Professor Vikram Gandhi’s Immersive Field Course (IFC) “Development while Decarbonizing: India’s Path to Net-Zero" delved into the critical aspect of decarbonization and sustainability goals amid India's rapid development. The course presented an opportunity for students to advance their knowledge of sustainability efforts, decarbonization, and net zero in the context of a broader development agenda. The class culminated in a series of site visits in January 2024 in Mumbai and Bangalore and this is one of 14 student essays that highlights their reflections on uncovering sustainable solutions across the country.

This January, we had the good fortune to travel to India for one of Harvard Business School’s Immersive Field Courses (IFCs), focusing on “Decarbonizing while Developing.” It was a unique opportunity to understand how industries in India are approaching the challenge of climate change while building new capacity. While many countries, including the US, are in the middle of a “clean transition,” India is currently faced with the grand task of a “clean build:” two-thirds of India’s infrastructure has yet to be built, and with an increasing population and quickly growing GDP, more citizens are achieving personal wealth, and the middle class is growing.

On our trip to India, we had the opportunity to meet with a variety of companies that are part of the clean build: from incumbent power and steel producers that are working to shift their capacity toward greener solutions to innovators that have invented and disseminated new battery chemistries, so many projects demonstrate extreme promise for a wealthier, healthier future India.

Our research focus area was decarbonizing steel production, a notoriously difficult sector to decarbonize due to the chemical processes and energy intensity required to produce steel. In the case of steel, there is a transition challenge because it is such an established industry with known processes. However, it is also a massive area of opportunity, because the demand for steel both in India and abroad is expected to increase significantly as India becomes wealthier and builds more public infrastructure like roads, bridges, apartment buildings, public transportation, and the like.

Before the trip, we spent time researching available technologies that might support decarbonization of steel production, including clean energy (steel consumes vast amounts of electricity to run its core processes) and circular material usage (ways to abate some of the carbon emissions in steel production, but not all); carbon capture and storage (CCS), which doesn’t abate carbon emissions altogether but rather mitigates them from reaching the atmosphere in large quantities by capturing and storing greenhouse gases once emitted; and green hydrogen as a feedstock for steel production in combination with clean energy, which is a path to total decarbonization of steel production.

We were impressed with our visit to JSW Steel, a major conglomerate and one of India’s largest steel producers. They are employing significant technology to build circularity into their production processes across both steel and cement production and are using their R&D capacity to develop alternative production methods that employ green hydrogen as a feedstock, as well as carbon capture technology. They are part of various industry groups, sharing technology learnings with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and working with policymakers to ensure that a sustainable transition is possible within the steel industry. We were excited on our visit to be so close to the steel production process, and it provided valuable insight about what makes the process so challenging and yet high priority to decarbonize.

Perhaps most interesting was the role that policy played in the outlook of steel decarbonization for the individuals managing businesses in India: while some decarbonization technologies exist for steel production, most are prohibitively expensive relative to the current market prices for steel, and green steel has small demand, especially in Asia. Since the Government of India is the largest consumer of steel, it will be interesting to see how it is able to stimulate demand and bring costs down for green steel, or whether it is willing to do so. It’s a progression that many businesses expressed hope about, which we share wholeheartedly in the interest of seeing India continue to develop sustainably. Below is a photo of an area of the JSW Steel facility (a large campus with many exciting operations).

Beyond the steel industry, we had the unique opportunity to learn about various ways that India and Indian businesses ae managing climate change, both from a mitigation and adaptation perspective. From building parks in public spaces that will absorb carbon and provide cooler ground temperatures for local populations to electrifying two- and three-wheel transportation to mitigate air pollution in major cities, there are so many incredible projects to get involved in and excited about.

After visiting various sites over 10 days, our group gathered to reflect on the trip. The closing remarks from our professors resonated deeply with us. Throughout most of our lives, we've often heard the adage that life can be split into three distinct phases: the initial 25 years for learning, the subsequent 25 for earning, and the final 25 for returning. However, the IFC presented an alternative model, demonstrating that earning and returning need not be conflicting pursuits; it is entirely feasible to concurrently learn, earn, and return to those around us.

A compelling illustration of this integrated approach is embodied by the 25-year-old founder of Pixxel, whom we met during our site visits. Despite his relatively young age, he has already successfully launched a company whose hyperspectral imaging initiatives have proven instrumental in supporting the Ministry of Agriculture in India, providing invaluable territorial information. This exemplifies how a career can be not only lucrative but also a means of giving back to society.

Similarly, consider the case of Sanjay from Waycool. Through strategic innovation, he has identified opportunities for his company within the agricultural supply chain, simultaneously addressing societal challenges. By reducing food waste, Waycool makes a positive impact, aligning profit-making with sustainable practices.

Even established players like JSW Steel display a harmonious integration of economic pursuits and environmental responsibility. Their utilization of waste from the steel manufacturing plant as direct raw materials for the cement plant exemplifies an impressive circularity in their processes. Witnessing such environmentally conscious practices inspires our group to actively engage in projects that contribute to meaningful and sustainable change.

The examples presented during the IFC challenge the traditional notion of segmented life phases and of inherent tension in an organization between profit and “doing good.” This recognition has inspired us to seek roles in the future that prioritize goals beyond financial success. The fusion of learning, earning, and returning is not just an idealistic concept; it is a tangible reality demonstrated by individuals and companies alike. Armed with this perspective, we are enthusiastic about graduating and joining or founding ventures that not only promise professional growth but also embody a commitment to positive societal impact.