To understand how climate solutions can account for communities’ developmental needs.

Our team interviewed P.S. Narayan, Global Head of Sustainability and Social Initiatives at Wipro Ltd., and Managing Trustee at Wipro Foundation, to understand how climate solutions can account for communities’ developmental needs, how CSR funders can approach equitable climate action, and Wipro’s vision for CSR and climate action.

 

1.Conscious of increasing climate risks, businesses worldwide, and in India, are ramping up their commitment to sustainability. How can CSR be strategically leveraged by businesses that wish to contribute to India’s climate and development journey?

 

Narayan: Corporate engagement has usually approached climate change in terms of what they can do as a business, that is, within their operations and value chain. Take Wipro, for instance. We started our sustainability journey in 2007–08, and one of the first things we did was to set climate change goals for the organisation, which we revisited every five years. In 2021, we announced our net-zero goals — to be achieved by 2040. We also have an ongoing programme to procure renewable energy, and we are seeing many companies think on these lines, with a focus on Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions.

 

Companies, in my experience, have not paid too much attention to what they can do for the climate change crisis outside of their business ecosystem. This is for a few reasons. One, when it comes to CSR, companies traditionally tend to focus on education, healthcare, or disaster response; Two, even for those who understand climate change, it can appear to be a very large, interconnected, complex issue, and it isn’t clear what CSR can do about it. So, companies have tended to stay away from climate change and do what they can, within the business ecosystem. Seen from a different lens though, it is clear that many companies seem to have been willy-nilly engaged on climate adjacencies, such as livelihoods, farm productivity, etc. This leads us to this conclusion that when you look at CSR and climate change together, one need not necessarily reinvent anything as existing efforts already seem to have clear intersections with climate change. So, while businesses may have a defined focus on their own emissions-reduction, they could perhaps look at their existing CSR priorities and recast them from a climate adaptation perspective. For example, we can take urban water issues and look at them from an adaptation angle, in terms of how to address intense flooding in low-lying areas, because we know this issue is getting exacerbated by climate change.

 

2. It can be difficult to visualise the intersections between climate change and existing developmental priorities. Could you give us examples of how Wipro is incorporating these adaptation strategies into their work?

 

Narayan: Although in the early stages, we are planning some initiatives in Mumbai.

The Mumbai Climate Action Plan talks about the possible increase in the intensity of flooding, which will impact disadvantaged communities much more. We are looking at adaptation projects that could potentially alleviate the risk of flooding, and prepare communities to respond better. The government is a key stakeholder in such interventions, and this cannot be done without the involvement of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

 

Another example would be the urban heat island effect, caused by loss of tree cover and concretisation in cities. People working in informal-sector jobs that require being out in the open during the day will suffer the most from a rise in temperatures, with severe consequences for the health of the urban poor. Adaptation approaches include the need for shelters and access to drinking water in construction sites as well as at regularly spaced intervals across cities. There are thus clear intersections between CSR’s existing priorities and these climate impacts, and provides practical pointers to where climate CSR can focus.

 

3. Defining what a climate solution looks like can be difficult; these solutions look different in different geographies, specific to micro-climate vulnerabilities and local communities’ needs. Solutions may also differ from funder to funder. But, are there any overarching principles that can guide what a good climate solution is?

 

Narayan: Climate solutions can be seen through several lenses. You can look at them, for example, through a technology-centric lens and look at carbon sequestration solutions entirely from a technical angle without bringing in the people-first aspect. But adaptation for vulnerable communities is equally critical. This is why we must also look at the ability of people to adapt, and such a people-first climate lens must account for access to social and financial capital, among other things.

 

Going back to our Mumbai example, it becomes clear we need to look at flooding from different angles. You could either look at the technology-angle, and discuss augmentation of storm water drainage infrastructure for example, and leave it at that; or you could bring in the micro-geography lens and try to prioritise low-lying areas within the city. But for a solution to be inclusive, you need to start by focusing on those who are going to be affected the most by flooding — often these are communities that receive the least attention, in terms of financial, human and social capital. In the process, we need to be able to understand how to design inclusive solutions that are not necessarily capital-intensive and yet effectively address the risks communities face. So, is there a ready formula for a good climate solution? Not really. Solutions to wicked problems like climate change will require the hard work of multiple iterations, experimenting, and engaging with a wide range of stakeholders. More importantly, we need to have the mindset to stay the course.

P.S. Narayan, Global Head of Sustainability and Social Initiatives at Wipro Ltd., and Managing Trustee at Wipro Foundation | Photo Credit: IIMB

4. How do you see this inclusive, people-first lens playing out in Wipro’s vision for climate action in the coming decade?

 

Narayan: Different organisations have set net-zero targets for different time-horizons; our target is to decarbonise directly to the maximum extent by 2040. A central plank of how many companies are planning to approach this is through carbon-offsetting and trying to neutralise their carbon footprint through afforestation. A practical implication though is that there may not be enough land available for this purpose. This emphasis on afforestation, though well-intentioned, could potentially lead to the gaming of the system, leading to displacement of the community, among other things. In my view, this is a big risk as well as an opportunity for companies — an opportunity to look at offsetting in an inclusive manner by involving communities at every stage of the process.

 

We are currently not facing this challenge, because we are not pursuing an offset programme; this is by design as we think a responsible approach should focus on maximising decarbonisation of one’s value chain first and foremost. However, a challenge we are trying to address at Wipro is to be as inclusive as possible when procuring renewable energy. Our current renewable energy footprint is 60%, and the goal is to move this up to 75% in the next two years. In order to meet India’s net-zero goals, a lot of land will be required. As companies procure more and more renewable energy, they will need to ensure no communities are adversely affected in the process. Companies who call themselves responsible and inclusive must reflect on certain fundamental questions: Where is this renewable energy being sourced from? Are these land-intensive projects displacing local communities? How can we work with local communities and protect their interests even while embracing renewable energy goals? These are not easy questions to answer, but they can guide companies in making their climate solutions more inclusive

 

5. How can we encourage funders to identify climate risks and align them with existing developmental priorities?

 

Narayan: Instead of making climate change the point of entry for CSR interventions, we should look at adjacent development areas as the entry point and then analyse how climate change impacts may intersect. For instance, if agriculture is the point of entry, we can map out the relevant climate risks on food productivity. Similarly, priorities like coastal ecosystems, disaster response, and urban flooding have clear intersections with climate change.

Another angle policymakers and practitioners must keep in mind is to avoid getting into the issue of attribution — we sometimes get stuck in trying to attribute 100% of a problem to climate change, and that’s not a very useful approach. What might prove more effective is to map all kinds of risks communities face, including plausible climate risks, but without getting into a debate on the accuracy of attribution. We can then identify the most critical issues likely to emerge and use that as the basis to plan our interventions. There’s a lot of scope for work here from both policy and execution angles. For example, if policymakers want to address the very real risk of reduced farm productivity due to increasing temperatures, they can assess the kind of policy support required for more resilient agricultural practices of multi-cropping, drought-resistant seed varieties, flood adaptation practices, etc.

 

6. What impact has India’s regulatory regime had on CSR funding priorities, and how can CSR be encouraged to pay more attention to climate change?

 

Narayan: While environmental sustainability is a sub-category in Schedule VII of the Companies Act, 2013, education and healthcare have always received the most attention from CSR funders. This is probably because companies have always engaged with these two areas even before the CSR law came into effect. It is easier for companies to relate to something concrete and tangible like renovation of a classroom or a laboratory versus a climate adaptation solution. Given this, what could help is to specifically call out and highlight climate change as a sub-category within the ‘Environment category.’

 

Additionally, it may help to be more specific in terms of climate adjacencies that already qualify as CSR. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, CSR’s role in addressing the pandemic was accounted for through an amendment that specified the healthcare interventions that qualified. Similar logic can be applied for climate change interventions.

 

For example, let’s assume that a company is procuring renewable energy from a renewable energy developer that needs land to be acquired in a district in Karnataka, and where there is a definite case for rehabilitating the communities likely to be affected in the process. If such a context is explicitly mentioned in Schedule VII, it can help achieve two things: One, it draws attention to the need to be alert to ‘hidden’ issues that affect communities, prompting companies to be more responsible in how they procure renewable energy; and, Two, a company will be encouraged to simultaneously address the twin goals of reducing their own carbon footprint, and minimise any impacts on communities. There is a signalling value in accounting for these aspects in the CSR policy guidelines, as it can help nudge a larger number of companies towards the need to invest in climate solutions from a CSR angle, even as they progress towards their net-zero goals.

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