In Odisha, a tribal girl mourns the loss of her ancestral forests — and her people’s livelihood. Once lush forests have now been reduced to barren scrubland. A few hours away, on the coast, a young man surveys the destruction left by a cyclone, the waves coming closer, threatening to swallow his village. In rural Uttar Pradesh, a teenage girl despairs that her community doesn’t know the very air they breathe — polluted by industry and dirty cooking fuels — is shortening their lives.
These are real stories of young Indians at the frontlines of the triple planetary crisis — nature and biodiversity loss, climate change, and pollution.
Launching the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report a few weeks ago, the United Nations Secretary-General called the findings “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” It is no longer just a warning; we must now move with urgency towards building resilience and adapting to this new reality already upon us. As one of the Jaipur Literature Festival organisers told me, we need to be on a war footing against climate change.
The hard truth is that the IPCC shows India will be among the countries worst hit by the triple planetary crisis. Its fragile ecosystems are already facing irreversible damage.
India’s coastal cities are set to experience disastrous flooding as sea levels rise — many cities will experience heat and humidity beyond human tolerance. The immense cost to human health has been brought into sharp focus. Cases of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue may rise, not to mention future variants of Covid-19 as humans and animals are pushed further into conflict.
Scope for optimism
Yet there is scope for measured optimism. A few months ago, the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow saw the world come together and take steps to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Every fraction of a degree closer to that goal counts. We saw countries, including India, commit to net-zero emissions.
Here in India, I see hope and find inspiration in the young people on the frontlines of the climate battle, offering us solutions and adaptations.
The tribal girl from Odisha grieving the loss of her people’s forests grew into a strong young woman, Archana Soreng, who is now tirelessly advocating to bring indigenous perspectives and forest protection practices into the climate discourse.
The young man on the coast, Soumya Biswal, is working passionately for nature-based solutions, including replanting mangrove forests to protect his community and marine life.
On my recent visit to Rajasthan, I met with an innovative young sarpanch, Shyam Pratap Singh Rathore, and the women, men, girls, and boys of Jahota village, an hour from Jaipur. Under the welcome shade of a banyan tree, I learned how the community is embracing flagship programmes like Jal Jeevan Mission, Swachh Bharat Mission, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) with community activism to realise their own stated vision of a clean, resilient and plastic-free village — a vibrant hub of life.
These are just a few examples of inspiring young people and communities offering innovative, sustainable, and equitable climate solutions that the UN in India is proud to partner with.
Multilateralism in climate action
India has emerged as a leading force in development for all, a champion of multilateralism, and a leader in climate action – we must together nurture and accelerate this. Since arriving in India, I have been impressed by how deeply rooted the philosophy and values of sustainability are in Indian culture.
This is articulated in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal for a whole-of-society behavioural transformation movement – L.I.F.E. – Lifestyle For Environment. Imagine, with 1.3 billion people taking mindful steps in their consumption habits — recycling, conserving energy, turning to renewables — we can generate massive collective change.
There is a collective, urgent need to tackle climate change, and there is also a fundamental right to development. India’s ambitious targets demonstrate to the world that climate action does not and cannot mean sacrificing development.
The ‘panchamrit’ targets announced by the Modi government, including the addition of 500GW of renewable capacity, meeting 50 per cent energy demand through renewables, understands that investment in green energy delivers economic and climate benefits. And at the global level, India is accelerating the solar power revolution by initiating the International Solar Alliance.
Apart from these commitments, India announced the launch of a National Hydrogen Mission to boost clean energy and make India the new global hub of ‘green hydrogen’ and its largest exporter. The leaders in India’s dynamic business sector are also on the cutting edge of clean energy and climate-friendly technologies, driven by companies like Tata and Mahindra and others. Meanwhile, civil society helps ensure all actors in society are held accountable for their commitments.
The economic case for clean energy and climate change mitigation is clear. Investments in renewable energy generate three times more jobs than investments in polluting fossil fuels.
Urgent action on plastic waste
I would also like to highlight the urgent need to take action on plastic waste, a major driver of the triple planetary crisis — causing irreversible harm to marine and land-based ecosystems. I commend the Modi government for its ban on the manufacture, sale, and use of single-use plastic from July 2022. Since the pandemic, an estimated 100 tonnes of extra biomedical waste a day is being added to India’s overburdened waste management system.
India is rightfully calling for global climate justice. Yet, out of the $100 billion in climate finance promised by high-income countries, little has materialised — this must change. And India’s leadership of the G20 presents an ideal platform to hold countries accountable and work together.
As the IPCC report tells us, we must take urgent action to halve global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and the world must be carbon neutral by 2050 to keep the 1.5-degree goal alive.
The transition to renewables is the only pathway to energy security, universal access, and the green jobs that India, and the world, need. Here, this can help ensure a tremendous demographic dividend in the coming decades. We must commit to throwing our full weight into this fight — to tackle the triple planetary crisis, speed up decarbonisation, prevent biodiversity loss, and eliminate pollution. Together, we are an irresistible force.
Shombi Sharp is the UN Resident Coordinator in India. He tweets at @ShombiSharp. Views are personal. This is an edited version of the author’s speech at the Jaipur Literary Festival on 10 March 2022.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)