The imminent threat of climate change and the race towards net-zero targets have accelerated the demand for trained hands in the sustainability sector but where are they?
This year, Delhi recorded its second hottest April since 1951 with the monthly average temperature lingering around 40.2 degrees Celsius. Over the last couple of weeks, the national capital has also seen temperatures soar up to 49 degrees Celsius as the heatwave clutched several parts of the country under its tight grip. Around the same time, flash floods submerged parts of northeast India, killing at least 25 people in Assam and displacing thousands so far.
The devastating impact of these and other climatic phenomena across the country has made it clear that India has a long battle to fight climate change. A recent report by the Deloitte Economics Institute stated that unchecked climate change will put 80 per cent of India’s GDP at risk with sectors like services, manufacturing, retail, tourism, construction and transport set to incur the greatest climate-related losses over the next 50 years. Interestingly, climate change also offers a $26-trillion growth opportunity globally, according to a report by New Climate Economy.
Against this backdrop, what India needs is a strong cohort of professionals trained in sciences with a special focus on climate risks and sustainability. This is where the next roadblock lies. Being particularly vulnerable to climate change, India has a greater need for research and education in the field but the country reportedly only has a few thousand people who are formally trained to deal with it even as the government, as well as corporates, are willing to take action to mitigate the risks of climate change
It all boils down to the number of courses being offered in the subject and climate studies and sustainability, unfortunately, remain niche subjects taught in a limited number of colleges and universities in India.
Sudhir Sinha, professor of practice at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, feels that India can certainly do with more courses. “In India, there are not many universities and institutions which offer specific courses in climate studies or science per se. But courses in environmental science are common now. Almost all top-ranking universities and the IITs in India are offering courses in environmental studies,” says the CSR and sustainability expert. Having said that, he also points out that Indian universities do not have a range of diverse courses within environmental science that cater to emerging needs.
In India, there are certain universities that offer courses related to the field. Anant National University in Ahmedabad, for instance, offers a B.Tech with a specialisation in climate change. Shiv Nadar University in Greater Noida has courses in climate change and environmental studies. The Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi offers a Master’s in climate science and policy. In terms of the IITs, we have IIT Bombay which has an interdisciplinary programme in climate studies at the doctoral level and IIT Hyderabad also runs a few courses and electives in the subject. Down south, there is IISc Bengaluru which offers studies in climate science but only at Master’s and doctoral levels and has the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, a singular institution carrying on research in the field. The National Skill Development Corporation has also incorporated sustainability concerns in its various courses. Apart from these, there are online courses as well.
The landscape of the field constantly keeps changing as well, making it important for professionals to keep upgrading their skills.
Sinha explains the point through the lens of net-zero targets. He says while the sustainability team in a company generally has professionals with expertise or qualifications in environmental science, with net-zero targets coming in, the requirements are different. Net-zero, he says, is a very specific technical concept that seeks firms to achieve a balance between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere and the carbon removed from it.
“Therefore, every company must have specialised expertise with a proper qualification in climate studies in its sustainability team. However, getting such qualified professionals is a challenge in India. Indian companies are somehow managing sustainability verticals with general environmental experts with degrees in environmental science,” he adds.
Professionals in the field are of the view that the subject is taught better in foreign universities. Columbia University in the US, for instance, runs the Columbia Climate School, in association with The Earth Institute, offers a wide range of sustainability programmes at undergraduate, graduate and Phd levels—allowing students to become managers who understand issues in science and sustainability.
In the UK, the University of Oxford not only offers internship programmes to undergraduate and graduate students through its Environmental Change Institute but also rolls out a number of scholarships to students to carry out research in the subject.
The University of Queensland in Australia runs a full-fledged School of Earth and Environmental Sciences which offers a slew of undergraduate, honours, postgraduate and research studies in subjects like environmental management, environmental science and more.
“I feel people who study sustainability abroad do get a wider exposure of the global context. Climate science is an evolving subject and, in my opinion, the course structures are far more up to date. Some of the Ivy League and foreign universities are quite on top of the latest research and cutting-edge arguments on why it is important. I feel, in the Indian scene, it is definitely lacking,” says Aarti Khosla, director, Climate Trends, adding that in India, an individual’s passion and want to do it is the driver and not so much what they have been taught and implementation of those learnings.
Carbon Disclosure Project, a global NGO which collects environmental data submitted voluntarily by companies, in its annual India disclosure report released in March this year revealed that corporate climate governance matters to Indian businesses to such a great extent that it has become a core element of internal management for many of them.
Around 53 responding companies identified 77 acute physical risks indicating the extreme weather events that directly threaten the livelihood of people and organisations. These financially impactful climate-related risks were pegged at Rs. 1,434 billion in the report. This only makes the case stronger to have more people adept at driving the sustainability verticals of companies.
Sustainability requires both hard skills and soft skills, says Shailly Kedia, senior fellow and associate director at The Energy and Resources Institute, Delhi. “Companies are looking at technical skills such as energy audits, waste management, policy advocacy and compliance.”
Chaitanya Kalia, partner and national leader, Climate Change & Sustainability Services, EY India, says, “Today, there is increased awareness and the need for sustainability experts as businesses have increased the implementation of sustainability into the core functions of their operations and supply chain. With time, more businesses will adopt a sustainability-led approach to their core functions.”
In fact, EY, in association with Hult International Business School, is also providing a fully accredited master’s in sustainability to its employees—free of cost.
Dipankar Ghosh, leader, sustainability and ESG at BDO India, believes that subjects related to climate change and sustainability should be integrated in the curriculum of MBA or BBA programmes and not just an optional paper or specialisation,
“The business leaders of today and tomorrow need to have insights into how such actions create resilience for business by mitigating risk and opening up opportunities. What the industry needs is not stand-alone knowledge of climate change and sustainability but the understanding of the business impact these can create,” says Ghosh.
Bengaluru-based Garvita Gulhati, founder and CEO of Why Waste? concurs. “We definitely need more courses in sustainability but more than that, we need all aspects to be looked at through the lens of sustainability. Instead of introducing new courses in sustainability, we should integrate the subject with our existing courses,” says the young activist and entrepreneur who focuses on optimising water consumption and was chosen by the UN for its global climate change campaign last year.
Policy targets will be key in driving institutions, says Kedia, adding that there is a need for policy frameworks to develop and track courses. “They should not be just degree courses but also refresher courses and upskilling modules. The science-policy-practice interface can be strengthened and skilling approaches can have a greater involvement of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Ministry of Jal Shakti and Ministry of Rural Development,” she suggests.
Besides creating dedicated institutions for research and development, the situation demands the existing academic system to introduce blended courses with an inclusive approach along with specialised courses in climate studies to suit diverse requirements.