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Climate change expert Harish Borah

Amid rising fears of the impending climate hazards, here’s an exclusive interview with climate change expert Harish Borah on carbon emission and mitigation measures. Borah, hailing from Assam, has also been a part of the recent ‘2041 Climate Force Antarctica Expedition’ held in March this year.

The Assam Kaziranga University admissions

Tell us about your life and family in Assam?

Thanks to my father’s transferable government service, I had the good fortune of spending my childhood across three Northeast states. My early years were spent within the picturesque landscape of the Ranganadi River in Arunachal Pradesh, followed by elementary schooling in Shillong; and finally senior secondary in Guwahati.

Obsessing with skyscrapers, I decided to pursue civil engineering (from NIT Silchar). In 2011, I started working with Shapoorji Palllonji as that gave me the highest probability to work on tall structures. With two years of working within the various vertices of construction, I decided to further my interest in the field with a master degree in ‘commercial project management’ from the University of Manchester (UK), after which I began working in the UK, followed by stings in Qatar. Now I am back in India.

How did you get engaged with carbon studies and climate change?

My discovery of the growing global call for a ‘low-carbon future’ was accidental. By 2015, when the Paris Climate Agreement was signed, with climate change and action making headlines, I dived deeper into the problem – the science behind it and the debated solutions, during my free hours.

I soon understood the growing outbursts on climate action, and the challenges in reducing current carbon emissions (that led to climate change). The more I explored the challenges in the proposed net-zero carbon roadmaps of our planet’s future – the more I gravitated towards working in climate action. The building and construction industry emits a large part of the global greenhouse gases, 38% of the world’s share annually, as of last year! So, I found it best to work on practical net-zero carbon solutions for the industry that fit all stakeholders. And have never looked back since.

What is the impact of climate change on the northeast of India?

The on-going climate change is a result of excessive greenhouse gas emissions (mainly CO2) that we have let out into our atmosphere over the last two centuries. These gases trap more and more heat within the earth system, warming up the planet and hence causing significant changes in the climate. This excessive emission is dominantly a result of our society’s over-dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) for all activities, varying from ‘generation of electricity’ to ‘manufacturing of products’ and ‘transportation between places’.

Simply put, greater the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the greater is the extent of global warming and hence worse is the extent of climate de-stabilisation or climate change.

The Council on Energy, Environment and Water’s ‘Mapping India’s Climate Vulnerability: A District Level Assessment’ Report, released in October 2021, found Assam to be the most vulnerable state to changing climate, with several other Northeast states and districts following close by. Floods have been identified as the biggest threat to Assam in the future climate scenario, if nothing is done to prevent it.

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Explain your work as an expert in ‘net-zero carbon’ within the building and construction industry?

Like all things in the industrialized world, the building industry also heavily relies on fossil fuels. This includes activities involved in manufacturing of construction material, construction process itself, operation (powering up buildings) and their subsequent demolition. Another reality of the building industry is the growing demand for homes, reasons being the increasing migration from rural to urban areas, and the prosperity of individuals themselves, particularly in the emerging countries such as ours.

While too little of construction will be unable to deliver the modern living standards; too much will cause significant carbon emissions. Within this backdrop of contradicting pressure, my focus area as a ‘net-zero carbon’ expert has been to follow and reduce the carbon emission trajectory of the industry. This is typically done through a range of strategies. These include procuring low carbon footprint material alternatives. For example, blended cement has a much lower carbon footprint compared to standard cement. Also making the building’s energy efficient by improving natural ventilation and minimising dependency on electrical appliances for heating and cooling interiors, , buying energy efficient equipment for homes (4-5 BEE Star). Local municipalities must encourage the use of ‘local and low-carbon-footprint’ materials in construction through building codes and by-laws.

Consider this, why do we build glass towers/skyscrapers located in traditionally hot locations? It allows excessive solar heat to enter the building and eventually we run heavy air-conditioning systems to cool the interiors down for the occupant’s comfort. This results in high energy consumption, high carbon footprint and high energy bills to the building. It’s a design gone completely wrong, in a world of climate action.

I am also very passionate about simplifying the language around climate change, to make the conversation more accessible to a wider audience. I do this under the banner of ‘OnePointFive Tribe’.

How does the Green Building Rating System, that you are a part of, rate the constructions in Assam and the Northeast region?

In the simplest sense, Green Building Rating Systems lay down the ‘to-do’ guidelines on ‘how-to’ make a building sustainable. They apply to all stages of a building from design, construction to its final operation; and focus on efficient use of materials, water and energy; and strategies to reduce the building’s carbon footprints. It is part of a bigger global movement that aims to systematically bring sustainability closer to the building and construction industry.

India has three active green building rating systems, operating side-by-side. Among these GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment) has the distinction of being adopted by the ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) as the national rating system for green buildings in India.

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While its popularity has improved significantly over the years with more and more construction projects adopting these standards – a full scale adoption is still a few challenges far away. The adoption rates in the Northeast states remain poor, for various reasons such as lack of awareness, market motivation and limited government incentives.

Now, tell us about the Antarctic expedition?

Arranged between March 16-29, 2022, the 2041 Climate Force Antarctica Expedition was a unique undertaking by polar exploration legend Robert Swan. Passionate about conversation of Antarctica, Robert shortlisted a diverse team of 150 climate action leaders from 35 countries over the last 4 years, to participate in the on-going global movement that presses for the continuation of the ‘Antarctica Treaty’.

The expedition laid out an exceptional ecosystem for knowledge-exchange dialogues between the expeditioners on climate action, within the backdrop of Antarctica, where the first signs of human-induced climate change are emerging.

All 150 expeditioners assembled in a small Argentinian town called Ushuaia (also dubbed the southernmost city in the world) in March. We set sail to Antarctica on an 1100+ km, 36+ hours voyage, through the rough seas of the Drake’s Passage on the ‘Ocean Victory’ on a modern low-energy vessel with the lowest carbon emissions per passenger in the entire industry.

2041 Climate Force Antarctica Expedition
2041 Climate Force Antarctica Expedition

For us whose idea of Antarctica is limited to National Geographic only, give us your first-hand experience?

There are few places in the world where there has never been war, where the environment is fully protected, and where scientific research has priority. While I have been lucky to have travelled to several countries in the last few years, I knew this one was going to be very different, right from the get-go.

But little did I know, Antarctica would have such an impact on me. The more I reflect on my journey, the more I become unsure how to describe this place of remarkable extremes. Vast. Untouched. Serene. Out-Worldly. Emotional. They all feel right, yet insufficient. Antarctica best remains un-described.

When you say climate change is impacting Antarctica what do you mean? Please elaborate.

I think, first let’s get a little perspective on why Antarctica is important to our planet and our climate system.

To begin with, Antarctica plays a very important role in preventing our planet from overheating. Acting like a giant mirror, the white (ice) surface of Antarctica reflects a large portion of the incoming solar radiation back into space. Further, Antarctica’s cold waters absorb a large portion of atmospheric heat – regulating our climate systems. Antarctica is also home to tiny planktons that absorb a remarkable 23 million tonnes of atmospheric CO2 annually.

Heating up synchronously with the rest of the planet, Antarctica has warmed up 3 times more than the average global warming recorded, in just the last 50 years, falling to human-induced climate change.  This has a profound impact on the stability of the planet’s climate system. Besides the Antarctic ice melting has led to irreversible sea-level rise, leaving more than 150 million people in island nations and coastal cities worldwide vulnerable and creating a new category of climate refugees in an already politically sensitive ‘refugee-scenario’ of our current world order.

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In that case how can we educate the younger generation about climate change and teach them to be cautious?

Today’s younger generation is a far bigger stakeholder of the current crisis than sometimes we realize. The greenhouse gas emissions that we have let out into our atmosphere since the industrial revolution (and more so in the last 30 years), has led us to the current climate state. Greenhouse gases take time to accumulate in the atmosphere and intensify the greenhouse gas effect. This also goes to imply, how much my generation emits today, will decide how the next generation’s climate will look like.

I have personally been a big advocate of conversations, and meaningful workshops – that help new participants get to the root of our emission problem, and the various solutions that are already at play. I have been designing and delivering similar workshops for years now, and am always amazed at how engaging these conversations get.

From an academic syllabus point of view, it has been encouraging to see that the ‘new education policy’ stresses on education in climate change and action. The key here is going to be a quick adoption of the same.

As for parents, I just want to point out that our country needs a lot of problem-solvers in the years to come, especially with respect to steering our economies away from emissions. It is absolutely worth your effort to encourage your children to engage with the current climate conversation.

To effectively decarbonise, we will need to undergo an overall systematic change in how the government, corporate and citizens behave and operate their day-to-day engagements with new alternatives energy sources like solar, wind, bio fuels, hydrogen, nuclear to name a few. We need to protect and extend our planet’s green covers. Technological interventions such as carbon capture and storage are also being explored globally at the moment, within this space.

The Northeast states have an uphill task in the years to come. And a good starting point would be to bring climate change and action to policy activities. Alongside disaster relief efforts, proactively steps are needed to avoid worst case disaster scenarios.  An important part of this will be to align with the global and national effort of reducing emissions and develop a meaningful net-zero ‘state-wide-climate action plan’.

Else we have no one, but us to blame.

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About Barasha Das

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Barasha Das is a journalist working in Northeast India region.

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