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'There are not enough people working in climate': Helen Clarkson, CEO, Climate Group

In an exclusive interaction during her recent India visit, Clarkson spoke about why it's important for the world that India is on track to meet net-zero targets, level of climate awareness among business leaders, and how India can chase robust GDP growth while keeping climate considerations in mind

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Mar 12, 2024 02:44:43 PM IST
Updated: Mar 12, 2024 03:50:36 PM IST

'There are not enough people working in climate': Helen Clarkson, CEO, Climate GroupHelen Clarkson, global CEO of Climate Group

During her visit to India in March, Helen Clarkson, global CEO of Climate Group, an international non-profit that works with businesses and governments to address climate change, said that India is playing an important role globally in encouraging the transition to renewable energy, given the country’s recent commitment to triple its renewable energy capacity by 2030.

The Climate Group has been present in India for 15 years. During this time, they have worked with 15 state governments (eight at present), and about 150 businesses. Some of the companies they are working with to address climate-related strategies include Tata Motors, Godrej, Flipkart, JSW Steel, Ikea, JK Lakshmi Cement, Ashok Leyland, Flipkart and Zomato. Their network includes more than 500 multinationals in over 175 markets worldwide.

Some of the major programmes they run in India, include the EV100 and the EV100+, through which they help businesses commit to the transition of their fleets to electric vehicles (EVs). In 2023, they supported government agency Niti Aayog to launch the e-Fast platform to accelerate the electrification of trucks, which led to a demand of 7,500 vehicles.

Their SteelZero programme is helping decarbonise steel industries. The RE100 programme, which has about 400 member companies including Apple, Adobe, Airbnb, Infosys, Accenture, UltraTech Cement, AstraZeneca, Decathlon and Chanel, helps businesses commit to procuring 100 percent renewable electricity. Clarkson says that their work with companies in India is largely around EVs and energy efficiency strategies.

In an exclusive interaction with Forbes India, Clarkson spoke about climate awareness among business leadership in India, actions taken by governments at the state and central levels, and how India can chase robust GDP (gross domestic product) by keeping green transition at the core. Edited excerpts:

Q. You have worked with close to 150 companies in India. Which programme or focus area are most companies associated with?

EP100, that’s our energy efficiency programme. We had quite a lot of Indian companies join that a few years ago, partly through a partnership we did with EY to bring Indian companies into that, which led to a lot of work that we are doing in heavy industries. A lot of those companies joined because heavy industries, particularly a few years ago, was talked about as one of the hard-to-abate sectors. As we developed those relationships, we started to understand more about how you can abate emissions in steel and concrete, and now we have the SteelZero and the ConcreteZero campaigns. We are trying to get more Indian companies into those [campaigns] because India is such an important country for heavy industry and we’d like to get some more [climate] commitments from companies here.

Q. Are you seeing awareness and intent among business leaders here with respect to climate accountability?

It’s really hard to generalise. My experience is that there are some very committed companies here, and I will often see the same people at events around the world. And it’s the same with really passionate business leaders. They’re all on board for climate, making the commitment, being held accountable. But the Indian economy is enormous and I don’t know how much of that is trickling down. And that’s an important part… how to get beyond a few. You need those leaders, but you also need more of the rest of the market. That will be driven by different things. Having leaders who can set the pace, show the direction is very critical, but then there’ll be regulations, and some companies will wait till the regulations are fully [implemented].

Q. For the elections in April and May, climate action is not a campaign talking point; the priority remains energy security, which means continued reliance on coal. In fact, coal production has grown by almost 12 percent between February 2023 and 2024. Does this impede India’s climate commitments?
It’s really important for everyone that India gets on to the net-zero path as quickly as possible. It’s got its NDC (nationally determined contribution; in an effort to reduce country-wide emissions), it’s net-zero target, and what we want to see is policy that is in-line with that. I can imagine it’s not a big topic in the election. Globally, what we’re seeing is that often, politicians underestimate how much people care. So, in a lot of economies, it’s [climate] not a topic in elections where it actually might be. I think what’s critical is things like the G20, last year. India was really important in that agreement on tripling renewable energy capacity. India’s role at the moment is really important within the G20. There’s a lot happening at the diplomatic level, even if it’s not coming down to the electoral level just yet.

Also read: How can companies better meet their sustainability goals?

Q. What will it take for climate action to trickle down to the electorate?
These things don’t move in straight lines; they happen in steps. You get to a certain level, and then change. It’s an inter-governmental process with different voices. So, they will tend to be cautious. But if you look at solar penetration or hydrogen, India’s really trying to grab a big part of these things. I don’t think I could make a prediction, but it’s interesting to see how some of that industrial strategy in India will play out.

The other thing, which is probably less talked about, is the data side of energy efficiency. India is in a very competitive position on that, because so much of energy efficiency is about good data and smart use of that data.

Q. Is India using data in a smart and science-based way? What’s your experience of working with companies here?
Once you’ve got your global targets, say, a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy, you can map that out in terms of transport, energy efficiency, and so on. What we do is that take companies that make those commitments, and use that to drive supply-side of the market and policymakers. And then we’ll use things like the COP [Conference of Parties] process to push… so we did a lot of push in the UK on EVs. It would be great if every company in the world has science-based targets for climate, but our approach is about getting groups in different markets, and then using those to push policymakers. And we’ve had good success in various markets around the world in terms of getting specific policies.

Q. Which are the states that you are working with right now, and what are you advising them on?
We’ve got 165 [sub-national governments] globally, and in India, we’ve got eight signatories to our Under2 Coalition (to achieve greenhouse gases emissions mitigation), which are Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Punjab, Telangana, Tripura, West Bengal, and then Jammu and Kashmir. Some of it is plugging them into a global network. Often, it’s the federal [central] government that would have signed the NDC, for example, but a lot of delivery happens at the state and regional levels. And it really varies around the world about how much power the government at that level has and what specific levers they can pull. We do some work around connecting and peer learning from one another, technical assistance, and capacity building.

One of the projects we’ve just done in India is called the State Climate Fellows, which is about deploying young professionals into states to strengthen the state’s capacities. We take on around five fellows and we’re on our second cohort. One thing we’ve observed, not just in India, but around the world, is that there are not enough people working in climate, and we don’t have time for everyone to learn, so how do you leapfrog and accelerate. The fellow in Punjab, for example, has been working on fostering communication and collaboration among the different departments of the government in order to get closer to Punjab’s net-zero vision.

We’ve been working on the state climate action plan. The states are working in really different places, somewhere there’s a desert and somewhere, a heavily forested mangrove, so there are going to be different challenges, but there are common themes on how they can work on their climate goals. It’s about building capacity, learning from one another, and figuring out how you can move quicker on climate action.

Also read: India Is Most Vulnerable To Climate Disasters. Yet, Climate Education Here Falls Short

Q. How can the energy requirements of robust GDP growth be met in a way that green transition is at the centre of it?

Our biggest goal with green transition is renewables first, and we’ve got a good commitment from India on tripling [renewable energy capacity by 2030]. Wind and solar are big here. The IEA [International Energy Agency] has called solar the cheapest form of energy in history. So there is no economic reason why you couldn’t massively push out solar. The reasons tend to be much more logistical, pragmatic or regulatory. We’ve done work in different geographies around what are the specific regulations you’d need in order to get rid of those challenges.

We would always put renewable energy first as the critical thing to get up and going. The other advantage of renewable energy is that you can build it incredibly quickly. Typically, the issues are around investment regulation and so on. So, I think it’s about how India drives towards that target as much as keeping it at the forefoot.

Q. The International Monetary Fund said in January that the Asia Pacific region faces a shortfall of at least $800 billion in climate financing. How can we tackle that?
The biggest challenge in climate today is how to get finance moving. We’ve got this enormous shortfall globally, and a gap between commitments and action. It’s always like you don’t need new commitments, you just need everyone to deliver on their existing commitments. Institutions are not keeping up with reality. And it’s really disheartening. We see financial institutions and others not delivering at the pace they need to and not sticking to their commitment. In the last few weeks, a bunch of banks have dropped out GFANZ [Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero, a global coalition of financial institutions for accelerating decarbonisation of the economy]. Some of this is coming from pressure in the US against banks, against ESG [environmental, social and governance].

The economics of it is not in keeping with the crisis, and a lot of it comes down to the externalities of fossil fuels not being priced in right. Fossil fuels are hugely subsidised. If you can fully cost account it and not have subsidies…one of our global policy asks is levelling the field on subsidies. If you got those equal, renewable energy adoption will be even quicker.

Q. If you can describe, in one word, how you feel about how the world is tackling climate change, what would it be?
Concerned, actually. A couple of years ago, I would have said optimistic. I've come back on that to concerned because the pace [at which] we need to go is challenging. It’s doable, but we're letting that window close.

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