Adapt or die

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Many Indian businesses have begun cutting their carbon emissions to help the country achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2070, but employers also need to start planning for the associated risks to workers’ health and safety, like heatwaves and flooding.

At the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, when prime minister Narendra Modi announced a bold pledge that India will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2070 – and stated it is the only country that is delivering in letter and spirit the commitments to tackling climate change under the Paris Agreement – India Inc welcomed his pledge. Corporate India termed it a practical long-term target and said the country is well on track to achieve the aspirational targets.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) hailed the decision and called it bold and ambitious. “The CII welcomes the bold and ambitious scale of the prime minister’s announcements at COP26 with aggressive short-term goals and a practical long-term target on net zero for a credible commitment on climate action,” said CII president T V Narendran.

Considering that India is the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter, the support of Indian industry will be vital in decarbonising the economy and its sectors. “Their actions, resources, capacity to innovate, and greater reach are vital to swiftly decarbonise sectors, infrastructure, value chains and the products and services they provide,” said Rupali Handa, a public policy professional who focuses on clean energy and climate change mitigation issues. She added: “Businesses are already playing a key role in the climate fight, helped by the growing customer and investor focus on sustainability, as well as increasing regulatory and disclosure requirements.”

Credit: iStock Danielrao

Net-zero ambitions
An increasing number of Indian companies have announced net-zero ambitions over the last year. Some of India’s biggest companies have declared net-zero targets, including Reliance Industries, Tata Consultancy Services, HDFC Bank, Wipro, Infosys, Mahindra & Mahindra, JSW Energy, ITC, Adani, Dalmia Cement and Indian Railways. Apart from these, 64 Indian companies have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Science-Based Target Initiative – a global alliance that enables businesses to establish their own climate pledges.

So, what is encouraging India Inc to prepare for climate change?
Climate Trends’ recent survey of 400 large and small businesses in Maharashtra found that more than 70 per cent believe climate change is affecting their profits, supply of materials and expenditure. Their main concerns are heavy rainfall, floods, water shortages and droughts.

Also, a 2021 report by CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), an organisation that works on a global carbon disclosure system for investors, companies, cities, states and regions, found that top Indian companies estimate an economic impact of about Rs 7.14 lakh crore (nearly US $100 billion) over the next five years from the risks posed by the climate crisis.

The CDP report, Building Back Greener, highlighted that growing carbon disclosure requirements were prompting more Indian businesses to wake up to the threat of the climate crisis, and commit to reducing their carbon footprints.

Several Indian companies have made voluntary commitments on climate change, including targets for renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric mobility, greenhouse gas emissions reduction and internal carbon pricing to help achieve these targets.

Meanwhile, experts point out that this year alone, India has already experienced two cyclones, a devastating glacier collapse in the Himalayas, a sweltering heatwave and killer floods. They say that climate change is modifying the environments businesses are operating in and organisations need to factor climate change risks into their workforce planning if they are not already doing so.

Are employers taking note?
Prabodha Acharya, chief sustainability officer at Mumbai-based JSW Group, says the key is to integrate climate risk within the company’s overall risk framework: “Climate action has a direct correlation with cashflow in future, be it through adoption of clean technology, decarbonisation or resource efficiency.”

Anirban Ghosh, chief sustainability officer at Mahindra & Mahindra, agrees: “In India, we are getting started in recognising climate change as an imminent risk to enterprise value. The conventional variables that impact enterprise value remain, but climate change impacts all these variables in a way that it influences the future value of enterprises.”

Businesses are beginning to understand that climate change caused by global warming is already affecting India. It is already deadly serious and without urgent and dramatic action, it will be catastrophic.

Heavy rains and flooding
While the world was brainstorming on climate change at COP26 in November, Chennai, India’s sixth-largest city and home to 11 million people, witnessed heavy rains that led to massive flooding and claimed 14 lives.

The floods between 6–11 November brought back memories of the November 2015 deluge in which nearly 500 people died and over 1.8 million people were displaced.

Although climate change affects populations across the globe, outdoor and indoor workers are clearly highly vulnerable to its effects.

While the internet was recently all praise for a sanitation worker who was photographed hard at work in flood-hit Chennai, the increased risk of occupational injuries faced by such workers during extreme weather events connected to climate change is evident. To ensure employee safety, government offices in Chennai remained shut while private firms in the city instructed their employees to work from home until the heavy rain subsided and the city’s transport system returned to some kind of normal operation.

Many experts argue that a wide range of issues are responsible for the floods in Chennai – from rapid urbanisation, destruction of wetlands and inadequate infrastructure, to climate change and global warming.

Attributing the heavy downpour to climate change, Mahesh Palawat, vice president of meteorology and climate change at Skymet Weather, said: “In Nov–Dec, cyclones tend to form over the Bay of Bengal. So, it is not unusual. But the amount of rainfall is. We can say it’s an impact of climate change. Extreme weather events are increasing by the year. This will continue unless we start reversing climate change.”

More frequent flooding likely
A study in 2020 carried out by the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, the National Institute of Technology in Rourkela and the SRM Institute of Science and Technology in Chennai warned that Chennai-like floods could become frequent if rising global temperatures are not brought under control.

In 2018–19, over 2,400 Indians lost their lives to extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones, according to the union Ministry of Environment. The India Meteorological Department says these events are increasing in both frequency and intensity.

Extreme weather events, like heavy rainfall leading to flooding, may be the most noticeable and immediate impact of climate change, but another more long-term and equally dangerous effect is rising temperatures.

According to a government report, India’s average temperature rose around 0.7 degrees Celsius between the beginning of the 20th century and 2018. It is predicted to rise another 4.4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Climate change is playing a dominant role in making heatwaves in India more frequent and more severe, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Authority.

Heatwaves have killed at least 6,500 people in the country since 2010, and scientists say climate change is making them harsher and more frequent.

This year, millions in India suffered under a severe heatwave that pushed the temperature to a nine-year high in Delhi as monsoon rains ran behind schedule

Take the case of Babli Devi, one of a dozen migrant labourers working at a small construction site in south Delhi, where her role is to mix concrete. The work earns the 29-year-old a daily wage of Rs 400 – money that she uses to support her two young children, aged five and nine. On the afternoon of 1 July when Devi went about her work on the site, she fainted. Why? That day the capital city recorded the highest July temperature in 90 years, at 43.6 degrees Celsius.

Heat stress and productivity loss
The International Labour Organization (ILO) warned in a report in July 2019 that productivity loss due to heat stress in India, brought on by rapidly rising temperatures, will be equivalent to the loss of 34 million full-time jobs by 2030.

Agriculture and construction work are expected to suffer the most, the ILO said. This is bad news for India, where farming is the single largest occupation, followed closely by construction work, where people have to work for long hours in the sun and heat outdoors.

Financial need, workplace pressure and a lack of awareness of the health impacts of high temperatures are the reasons why many like Devi continue to work past their heat tolerance.

Little does she know that sustained heatwaves can be mortally dangerous, especially when combined with high levels of humidity.

“Both temperatures and humidity are increasing in India and all over the world,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the India Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune.

The impact of heat stress is not limited to sectors where employees are directly exposed to sunlight. A 2018 study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago warned that small industries which cannot afford air-conditioning, such as cloth-weaving units, are also vulnerable to production losses due to a rise in temperatures.

“If India wishes to succeed in becoming a manufacturing powerhouse using cheap labour, we need to think hard about how we can adapt to a hotter world,” said Dr Anant Sudarshan, South Asia director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

For every 1°C rise in temperature beyond 27°C on a hot day in India, the productivity of workers drops by as much as four per cent, said the study.

A recent Lancet report reinforced the warning that India is set to be among the countries most affected by climate change-induced heatwaves. Commentators therefore say it is crucial for the Indian government and businesses to understand how deepening ecological vulnerabilities and extreme weather events will disproportionately affect India’s workforce. For example, extreme weather events may lead to forced displacement of people from certain regions, resulting in increased rural-urban migration. Also, the infrastructure of India’s megacities is unlikely to be adequate to provide sufficient refuge to additional migrant populations.

A report released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2021 warned that India will suffer more frequent and intense heatwaves, extreme rainfall events and erratic monsoons, as well as more cyclonic activity, among other weather-related calamities, in the coming decades.

“Heat extremes have increased while cold extremes have decreased, and these trends will continue over the coming decades,” the report said regarding the Indian sub-continent.

“The threat of climate change is real – dangers are imminent and the future is catastrophic. This message from the IPCC report confirms what we already know and can see in the world around
us,” said Sunita Narain, an environmentalist and director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.

IIPC Climate Change Assessment Report:


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