An Ancient Industry is Re-Imagined In a Land Vulnerable to Climate Change

About 15 percent of all coal burned in India each year is used to produce the bricks that supply the country’s ongoing building boom. F&ES alum Kunal Sharma is leading a project to make this ancient industry cleaner and more energy efficient.

By Cathy Shufro

Kunal Sharma
Fifteen million people in India labor in an industry that has changed little since ancient times: brick-making. Gigantic tapering chimneys mark the 100,000 kilns that dot the Indian landscape and produce 250 billion bricks each year. The kilns that supply India’s building boom burn about 15 percent of all coal used in India each year, spewing huge quantities of unhealthy particulates and climate-altering carbon dioxide.
What can be done? This is the kind of problem that confronts Kunal Sharma, ’99 M.E.S. M.A. in his work at India’s Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation. Sharma serves as a program officer for the Delhi foundation whose mission is to fill information gaps about energy use in India, and to generate and advocate for policies that will help the swiftly developing country to maximize energy efficiency and incorporate renewable sources. Established in 2009 and funded by private donors, the Shakti Foundation represents India in the international ClimateWorks Network, a global alliance of institutions that support policies aimed at stemming climate change.
Part of Sharma’s work is to choose projects that merit a portion of the $5 million in grants and contracts that Shakti hands out each year, and one such grant funded a study of the brick industry. The resulting study, “Towards Cleaner Brick Kilns in India,” found that modernizing just a third of brick furnaces across India would have a huge impact. Retrofitting those kilns would save 6 million tons of coal per year and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million tons — reductions equivalent to taking as many as 1.6 million cars off the roads. 
Birck Kiln
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And it would benefit kiln owners, too. The study predicts that they would recoup their costs within two years by burning less fuel and losing fewer bricks to breakage because combustion is more uniform. After that, lower fuel costs and better-quality bricks would increase profits. An inaugural state-sponsored retrofit program is being designed in the northern Indian state of Bihar. If the National Ministry of the Environment and Forests approves the plan, Bihar will retrofit nearly 5,000 kilns.
Although the kiln project resembles a mitigation effort in a developed country in that it would reduce emissions, India’s confrontation with climate change will generally look different from that of a developed country, says Sharma. India can’t focus primarily on mitigation: the nation is still working toward providing basic needs. For instance, 400 million Indians — roughly one out of three — don’t yet have electricity. Many Indians produce what Sharma calls “subsistence emissions”: burning wood to cook, and little else. So asking families to cut back on energy use is rarely an option.
Domestic and international experts understand that “India’s contribution to the problem is really, really small,” he says. For comparison, an average American consumes twelve times the energy used by an average Indian each year, and a person in China, more than three times as much. (UN figures from 2011.) As more Indians move out of poverty, they will inevitably use more energy and contribute more to climate change. Sharma explains: “Many Indians believe it’s still too early for us to commit to absolute emission cuts, too early to define the emission trajectory India can pursue, too early to make a commitment to other countries.” To reach the point when India can make such a commitment, he says, “you need to generate knowledge and build understanding on how the transition to a low-carbon economy is to be achieved.” Meanwhile, he says, in international climate negotiations “India has seen itself as one of the defenders of the developing countries. The developed countries need to lead.”
There is growing recognition that a paradigm shift is needed in India’s energy policy, and that makes the work that Shakti does all the more relevant.
— Kunal Sharma
One project to generate knowledge reconnected Sharma with Yale. The Shakti Foundation joined with the Rice Family Foundation to fund a $100,000 study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and GlobeScan on how Indians perceive climate change. The 2011 survey of more than 4,000 adults in India found that 80 percent of those responding believed that the amount of rainfall where they lived had altered, and three out of four had noticed changes in the number of hot days.
Only 7 percent said they knew “a lot” about global warming, and 41 percent had not heard of it or knew nothing about it. But when given a definition of global warming, three out of four people surveyed said they believed that changes were occurring; slightly more than half said that India should make a moderate to large effort to reduce climate change; and 38 percent said India should reduce its emissions without waiting for other countries to do so.
Indians have a lot to lose as the climate changes, says Sharma. “India has a huge coastline. It relies on the monsoon for a lot in terms of agriculture. So that’s one of the motivators that makes people say we need to have a plan — not only for mitigation, but for adaptation.”
Sharma’s interest in the environment dates to the six years he spent as a teenager at boarding school in northern India. Few Indian schools offered extracurricular activities, but the Doon School was modeled on elite English public schools, and among its non-academic offerings were all-school backpacking trips during midterm breaks. Hiking in the Himalayan foothills, Sharma discovered a world he had not known growing up in Delhi. At Delhi University’s Hindu College, Sharma studied economics. “Most of my friends either became chartered accountants or did an MBA,” he says. But Sharma wanted to apply his knowledge of economics to environmental issues. He came to Yale to earn degrees in both environmental studies and international and development economics. When he arrived at F&ES, he had little academic grounding in environmental studies. “My first year, I had to learn about ecology and aquatic systems and hydrology and organic chemistry. I spent that year widening my horizons and learning as much as I could about environmental ecosystems.”
After Yale, Sharma spent three years working on environmental topics at Abt Associates, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then studied more economics at the University of Michigan. Returning to India meant adapting to a culture in which it’s not always clear who holds the power. When policies are proposed, he says, “even when everything aligns, sometimes it still doesn’t happen, and you may not understand why. It can be a very uncertain space.” But Sharma feels optimistic that although Shakti is less than six years old, “in a short span of time, our contributions have come to be recognized.” Furthermore, he says, “There is growing recognition that a paradigm shift is needed in India’s energy policy, and that makes the work that Shakti does all the more relevant.”

About the Author

Cathy Shufro is a writing tutor at Yale and a former International Reporting Project fellow.  She has written for magazines including Johns Hopkins Public Health and the Yale Alumni Magazine, reporting on the environment and global health in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central America.