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Why India's new climate mission is focused on sustainable lifestyles

Villagers in model eco-village in Piplantri, Rajasthan

Villagers in model eco-village in Piplantri, Rajasthan. Image: UN in India

Shombi Sharp
Resident Coordinator, India, United Nations
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • With a population of 1.4 billion, India is well positioned to drive meaningful climate action.
  • The Indian government's 'LiFE Mission' aims to harness the power of sustainable lifestyle changes.
  • Consumers can play a more significant role in driving sustainable production methods.

The Oxford Languages Word of the Year for 2022 has already been selected, but if a straw poll were held now among development and policy experts, a term unfamiliar to most of us at the beginning of the year – polycrisis – would likely surge ahead. It's a descriptive shorthand for the unhappy list of “cascading and interlinked crises” the United Nations Secretary-General warns are putting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in need of urgent rescue.

Among the mutually reinforcing crises we face, the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution threatens the greatest core potential for destruction, both now and in the foreseeable future. The past two decades have witnessed an incredible stream of record-breaking temperatures, with nine of the warmest years on record coming in the past decade alone. Catastrophic floods, record heat waves, and crop-destroying droughts have forced us to face the stark reality that the devastating impacts of climate change are no longer a distant prediction.

India's 'LiFE' climate action programme

Yet, it is said, every crisis brings opportunity. If there is a silver lining, it is in the growing recognition that these crises are existentially urgent and can’t be solved independently of each other, accelerating systems thinking and investment in innovation. A part of this sea-change, the global LiFE, or Lifestyle for Environment Mission, launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, together with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in October 2022, brings a fresh and much-needed perspective, that aligns the development and climate agendas.

The LiFE Mission, first proposed by Prime Minister Modi at COP26 in Glasgow, gives special focus to the impact individual behaviour and consumption habits can have on the planet, and encourages the adoption of environmentally sustainable lifestyles. As Prime Minister Modi explained, “the need of the hour is human-centric, collective efforts and robust actions that further sustainable development.”

The LiFE Mission … gives special focus to the impact individual behaviour and consumption habits can have on the planet, and encourages the adoption of environmentally sustainable lifestyles.

Shombi Sharp, Resident Coordinator, India, United Nations.

While LiFE seeks to mitigate both supply and demand-side factors, it sets off from the premise that the latter half of the equation has lagged in recent years with most attention paid to public policies and corporate regulation. Thus, transformational change requires renewed demand-side focus for a maximized global response. The goal, in short, is to scale climate change mitigation solutions based on behavioural and lifestyle changes that shift demand for goods and services towards those with significantly reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and polluting footprints.

In practical terms, this means encouraging actions such as: saving energy at home; cycling, using electric vehicles, or even better, taking public transport instead of driving; avoiding unnecessary flights; eating more plant-based foods and wasting less; and leveraging our position as customers and employees to demand climate-friendly choices. The list of potential actions is as limitless as the complexity of our modern lives.

Individual actions can have a positive effect

Many of the goals of LIFE can be achieved by deploying the “nudge” concept from behavioural economics: gentle persuasion signals which encourage positive behaviour. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) endorses proven nudge techniques such as discouraging food waste by offering smaller plates in cafeterias, encouraging recycling by making bin lids eye-catching, and promoting cycling and walking through urban design.

The potential of demand-side mitigation is enormous, and largely unrealized. The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Reportindicates that demand-side strategies could potentially reduce GHG emissions by 40-70% by 2050.

On the supply-side, demand, animated by the behaviour shifts of LiFE, can help create a virtuous cycle. Demand from individuals practising sustainability will send signals to the supply-side of the economy, the part that involves manufacturing technologies and energy generation, towards more climate and environmentally friendly designs, products and processes. At the same time, policy interventions can help incentivize a shift towards a circular economy, one where supply chains reuse materials and limit the extraction of new resources.

Indian investment trends in energy, five year annual average (2000-2019) and 2020 (and billions of 2019 $). Source: International Energy Agency, 2021.
Indian investment trends in energy, five year annual average (2000-2019) and 2020 (and billions of 2019 $). Source: International Energy Agency, 2021.

LiFE also recognises that an evaluation of climate action and our relationship with the planet through traditional, economic cost-benefit calculations such as GDP fail to capture how mitigation measures such as sustainable lifestyles interact with human well-being. For example, urban design solutions that encourage walking and cycling can have marginal benefits to health, well-being and social cohesion that are difficult or impossible to capture in terms of simple market costs. Instead, LiFE calls for the development of people-centric metrics, that recognize the social benefits of a nation’s stock of natural, human, and physical capital, and how these interact with the cost of human action or inaction.

And while LIFE is a global vision, India is an excellent place to start. With over 1.4 billion people, the largest youth generation in history, and the fastest growing major economy, the momentum generated by India alone can be enormous. India is also seeking to employ an array of bilateral and multilateral partnerships to build awareness and momentum towards a global ecosystem for sustainable lifestyles. As part of its G20 Presidency launched in December 2022 under the mantra of “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, India has made integrating the LiFE Mission into the powerful group’s agenda a priority.

The LIFE Mission also recognises that accountability is relative to contribution. Emissions across the poorest half of the world’s population combined still fall short of even 1% of the wealthiest. Those who consume the least, often the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society, will not be asked to consume less, but rather supported to participate in the green economy.

Carbon footprint and population density of the 10 most populous nations. Sources: UNDESA, Global Carbon Project.
Carbon footprint and population density of the 10 most populous nations. Sources: UNDESA, Global Carbon Project.

The same applies across countries. LiFE resonates with the just green transition the G77 and India have rightfully called for – highlighting enhanced obligations those in developed countries bear, to support climate adaptation and mitigation for those most affected, yet least responsible.

The energy crisis, and the coping responses of some high-income countries which have quickly turned back to coal and other fossil fuels, has been a reality check on the green transition. It is important to remember that for the Global South, while strengthening the link between sustainability and development is a priority, it remains far from given.

Socio-economic development and meeting basic human needs, driven by affordable and secure energy remains the ultimate priority, and for many developing countries, the mix available still includes significant amounts of coal and other fossil fuels. Development itself is non-negotiable. The energy crisis, which has forced many high-income countries to face the same trade-off between climate concerns and keeping the lights on, could be a catalyst for enhanced international solidarity and meaningful climate action.

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How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

And while we are all in this together and responsibilities are shared, it is only fair and common sense to call on developed countries, having gained their immense wealth via the vast majority of historical carbon emissions, to continue to make the most significant steps in helping ensure that the green energy transition is just and green, not “just” green.

As a founding UN Member State which bridges the worlds of the G20 and G77, and much in between and beyond, the good news is there has never been a better time for India’s growing leadership on climate action, at home and on the international stage. From the enhanced Nationally Determined Contribution targets announced under COP27 and massive bets on investment in renewables by Indian businesses, to core support for the International Solar Alliance, the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure and multiple South-South cooperation platforms, India brings a unique blend of scale, expertise, networks and legitimacy to the table.

As Mahatma Gandhi famously noted, “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” LiFE Mission now seeks to help each one of us live up to that truth in our daily lives.

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