ESG Viewpoint: Warm India, Wet India – Incredible India?

The first in a series of viewpoints based on our recent trip to India to engage with companies on all things ESG.

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India is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Our recent trip there provided valuable insights into how climate change management has risen up most companies’ strategic agendas. However, the potential magnitude of the impacts of climate change on people’s livelihoods, economic growth and, ultimately, companies’ bottom line is so significant that climate considerations need to be more deeply embedded into medium and long-term corporate strategies.

We travelled to Mumbai and Bangalore to engage with close to 20 large and medium sized Indian companies mainly in the financial, healthcare and consumer staples industries. Our discussions covered a wide range of ESG issues, particularly corporate governance, climate change, plastics, and access to affordable products and services. In light of the breadth of industries and topics we covered during the trip, we plan to share our impressions throughout a small number of separate Viewpoints over the course of the next few months.

This introductory piece will cover the country’s significant exposure to the impacts of climate change, as well as highlights from our conversations with companies on their  approach to managing climate-related risks as well as opportunities.

Climate change is highly likely to make extreme weather events in India more frequent and severe.

Vulnerability to climate change

Climate change is expected to have significant impacts on South Asia – in fact, it is already one of the most affected regions of the world. India has seen, in the past year alone, record flooding in the state of Kerala that affected more than 5 million people; extreme drought conditions in Tamil Nadu that have led to a severe water crisis in its capital Chennai, a city with close to 10 million inhabitants; heatwaves and freak dust storms across several northern states; and at least four powerful tropical cyclones making landfall on both Indian coasts and forcing the evacuation of millions.

The events listed above are not necessarily surprising. By virtue of its geographical location, India is highly vulnerable to natural hazards, including floods, drought, cyclones and landslides. The problem is that climate change is highly likely to make these extreme weather events more frequent and severe, putting significant strain on the growing population and the economy. A recent World Bank study1 suggests that overall 600 million Indians will be moderately or severely affected by changes in temperature and rainfall, and that climate change could cost the country 2.8% of GDP and lower living standards for nearly half of its population by 2050.

The only way is to adapt

Extreme weather events aside, changes in temperature and rainfall are already being acutely felt amongst Indian people, especially farmers. Agriculture is still a major source of income, accounting for about 14% of the country’s GDP and employing close to 800 million people. The sector is desperately dependent on the monsoon, as the majority of farmland does not have access to irrigation. Yet monsoons are erratic, increasingly so because of climate change. When they fail, crops fail, food prices soar, reservoirs empty and farmers’ livelihoods are crushed.

Changes in agricultural productivity patterns, along with the impacts of heatwaves, floods and rising sea levels could reduce average living standards in India through diverse pathways, such as agricultural and labour productivity, health, migration, and other factors that can affect domestic consumption, economic growth and poverty reduction. We would expect companies to have already started to factor these adaptation challenges into their business strategies. In fact, we would argue it is imperative for them to thrive in the long term.

We spoke about challenges to agricultural productivity with two fast-moving consumer goods companies that are heavily reliant on agricultural raw materials – Marico and Hindustan Unilever (HUL).

Marico is one of India’s leading personal care products manufacturers and the largest buyer of coconuts in the country. We were encouraged to learn about the company’s actions to manage climate risks in its coconut supply chain. These include partnerships with research institutions to developed improved, drought-resistant crop varieties, and cooperation with selected farmers to promote science-based practices on nutrients, disease and water management. We also met with HUL, who run similar sustainable agriculture programmes with their tomato suppliers.

By improving crop yields and soil health and, ultimately, boosting farmers’ livelihoods, these programmes are critical to building supply chains that are more resilient to anticipated changes in precipitation and temperature patterns across India. Going forward, we will encourage both companies to extend the scope of their programmes to cover more farmers, and engage with authorities and other relevant stakeholders to promote the adoption of more sustainable soil and water management practices.

Tackling carbon emissions growth

In addition to its extreme vulnerability to climate change, India is under increasing pressure to tackle growth in greenhouse gas emissions – it currently stands as the world’s third-largest carbon emitter, behind China and the US. The country has taken significant steps towards initiating a low-carbon economy across various sectors and has emerged as a global leader in renewable energy: for three consecutive years, renewable energy investment topped that of fossil fuel-related power investments.

India has emerged as a global leader in renewable energy: for three consecutive years, renewable energy investment topped that of fossil fuel-related power investments.

At the same time, India is expected to continue relying significantly on coal-fired power generation to meet its future energy needs. Whilst coal’s share in India’s primary energy consumption will decline in the next 20+ years, it is still forecast to account for 48% of the total in 2040, leading to net carbon emissions roughly doubling during the same timeframe2. The government’s continued support for thermal power challenges the development of a stronger policy platform to facilitate speedier progress in the field of renewables.

In spite of this policy uncertainty, many of the companies that we engaged with have made significant strides in increasing the proportion of renewables in their energy mix, with some setting ambitious targets. This move towards renewables is not based on environmental aspirations, but on economic realities: in recent months, power supply auctions have shown that renewables can be offered at tariffs significantly lower than those offered by coal-fired generators.

Ultratech, India’s largest cement producer, is working hard to increase the proportion of energy from renewable sources – solar in particular – in its overall energy mix from less than 5% today to 20% by 2022. Titan Company, a leading player in the jewellery sector, has over 50% of its electricity consumption powered by wind energy and has made significant inroads in installing solar systems at retail stores across the country. HUL has increased its share of renewable energy by 43% in 2018 compared to 2008 and has committed to source all the electricity purchased from the grid from renewable sources by 2020. 

Greater action to cut emissions via increasing renewable energy sourcing can improve companies corporate profile and bottom line, whilst preparing them better for potential future carbon-related regulations.

The path ahead

Despite its economy cooling off and concerns over future growth estimates, India continues to hold a dear spot in emerging markets investors’ portfolios. And rightly so. Financial markets are liquid and deep, and there are plenty of high quality companies with strong business models, competitive advantages and capable managers. Moreover, rising incomes, increased urbanisation and a demographic dividend offer exciting growth opportunities.

Enter climate. Less predictable monsoons, increases in average temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events could sway economic activity and impact consumption expenditure and hence economic growth. According to the World Bank, pressure on India’s water, air, soil and forests is expected to become the highest in the world by 2020. Companies must future-proof their businesses against these risks, as well as those stemming from regulatory, legal and reputational issues, by reviewing – and in some cases redefining – corporate strategies to align their activities with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Our engagement on climate-related issues with companies in India is only going to become more important going forward to mitigate risk and support long-term returns. By encouraging better management of climate and other ESG issues by our investee companies, we can contribute to a more resilient global economy, which will ultimately enhance our clients’ long-term prosperity and security.

1World Bank Group, South Asia’s Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards, 2018

2BP Energy Outlook, 2019

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