While 2020 will largely be remembered for the pandemic, other noteworthy events have taken place. One is that the United Nations turned 75 and to mark this, the UN embarked on a series of Dialogues to which the general public was invited. The Dialogues, organised across the world by different organisations, were to spotlight the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to also have the global community think about what we want for ourselves and what needs to be done to achieve a better world for everyone.
In India, the Confederation of Young Leaders (CYL) collaborated with several civil society groups to hold Dialogues. CAG was one such organisation and we organised five Dialogues in October 2020, which of course, related to the SDGs and to CAG’s work areas. The Dialogues had speakers from CAG and other organisations. Participants were a mix of students and the general public with the events advertised on social media. In addition, the events were livestreamed on Facebook.
Dialogue 1: Good Health and Well Being
According to the World Health Organization's (WHO) Global Health Estimates, 2016, ischaemic heart disease and stroke have remained the leading cause of deaths globally, for many years. Indian Council of Medical Research’s report titled “India: Health of the Nation’s States” reveals that contribution of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) to total death in India was 61.8% in 2016, and death due to cardiovascular disease is pegged at 60,000 per year. NCDs include cardiovascular diseases, strokes, cancers, respiratory diseases, and diabetes.
Artificial trans fat, produced through the process of partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils (PHVOs), is seen as a major contributor to the incidence of NCDs. Food like margarine, vanaspathi, baked items, canned and preserved foods, fried and frozen items, reused cooking oil, are rich in trans fats and increase the risk of non-communicable diseases when consumed frequently. The World Health Organization has fixed 2023 as the deadline to eliminate trans fat from the global food supply chain and India has committed to reduce trans fat to 2% by weight by 2022, one year ahead of the WHO committment. CAG has been working with the State Food Safety Department for effective implementation of the trans fat regulations in Tamil Nadu. Since SDG Target 3.4 is about Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health (within SDG 3: Good Health and Well Being), CAG considered this platform to be a good opportunity to talk about trans fat and its ill effects and the need to eliminate it from our food supply chain. The dialogue was organised in collaboration with the Ethiraj College for Women.
Savitha of CAG gave an outline of the issue, following which Dr. E Arunachalam M.D., D.M, Consultant Interventional Cardiologist, explained in detail about how and why trans fat is a leading cause of cardiovascular diseases and stressed upon the importance of consuming food free of trans fat. CAG had just completed a multi-stakeholder survey to understand awareness about trans fat in Tamil Nadu. The survey participants included doctors, oil industry representatives, hotel/restaurant and bakery owners/representatives and general consumers. Students of Ethiraj College of Women presented the survey findings at the event. Finally, Dr. Om Prakash Bera, Country Coordinator - India (Policy and Implementation), Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) emphasised the need for strong policies on trans fat and effective implementation of the policies.
- Consumption of trans fat rich food leads to various non communicable diseases mainly cardiovascular disease.
- Foods that are prepared from vanaspathi, vanaspathi ghee, margarines, bakery shortenings have trans fat in it.
- It is important to look for nutritional information on labels .
- In order to prevent mortality caused due to cardiovascular diseases, all stakeholders such as the government, doctors, hotels, restaurants, bakery owners, manufacturers, consumers should work together towards eliminating trans fat from the food supply chain.
Dialogue 2: Achieving Sustainable Mobility
Sustainable transport as a concept has been around for a while now but in the current pandemic its importance in ensuring mobility for all citizens became obvious. The links to climate change and air pollution were also underscored as citizens saw a noticeable difference in air quality during lockdown. With SDG 11 talking about sustainable cities, this seemed an opportune moment to talk about achieving sustainable mobility. The Dialogue was organised in collaboration with Ethiraj College for Women.
The Dialogue began with Sumana Narayanan of CAG giving an overview of the importance of sustainable transport and its links to climate change, equity, safety, justice, and livelihoods. This was followed by a panel discussion with Sanskriti Menon from Centre for Science and Environment (CEE); Felix John, the Bicycle Mayor of Chennai; and S. Harini & G.Nishitha, students of Ethiraj College for Women who are regular users of public transport.
Sumana set the context for the Dialogue, giving a broad picture of what the SDGs are and how they are related to our daily lives. She also painted a picture of what a sustainable transport system would look like and why this is of paramount importance in our cities (linking to pollution, safety, equity, and public health).
Sanskriti spoke about the work CEE does as well as that done by SUM Net India (Sustainable Mobility Network), of which CAG is also a member. Talking of the recent campaign for more buses in our cities, she highlighted the need for sustainable transport and what that would look like. She also shared her personal story of switching to cycling and public transit and urged participants to start making small changes in their lifestyle. She noted that these add up and that of course making small changes is easier than radically modifying our lives. For example, she said, take a bus or train once a week to college and slowly over time make it your go to transport option.
She also called upon everyone to be more involved in discussions on such topics and not be apathetic citizens.
Felix also shared his personal journey of moving to cycling and why he made the switch. He gave some practical advice to participants on taking up cycling and urged them to explore the options available and discover the pleasure of cycling as a means of transportation.
Harini and Nishitha shared that they do take the bus and train regularly and find that in addition to doing their bit for the environment, public transit allows them to meet new people, gives them a little ‘me time’ and is less stressful than driving. They called upon their fellow students to start using cycles or public transit as well as to consider bike-pooling.
In the Discussion session, participants shared some experiences of commuting in Chennai and Harini and Nishitha decided that they would spearhead a conversation in the college on promoting public transit and bike pooling. A few participants were also interested to learn more about some of the student-focussed programmes offered by CEE.
Dialogue 3: Responsible Energy Consumption
In recent years, with more than 20% electricity generated from renewable sources, India can be seen making progress with its energy goals (CEA 2020). But, the focus on affordable and clean energy has been largely limited to investment, expansion, and technological advances. At this juncture, it is crucial to inquire how an individual can contribute to the following sustainable development goals:
Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) - Affordable and clean energy
Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG 12) - Responsible consumption and production.
A panel of researchers from CAG brought together a group of 100 young engineering students from the Hindustan University to engage in a dialogue around an individual’s role in promoting the above goals. CAG’s panel included researchers Balaji. M. K, Bharath Ram. G. N, Jeya kumar Raju, Pavithra. R and K. Vishnu Mohan Rao.
The central focus of the dialogue was to encourage young adults to rethink their energy usage behaviour, replace their inefficient appliances, and reduce their overall energy consumption. The dialogue attempted to quantify the impact of energy conservation measures and present evidence-based solutions to promote responsible energy consumption. A range of solutions were discussed including (i) making behavioural changes to reduce consumption, (ii) replacing appliances with energy efficient alternatives, (iii) choosing a renewable source of energy eg.solar and (iv) effectively utilising technological solutions eg. Internet of Things.
At the end of the dialogue, participants resolved to rethink their energy consumption and took a pledge to power down!
Feedback suggests that 100% of the participants were willing to make active choices to conserve energy and about 98% of the participants were willing to urge their friends and family to conserve energy and opt for energy efficient appliances.
The pledges taken by participants include:
Y axis: Number of participants
Every action counts. Every individual can make a difference.
Takeaway: 1kWh of electricity saved by the end user is equivalent to 2kWh generated in the power plant. Given that India’s per capita consumption of electricity is 1,181 kWh (MoP 2019), every individual can play a role in reducing overall consumption. Further, collective efforts to reduce electricity consumption can increase the scope for change and impact. A recent World Bank report highlighted that if everyone in India switched to energy efficient lights, the electricity demand would fall by 10%. This further cements the need to take collective measures to bring about positive impact and sustainable development. As highlighted under SDG 12, the objective should be to “do more and better with less.”
Dialogue 4: Coal Financing in Time of Climate Crisis
This UN75 Dialogue Series on SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) was co-hosted by Chevalier T. Thomas Elizabeth College for Women. Niraj Bhatt from Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) and Dr. Vishvaja Sambath from Healthy Energy Initiative were the two speakers and they talked on ‘Coal Financing in Time of Climate Crisis’ and ‘Public Health Impacts of Coal Power Plants in Chennai’ respectively. Niraj started by explaining the basic concept of depositors, investors, and lending framework and practices followed by commercial banks. He went on to share facts about coal, it’s polluting nature from mining to burning, and why we need to move away from it, for the sake of our immediate health as well as the future of life on Earth. He then shared data on financing of coal mining, coal based power generation and transmission by public sector banks and insurers.
Dr. Vishvaja spoke about the impact of coal power plants on public health in North Chennai. She shared evidence of children not being able to play outside due to the diseases they get from exposure to toxic fly ash from the power plants, confining them indoors. She also shared details about the impact on local livelihoods as most of the inhabitants are fisherworkers whose produce is no longer valued as it is contaminated with heavy metals from the fly ash leaking into the estuary. Both the sessions together gave the audience an opportunity to appreciate the close link between financing of coal which they could now see as the first step in a series of environmental and health disasters that take place due to our dependence on coal as a fuel source.
Dialogue 5: Sustainable lifestyle
The concept of sustainability is not compatible with our current unhealthy lifestyles. To raise awareness on the why and how of a sustainable lifestyle in this current ecosystem , Aakanksha Tiwari (Researcher) and Sumana Narayanan (Senior Researcher) from CAG took the students of Sri Kanyaka Parameswari Arts and Science College for Women through virtual presentations on 22nd October 2020.. The speakers visited the following Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during this Dialogue:
- SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
- SDG 13 - Climate Action
Key points presented by Aakanksha Tiwari:
- Our ancestors were healthier than our present generations because they lived a simple lifestyle, a minimalist kind of lifestyle.
- From our choice of food to mode of transportation, we have completely made ourselves addicted to an unsustainable lifestyle, which is a cause for concern .
- Fossil fuels supply energy to most of the things that we use in our lives, which increases our carbon footprint and therefore, our contribution to climate change and global warming.
- Anyone can overcome their high consumption lifestyles by following these three steps:
Step 1: Calculate your carbon footprint
Step 2: Read good articles and watch videos to frame daily actions that can reduce your carbon footprint related to energy, commute, shopping etc.
Step 3: Make a to-do list for the daily actions and keep upgrading them every week for adopting a sustainable lifestyle.
Key points from the presentation of Sumana Narayanan:
- Small steps/changes are the way to start moving towards a sustainable lifestyle
- Plastic has invaded every aspect of our lives to the extent that we don’t even notice it. We need to take a hard look at our lives.
- Students could consider a number of changes they could make - start taking public transport to college and walk/cycle for short trips; reduce their water use; carry cloth bags anytime they step out so even if they do some unexpected shopping they can avoid a plastic bag; segregate their waste and compost/recycle their waste; switch to menstrual cups and other such sustainable products
- Start educating yourselves (there are many resources available) and take steps towards a sustainable and healthy life.
- The students were aware of the Earth’s Overshoot Day. The speakers could build on this awareness by helping them rethink their overconsumption of resources and its impact on the environment..
- The students agreed that demanding governmental and local bodies to frame concrete plans and actions and follow this up with strict implementation could make sustainable lifestyles more affordable and that this is the key solution to tackling the climate crisis.