape in India, and it has not stopped for a moment since. Connecting with different stakeholders, bringing philanthropies and corporate donors into the fold, partnering and advocating with the government, prioritising areas for climate action, and linking up with research institutes and community organisations — the Collaborative has worked overtime to cement a first-of-its-kind effort.

Getting the monetary piece in place has been critical for ICC. “Through our connections with a wide set of stakeholders in the climate ecosystem, we try to understand where funding really needs to flow and, based on this information, we engage with our domestic and international donor base to fill major gaps,” adds Ms Nath. “We work closely with our donor partners to help them understand climate issues and simplify the process of supporting climate solutions.”

There are three essential elements in the ICC way. The first is incubating programmes in underserved climate change spaces. “We have worked with our network of 100-plus partners to identify, co-create and launch initiatives in air quality, land and water use, agriculture, energy and risk-assessment data,” explains Ms Nath. “Our partner network is the driving force behind our ability to translate funding into real, actionable solutions.”

A funding platform

While the ICC does not implement its own projects, it works to match donors to the solutions being implemented by their partners on the ground. “ICC is a funding platform and it is also, at the same time, about education and awareness, mobilising and building capacities,” says Ms Nath.

The second component is bringing together domestic and international donors for climate action in India — this includes Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, Wipro, Mahindra and the MacArthur and Bloomberg philanthropies — and the third is concerned with crafting a network and a platform for the sharing of knowledge and practices.

“We have strived to bring climate action into the limelight of philanthropic funding,” says Ms Nath. “We have fostered regional and cross-border collaboration and knowledge sharing, both of which will be vital over the next 10 years.” A broad dynamic is what ICC is after, and the broader the better.

The complexities in finding the right pathway have been many for ICC. The direction that funding must take is difficult to pinpoint, given the range of risks associated with climate change and the technical expertise required to select a particular area of intervention. The challenges with implementation on the ground have to do with cooperation and cross-sectoral partnerships.

“This is what we are addressing: high transaction costs and time involvement on the funder’s side and a limited ability to coordinate on the actor’s side,” says Edel Monteiro, ICC’s programme lead. “As a collaborative, we can solve both of these at the ecosystem level.”

ICC has a clutch of sector-specific initiatives and these are indicative of the method it has adopted. With a group of government and nongovernment organisations, in India and abroad, it is supporting the Council on Energy, Environment and Water to develop a ‘climate risk atlas’ to chart the risks and vulnerabilities confronting the country. A work in progress, the atlas will gauge climate change threats at the district and village levels to better prepare India in coping with what is to come.

Water security

In the water sector, the Collaborative has joined hands with the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation (a subsidiary of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) to produce, using open-source data, a diagnostic toolkit that can guide and assist rural communities in improving their water security.

Additionally, ICC is supporting projects to devise cold storage solutions based on renewable energy, to reduce post-harvest losses, map and monitor air quality across India, fashion a financing solution to scale up nature-based solutions such as agroforestry, and create a roadmap to restore degraded lands through reforestation.

What ICC has accomplished is help funders clear the fog on myriad climate change issues in India, pursue scalable and sustainable climate action solutions, and get stakeholders singing from the same sheet. And, in a wider sense, every citizen is a stakeholder in the conversations around climate action and the action it demands.

A farmer in Jawai in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district; the poor have to bear the brunt of climate change, though they have done little to cause it; photo by Shloka Nath

“Climate change is a systemic challenge that feeds into every aspect of the economy,” says Ms Nath. “Yet we believe change at this scale is possible, because we are surrounded by a community of people and organisations who devote their time, energy, and resources every day to make it happen. That gives us hope.”

ICC has had a tough time navigating the choppy waves around the climate change narrative in the country. “Climate philanthropy is still nascent in India,” adds Ms Nath with reference to the crucial funding facet. “As I often say, we are building the plane even as we fly it.”

Climate philanthropy is still nascent in India ... we are building the plane even as we fly it.”

Shloka Nath, ICC lead

The fact that India is the third-largest carbon emitting country in the world and the fifth most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change means that we share a dual responsibility in this country, says Ms Nath. “While citizen awareness is vital, the transformational shift we seek will necessarily involve the government, industry and philanthropies.

“We are aligned with the government and supportive of its climate goals. We are fortunate to have a government that is aggressive on climate action and is looking to take a global leadership position on it. But there are gaps between government, businesses, and civil society and we are trying to plug these. Also, we see Indian philanthropy playing a big role in promoting a homegrown model, one that takes bigger risks and pushes for more collaboration.”

Competing ideas of what constitutes progress — the development versus emissions debate, for instance — complicate the climate change issue, but there are factors beyond disagreement.

Jeopardy junction

“We don’t have a choice about whether to act or not,” says Ms Monteiro. “In avoiding the problem, we are going against our own interests because we are the ones whose farmers are suffering droughts, whose cities are getting flooded and who are suffering heat wave after heat wave. It’s our future that’s in jeopardy.”

Deciding how we go about the task is equally critical. “Everything is related to climate change, be it health, water, education, food security or farmer incomes,” adds Ms Monteiro. “Taking action on climate change gives us the opportunity to restructure systems that are inequitable and create better standards of living for our country and our planet. We can use climate action as a platform to fix a broken system and design something better in its place.”

Undertaking the responsibility as a collective will surely pave the path to imagining and creating a better India, a climate-resilient country that has safety nets as well as enduring solutions for its communities and its people. ICC expects to play a full role in this voyage.