How can India’s climate strategy sustainably meet its development goals? Can market-based regulation aid in India’s efforts to meet its climate commitments? Why should India look into the health impacts of air pollution and urgently amend its air act? Questions like these and more were answered in a stimulating virtual conference called ‘Advancing Environmental Innovations in India’ on July 22, 2022. Hosted by EPIC India, the half-day conference organized in association with ET Energy World and supported by USAID had 18 speakers share insights with more than 350 participants from across the country. The attendees included leading researchers, academics, representatives from think tanks, non-profits, public sector organizations, and the corporate world.

The event began with a welcome message from Sidhartha Vermani, Executive Director of EPIC India, who welcomed the distinguished panelists and discussed the institutional research initiatives. While addressing the guests, he said, “Air Pollution is a national challenge and a silent killer, and there is an opportunity to solve it.” He added, “There is a common vested interest to find innovative solutions that can address India’s most significant environmental challenges, and this conference is an opportunity to learn from all the experts.”

This was followed by a chief guest address by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Former Deputy Chairperson, Planning Commission of India and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress, who shared how policy innovations are critical for improving environmental quality. He shared insights from his working paper titled ‘Managing Climate Change- A strategy for India’ that addresses the energy transition that would make it possible to have sustainable, inclusive growth for India.

John Smith-Sreen, acting Deputy Mission Director, USAID India, presented a special address that focused on USAID’s commitment to work on climate challenges and promoting ties to reduce particulate matter and climate challenges in India. He said it was essential to ensure that as we move forward with economic growth, we reduce particulate matter and greenhouse gases so that our children, cities, and the planet can breathe.

The conference was centered around air pollution and low carbon growth. The first panel discussion of this web-based conference talked about what is currently being done and what could be the future strategy to improve India’s air quality. The session was moderated by Anant Sudarshan, South Asia Director, Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, and saw the participation of Yamini Aiyar, President – Centre for Policy Research; Gaurav Gogoi, MP, Lok Sabha and deputy leader of Congress party and Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director Research and Advocacy – Centre for Science and Environment.

The panel significantly stressed the need to link the health impacts of air pollution to the existing air act and why smaller towns with poor air quality also needed policy attention. While sharing her thoughts, Yamini Aiyar said, “The issue of air pollution is not a city-specific problem and rather cuts across all the administrative boundaries and therefore required coordination while dealing with it.”

Gaurav Gogoi discussed the urgent need to spotlight the health impacts of air pollution. He said, “Air pollution is the second-most important contributor to diseases and must be placed in the top five health issues that states take on priority.”

Though the cause needs continued research and efforts, Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment, shed light on how the awareness and dialogue around air pollution have increased considerably over the last few years. She said, “the issue of air pollution at present draws a lot more consultation and engagement than what was the case many years back.”

The panel discussion was followed by a session on project spotlights that presented solution-oriented research papers and case studies on the environmental and public health cost of climate change. Talking about her research paper – ‘Can conditional transfers reduce crop residue burning?’, Namrata Kala, assistant professor at MIT Sloan, shared how, given the enormous environmental and public health cost of residue burning, payment for ecosystem services and other policies were quite warranted in reducing the problem.

Adding further on how air quality improvement can be advanced, RR Rashmi, distinguished fellow and program director, TERI, said, “The air quality management commission has been set up by the Government of India and has started its work, but ultimately, everything is dependent on state coordination.”

Talking about how low-cost sensors can be a game changer in addressing the data gaps, Sachchida Nand Tripathi, HAG Professor from IIT Kanpur, shared, “The idea is to create an ecosystem where industries and institutions can work together to develop both hardware and create new open-source data and machine learning models. These systems can then disseminate this data so people can understand the adverse effect and make decisions accordingly.”

The conference’s second session, attended by thought leaders from the non-profits working to improve India’s environmental quality, focussed on low carbon growth. This panel discussion for this session was moderated by Swati Dsouza, India lead analyst and coordinator, International Energy Agency (IEA), and joined by Naina Lal Kidwai, India Sanitation Coalition, Seema Arora of Confederation of Indian Industry, and EPIC’s Director Michael Greenstone, who discussed India’s climate commitments and the progress made.

Some of the critical points of discussion included if pollution markets could help India achieve its climate commitments and how India’s climate strategy can sustainably meet its development goals.
Highlighting India’s goals to become net-zero and achieve them by 2070 and ways to track the progress, Swati Dsouza said, “We require the support of the state government to be able to cross all the hurdles for the energy transition.”

Naina Lal Kidwai said that the industry must adopt innovation to ensure lower carbon footprints, more energy efficiency, and more recycling of scarce materials. She also spoke on ways to tackle stubble burning and better urban planning, including better public transport systems, which will mitigate India’s environmental challenges.

Speaking on climate commitments, Seema Arora said that India was on track to meet its commitments that have been put under NDCs and made at Glasgow. She added that focused funds allocated for renewable energy would ensure we fulfill our goals.

Talking about a few crucial steps India has to adopt to achieve its net-zero goals, Michael Greenstone said, “Setting up a cap-and-trade market for sulfur dioxide would pay enormous dividends to the people of India. It would lead to great improvements in air quality, and it would lead people to live longer lives. The next step would be to set up pilot programs for cap and trade carbon dioxide to help directly target the source of climate change.”

Following the panel discussion on the second theme of the conference, sectoral experts presented their research and initiatives that spotlights how India’s journey of low carbon growth can be accelerated with innovations.

This project spotlight session had Anant Sudarshan, South Asia Director of EPIC; Abi Vanak, in-charge director of the Centre for Policy Design, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment; Abinash Mohanty, program lead, CEEW, and Anish De, global sector lead – power and utilities, KPMG India share insights.

Anant Sudarshan talked about market-based regulation and its role in achieving India’s climate commitment. He spoke about Gujarat taking the lead by introducing India’s first pilot Emissions Trading Scheme to tackle local air pollution.

Talking about policy in expanding renewable energy, Abi Vanak, in-charge director of the Centre for Policy Design, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said, “India has several millions of hectares of agricultural land which can potentially be used in citing renewable energy, as long as farmers get their fair deal.”

Speaking on system innovation, Abinash Mohanty, programme lead, CEEW, said that while the country tries to fix one pillar through system innovation, it further needs to understand what exactly our technological innovations are all about. “India is a robust innovation hub, and there are various kinds of solutions which have been delivered, and we continue to build on that,” said Anish De, global sector lead – power and utilities, KPMG India, while talking about decarbonizing hard to abate sectors of the economy.

The conference provided not just a critical analysis of the issues obscuring India’s low-carbon pathway and the air pollution riddle but also examples of practical approaches that can motivate legislative change. This national conference ideated by EPIC India established how ideas from contemporary research might enhance the Indian approach to formulating evidence-based policy action.