Vivek Gilani
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   India

Vivek Gilani

Vivek Gilani is spurring individual accountability to achieve a sustained balance in global carbon emissions. Vivek is creating a range of tools and solutions that enable citizens and institutions,…
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This description of Vivek Gilani's work was prepared when Vivek Gilani was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Vivek Gilani is spurring individual accountability to achieve a sustained balance in global carbon emissions. Vivek is creating a range of tools and solutions that enable citizens and institutions, measure their environmental impact, and transform it through informed consumption choices.

The New Idea

Vivek, an environmental engineer by training, believes that the primary responsibility for reversing the effects of climate change rests not with the government, industry or policymakers, but with individual entities—a private individual, a residents’ association, school, public or private corporation. Rather than rely on external agencies and systems that will mitigate the effects of climate change, he is enabling people to think and act as individuals.

Vivek is demystifying concepts of carbon emissions and ecological costs and empowering people to adopt environmental mitigation processes. Through three vital stages of Realize, Minimize, and Neutralize, he creates tools for industries, schools and other institutions to map their carbon footprint, build a sustainability roadmap and mitigate their carbon footprint. For instance, he has created detailed tools that help industries map their greenhouse gas emissions among others and also helps them analyze data to create a marginal abetment cost curve that discovers the most cost-effective means of mitigating climate change impact through technological interventions or modifications in management practices. Vivek has created similar tools for schools and individuals. Over the last five years, he has introduced these tools to a number of companies and schools. To enhance consumer awareness, Vivek has also started India’s only sustainability eco-label—Green Signal. A voluntary method of environmental performance certification and labeling, Green Signal identifies overall environmental preference of a product or service based on life-cycle considerations.

Going forward, Vivek plans to map such data through open source platforms that can visually reflect real-time, city specific carbon footprint registries, trends of carbon footprint to usher measurability and verifiability in environmental measurement. He believes this will enhance the quality of policy, public and environmental civic group debate, and enable high-value policy level recommendations for civic and government institutions.

The Problem

The per capita carbon footprint of an Indian citizen is approximately 1.6 tones CO2e per annum, while world average and the average footprint of a US citizen is 3.9 tones CO2e per annum and 19.6 tones CO2e per annum, respectively. The fact that India’s per capita emissions are much lower than global averages is used as the prime defense to maintain status quo.

However, such a glaringly myopic view ignores the collective magnitude of the total greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions from India; it is the 4th highest emitting nation in the world. The Greenpeace Report, Hiding Behind the Poor published in 2007, explains this dichotomy by stating that significant carbon footprint of a relatively small wealthy class (1 percent of the population), is camouflaged by the 823 million poor population of the country, who keep the overall per capita emissions below 2 tones CO2 per annum. The carbon footprint of the four highest income classes earning greater than Rs 8,000 per month, representing 150 million people, already exceeds sustainable levels. This is worsened by the fact that India is primarily an agrarian economy, with densely populated coastal regions—making it among the most vulnerable populations to the impacts of climate change.

Green Signal identifies overall environmental preference of a product or service within a specific product/service category based on life-cycle considerations.

In 2009, at the 15th Session of the Conference of Parties to UNFCCC at Copenhagen, India committed to cut its carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon dioxide released per unit of GDP, by as much as 25 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. To achieve this target, India would need to take drastic top-down measures. In the alternative, it could weave a 20 percent GHG-efficiency commitment and strategy into each layer of social and economic institutions, so that the goal can be met collectively. For sustained impact, a bottom-up, individual level halving of personal carbon footprint shows immense opportunity.

However, such behavior shifts require significant efforts to build consciousness among citizens and institutions that would not only enable them to realize their footprint, but also empower them to actively mitigate it. Further, for citizens to visualize the intangible effects of their activities, it is essential to create tools that would enable them to measure their footprint in concrete terms, analyze options and take action.

Alongside such tools that build consumer consciousness, it is also critical to create a credible market of green products and services. Greenwashing--the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service, not only has a severe adverse effect on the perception of green lifestyles amongst individuals who have adopted progressive mindsets, but also mars the viability of genuine green businesses and creates a formidable entry barrier for new entrepreneurial efforts. The Ecomark, India’s first and only governmental effort at Eco-labeling established in 1991 by the Central Pollution Control Board, has, in its 20 year history, not issued even one eco-label that is in use today. Moreover, the criterion for eco-labeling is purely related to pollution abatement and control in the manufacturing context and fails to look at the service industry or life-cycle factors. The failure of the Ecomark has led to private industries in India, especially export oriented sectors like textile and food, acquiring eco-labels from other countries for their products and services (such as LEED and Ecotel). However, these non-country specific eco-labels do not consider some key aspects that differentiate India or any country for that matter, from others and hence cannot be benchmarked or eco-labeled through a generic one-size-fits-all process.

For the development of any such tools, methodologies or standards in India that will enable citizens and institutions to realize and minimize their footprint, it is essential to have an official database of GHG emission factors. For instance, most industrialized countries across the world have established programs and environmental institutions entrusted with the task of creating GHG emission factors that encapsulate the specific realities of that particular nation (for instance, each country uses a unique combination, in differing proportions, of various fuels to generate electricity). However, despite being the 4th largest emitter of GHG emissions in the world, India has no such database or nationalized authority. Also, there are no other visible efforts to understand the impact of the anthropogenic activities of Indians—whether that be of our railways, flights, or food consumption patterns. Measuring and analyzing such emission factors requires penetrative studies, including that of India-specific GHG emissions coefficients and the creation of databases that comprehensively reflect life-cycle related impacts.

The Strategy

Vivek and his team have conducted extensive primary and secondary research and analysis of emissions data to create India’s first a comprehensive database of city specific and national, life-cycle analysis greenhouse gas emissions factors of anthropogenic activities of Indian citizens. He has also developed analytical tools that rely on extensive scientific information to enable ordinary citizens and institutions to understand and analyze emission factors and emission coefficients, in an interactive and practical manner. Building on such a database, Vivek employs unique strategies to target individuals and institutions.

Vivek founded no2co2—a research and outreach body that creates tools to enable individuals with resources to accurately realize, measurably minimize and effectively neutralize their impact on climate change by managing their direct and indirect carbon footprints. The interactive carbon footprint calculator promotes realization designed around city-specific economic realities and covers all critical aspects such as transportation, energy use, water use, food and beverage consumption, material consumption, and solid waste and water generation. To support individuals in exploring alternative technology and consumption patterns, the platform provides city-specific minimize directories (i.e. green-pages for a city, similar to yellow-pages). These directories contain research and analysis of climate change solutions that individuals and small businesses can adopt to measurably reduce their carbon and ecological footprint. This natural language search-based tool provides relevant quantitative information related to capital costs, operational costs, and the associated energy and carbon footprint savings using intuitive infographics and video game environments. It closes the solutions arc by providing all relevant vendor information (including geographical mapping etc.) to enable direct linkages between green consumers and solution providers. Over the last two years, 15,000 Indian citizens have logged on the platform to make no2co2 the largest publicly available analytical database of carbon footprint minimization solutions and resource providers for specific cities in India. Going forward, Vivek plans to build on this to go beyond carbon footprint and include other key parameters such as water footprint, and air pollutant footprint.

To cater to large corporations or other government and non-government institutions, Vivek founded C-Balance, a private company. Through C-Balance, Vivek is changing the paradigm of how institutions realize and minimize their carbon footprint. With the marginal GHG abatement cost curve, (MACC) he brings methodologies that have so far been used only on a large scale to build an institution specific sustainability roadmap. MACC is designed to discover the most cost-effective means of mitigating climate change impact--whether that is through technological interventions or modifications in management practices, in the specific context of the organizations operational pattern. It also shows which option provides the maximum GHG mitigation benefits per unit of expenditure (i.e. tones of CO2e avoided per Rupee spent). Once introduced within an institution, MACC acts as a vital decision-support input for planning capital expenditure on projects in a manner that safeguards the financial sustainability of the organization while achieving tangible environmental and socioeconomic sustainability benefits for the planetary ecosystem. Vivek envisions that MACC will have the same impact for the environment mitigation as Tally had for accounting. He believes it will build a culture where life-cycle thinking becomes an inherent decision-making tool for charting the evolution of products and institutions, enabling organizations to achieve measurable, reportable, and verifiable GHG emissions, energy, water, and waste mitigation.

To increase his reach and impact, Vivek partnered with Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research to co-create a new method of implementing environmental education in Indian schools. The Education for Sustainable Lifestyles program seeks to harness the potential of school students to lead the process of neutralizing their personal and their school’s impact on climate change. Through interactive and playful methods, students of grades 8 and 9 are invited to assess the environmental footprints of their schools, conduct water, energy and waste audits of their school and explore their individual consumption patterns. Through this advanced environmental learning approach, students’ gain new perspectives about their own behavior and develop ideas to reduce their environmental footprints, by involving their community (peers, parents, and neighbors). This program has been introduced in five schools in Hyderabad and is expanding to 30 schools in partnership with Andhra Pradesh National Green Corps.

To counter greenwashing and create consumer demand for green products and services, Vivek started Green Signal—India’s first Ecolabel and independent certification body. A voluntary method of environmental performance certification and labeling, Green Signal identifies overall environmental preference of a product or service within a specific product/service category based on life-cycle considerations. Green Signal has set standards for the textile and hospitality industry—factoring in the life-cycle of different products and services. It has translated these into a Green Signal (like a cell phone signal with bars) for the consumer, who makes a choice by reading the bar rating; a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 5. An institution seeking certification pays Rs. 1 lakh, conducts an audit in compliance with measurements and methodologies set by Green Signal, and is evaluated by an expert committee. To date, Green Signal has eco-labeled a hotel chain and an online retail store and is in the process of eco-labeling seven innovations of the National Innovation Foundation, the first herbal dyeing technology based textile company and DailyDump’s Home Composting Systems. Vivek continues to put pressure on companies to voluntarily obtain certification by targeting sectoral lobby groups and associations and conducting citywide roadshows.

Having built strong data and analytical tools over the last two years, Vivek now plans to engage and integrate over 400 volunteers who will conduct outreach and research activities among communities and institutions. Vivek plans to map such data through open source platforms that can visually reflect real-time, city specific carbon footprint registries, trends of carbon footprint to usher measurability and verifiability in environmental measurement.

The Person

Vivek’s interest in the environment began when he was 11, while watching Race to Save the Planet, which showed how engineers (mechanical and water) solved environmental problems. This show made a strong impression, and gave him a glimpse of the growing distance between man and nature. It also showed him that it was possible for citizens to do something about it.

When he was about 16, he joined the Association of Youth for Better India, an initiative ahead of its time on waste management. Vivek received a thorough understanding of waste and water issues. He successfully mobilized communities and conducted awareness programs. Vivek played a critical role in a campaign that encouraged citizens to see their engagement with environmental issues, “If not now, when? If not you, who?” He brought his building together and convinced them to begin segregating waste. To advance local management, they formed street committees that looked into waste issues.

Vivek’s life took a sudden turn when he lost his mother in a car accident (1993). This loss affected him deeply and he withdrew from many local issues. However, he remained committed to pursue environmental engineering. With no college in India offering a course, apart from the Indian Institute of Technology, Vivek applied to the Florida Institute of Technology. He later completed his masters in environmental engineering from the University of Massachusetts (2001). Vivek first worked with Hazen and Sawyer and later with Malcolm Pirnie--consulting firms looking at environmental planning and engineering solutions to mitigate our carbon footprint.

Vivek visited India frequently and was keen to engage initiatives. During a trip he met with Action for Good Governance and Networking in India, bringing candidates to meet citizens prior to elections. This initiative bridged the gap between citizens and their elected representatives and impressed Vivek; he could participate while being in the US. He returned and founded Mumbai Votes (2004), an online platform that enabled citizens to track their elected representatives: history, mandates and performance. It also enables a citizen to do comparative analysis and make an informed opinion. Working with students and volunteers, Mumbai Votes became one of the most comprehensive transparency and accountability-related portals founded in India.

In 2009 Vivek was slowly drawn back to his passion of creating larger change in the environment field. Convinced that primary accountability for this rests entirely with the individual, he conceptualized no2co2. Leading by example, Vivek quit his US job and went back to India to devote himself to no2co2.

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