Home Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Climate Change: Opportunities in India

Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Climate Change: Opportunities in India

by Raghu Murtugudde
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The weather service industry in the US is a multi-billion dollar business enterprise and there are fledgling efforts in India by companies like Skymet Weather Services. The Government laboratories like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US produce global weather, climate, hurricane, oceanic and hydrologic forecasts. These are translated to local and regional scales by private companies under what can be broadly grouped into weather services. The buyers include airlines, shipping companies, tourism industry, recreation and sports organisers in addition to the large number of local TV stations. Weather is one of the most watched segments of local weather since people plan how to dress or whether to plan a weekend getaway and so on based on weather forecasts. The burgeoning middle class which is climbing rapidly on the consumption scale to parallel the developed world, will soon demand similar lifestyle products as local weather forecasts every hour. The same model as the US or Europe can be followed in India with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and the National Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMWRF) producing the global weather, cyclone, ocean, and hydrologic forecasts with private companies like Skymet producing local and regional weather information to meet the market demands.

The climate science community and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and its World Climate Research Program (WCRP) are grappling with the idea of Climate Services as an analog to the Weather Services to not only extend the time-scales of forecast products but also to meet the growing challenge of climate change and climate adaptation and mitigation. For a country like India where the vagaries of the monsoon hammer subsistence farmers during most years, extending the rainfall predictions from weather time-scales to monsoon active and break cycle timescales is critical. Such efforts are underway at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) and related intra-seasonal prediction efforts are ongoing for years under international projects coordinated by the WCRP. National efforts are desperately needed since the international efforts do not meet the national needs, especially in terms of the observational networks needed to initialize the forecast models and to take them to the local scales using statistical approaches that rely on dense observational networks.

Innumerable opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship arise out of this national need. The models need to be made faster for computational efficiency since IMD need not be the sole entity in charge of observations and IITM and NCMWRF are not going to be able to invest in the computer science aspects of efficient coding and computing. Observations of weather are already beginning to rely on the ubiquitous cellphone technology and India is a prime target for exploiting such innovations and leading new inventions in monitoring not only weather but also air and water quality and so on. Private companies like IBM and others are already engaged in seeking funding from the Ministry of Earth Science (MoES) to apply novel techniques of enhancing computational speeds of the global weather and climate models by using GPUs. Delivery of weather and climate information to the millions of farmers is being attempted via texting by services such as the Agromet by IMD and the MoES but it is not hard to imagine that this offers plenty of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship and can lead to emergence of a large number of small companies to meet the local needs in each part of the country from the wet regions to the west of the Western Ghats to the semi-arid parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra and the deserts of Rajasthan to the cyclone-prone Andhra and Odisha.

Even more opportunities offer themselves in energy, water, and food security needs for the country when we consider the longer time-scales of climate change. The latest climate assessment report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is being released in four parts from September 2013 through November 2014 but it is already clear that it is a big thud. No attention grabbing new results are forthcoming and just a nuanced rewording of the role of humans on our planet’s environment is passé by now. It is clear that the IPCC assessment process will be revised and an overhaul is clearly needed since coordination the computing and personnel resources at so many labs across the planet to produce these massive tomes is not an efficient process anymore. The improvements in models are clear in some ways but there is really nothing exciting enough to write home about.

On the political side of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there is nothing impressive to report on the progress in the deliberations of the Conference of the Parties (COP) each year. COP19 was held in Warsaw last month and is building up to the COP21 in Paris scheduled for 2015 to find a pact to replace the moribund Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997 and supposedly in effect since 2005. The engagement in the climate negotiations by nearly all the countries in the world is clearly a good sign. As COP19 got underway in Warsaw, the biggest concerns were the real and perceived inequities among the developed and developing countries and the concept of Loss and Damage. And of course typhoon Haiyan, likely the strongest cyclone on record, which slammed into the Philippines before moving west and north into Vietnam and China, grabbed the headlines for the right reasons at the right time. India played a forceful role and earned some kudos and some jeers in the role it played in protecting the interest of developing countries.

Climate negotiations continue to keep all countries engaged but progress will be slow and painful – more painful for the developing countries of course.

Some of the inequities were supposed to be dealt with the Green Climate Fund set up at COP16 under the UNFCCC which started at around $30 billion per year but is not likely to reach the expected level of $100 billion per year due to the global economic slump. It is not clear that all the funds are indeed being transferred to the developing countries and that is highly unlikely to change till the economic recovery is robustly in place, if at all. The inequities will not sway any minds in the developed world and the concepts such as Common but Differentiated Responsibilities are also likely to be sidelined. It is also not expected that the developing countries will be let off the hook on emission reductions despite their desire to grow their economies by burning coal or whatever means necessary.

The top-down approach of the Kyoto protocol to emission reductions have never really materialized and it is not clear that effective emission monitoring is in place even in the most developed countries. Unexpected events have played into the global emission levels in the meantime such as an emission reduction by the US due to the economic slowdown and the newly found natural gas sources. The Fukushima nuclear disaster and the resulting radiation leaks have forced Japan to roll back its commitment on emission reductions. But one need not lose heart since President Obama did take a few good steps towards climate action with an executive order and the bottom-up efforts at emission reductions where governments can make voluntary commitments are showing signs of growth.

The European Union has been leading the way for some years and new efforts include a regional agreement between California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. One great innovation that India can lead in this context is to build a regional coalition to commit to a bottom-up emission reduction, if not to mitigate climate change then to avoid the fate of the air pollution akin to that in China, which is leading to serious divestment of foreign capital due to unbreathable air quality in most of its big cities on the eastern seaboard. The cost of the effect of air pollution on human health has not been realistically accounted for in India but the growing number of air conditioners is clearly growing much faster than the country’s energy supply despite the impressive efforts in wind and solar energy installations across the country. The opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship in renewable energies and in carbon capture and sequestration at the traditional power plants or even at any other industry are truly a goldmine for the young population of India. One can of course go on about energy-efficient appliances and buildings, fuel-efficient cars, innovations in faster and cheaper public transportation and so on.

Delivery of weather and climate information to the millions of farmers is being attempted via texting by services such as the Agromet by IMD and the MoES but it is not hard to imagine that this offers plenty of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship and can lead to emergence of  a large number of small companies to meet the local needs in each part of the country from the wet regions to the west of the Western Ghats to the semi-arid parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra and the deserts of Rajasthan to the cyclone-prone Andhra and Odisha.

Typhoon Haiyan has once again raised the specter of the impact of global warming on extreme weather events. The flash floods in Uttarkhand that led to the catastrophic loss of life and property is another example. While each weather event cannot be attributed to global warming explicitly, all weather is now forming in a warmer, wetter and more energetic atmosphere and thus has a contribution from global warming. The concept of Loss and Damage being discussed at the COP19 is essentially the negative effects resulting from the inability of a given community or a country to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Annual funds of $100 billion under the Green Climate Fund for all the developing countries combined may sound impressive but US allocated over $60 billion for recovery efforts following hurricane Sandy! Can India manage multiple cyclones and flash floods on its own? Does it really want to rely on the developed world and the Loss and Damage funds to recover from catastrophic disasters? India needs to expand its cultural advantage of jugaad to develop its own internal mechanisms for climate adaptation and mitigation. This can only be seen as a massive opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Climate negotiations continue to keep all countries engaged but progress will be slow and painful – more painful for the developing countries of course. Even simple things like reducing the cost of the Intellectual Property Rights for clean technologies and climate solutions is not forthcoming from the developed world. This is not inconsistent with how the human mind works. As Daniel Goleman lamented recently in a New York Times article, that the rich just care less. He points to research that shows that the rich or the ones with higher social or political power simply tend to downplay the suffering of the poorer or meeker. The wealthy value material possessions more while the poor tend to give their social network higher regard! Goleman also points out that politics and social distance can lead to exaggeration of minor differences in what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences. This narcissism is likely expressed more strongly during times of resource limitation such as an economic recession. Climate change policies are likely affected by this social distance between the developed and developing countries and the suffering of the developing countries may well get downplayed if not being done so already.

Mani and collaborators and Kathleen Vohs report in Science magazine (Sep 2013) that poverty imposes serious limitations on decision-making abilities of the poor. Self-control is a limited resource and if it is exhausted in making one decision, the other decisions tend to be relegated to intuition rather than rational choices. The poor face too many restrictive choices and end up making more than their share of poor decisions that may relegate them to continued poverty. It is not hard to imagine that developing countries suffer from this same cognitive restraint, especially when it comes to making decisions on climate change for the future, since human beings and political decisions generally tend to discount the future.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster and the resulting radiation leaks have forced Japan to roll back its commitment on emission reductions.

These factors clearly make it imperative that the empathy gap between the developed world and the loss and damage of the developing world must be reduced, before we can hope to reduce the economic gap among countries. There is a prevalent belief that climate change will produce winners and losers and this notion often leads to the hedging of the bets on responding to climate change at the individual country level and at the global level. But it is clear from Sandy, Haiyan, and Uttarkhand floods that this belief may be totally misplaced. The COPs must thus face the ugly truth about climate change and begin to agree on the easy and obvious things like the cost of IPRs for the developing world while finding a rapid pathway to consensus on the more challenging issues such as common but differentiated or undifferentiated responsibilities to ourselves and our posterity. But countries like India will do better by seeing climate change as a massive challenge but one with infinite opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. We must seize every opportunity that arises while shoring up our shores against cyclones and building our infrastructure to deal with come what may.

Despite the well-deserved optimism about the economic growth, India remains highly vulnerable to the fate of the monsoons, cyclones and the sea level rise. Many no-analog states will arise due to the similar vulnerability of India’s neighbors and the fact that civil conflicts escalate in numbers during extreme climate events. This only raises the stake on the need for innovation and entrepreneurship to deal with the socio-economic and political opportunities climate change will throw at us.

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