As the COP26 Summit at Glasgowkicked off, the struggleof reaching an agreement to keep the world on a 1.5-degree trajectory of rising temperatures, stares world leaders in the face. With reports suggesting that emissions are increasing at a fast pace, the obvious result is the increase in extreme weather events, as seen with stormy weather sweeping the United Kingdom bringing suspected tornadoes to parts of the country.
At the opening session, UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa confessed that the task of swiftly shifting the world’s economy onto a greener trajectory, to avoid increasingly deadly climate impacts, was enormously difficult. “The transition we need is beyond the scope, scale and speed of anything humanity has accomplished in the past. It is a daunting task. But humanity is a species defined by its ingenuity,” she said.What way forward it finds eventually, obviously will be closely watched.
At the home front, arriving in Glasgow for the Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted he looked forward to working with other world leaders on mitigating climate change and articulating India’s efforts in this regard.Well-intentioned alright, but strategy needs a re-look or sharp refining. Recent events of torrential rain and floods in Uttarakhand and Kerala recently bear testimony to the fact that climate change can play havoc with the weather, resulting in loss of innumerable lives. It goes without saying that like most governments, India too has taken nature for granted as a result of which such developments are occurring time and again.
While global leaders try to find solutions, a recent report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), projected that the world’s greenhouse gas emissions will fall by only 7.5 percent by 2030 under currently pledged national emission lowering actions instead of 30 percent required to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The voluntary pledges of respective countries will place the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.70 C, it pointed out.
The report found that India along with several other G20 countries are expected to release more earth warming emissions during 2030 than they did in 2010. This is despite all the actions reported to have been taken by the Indian government to reduce pollution and also its high profile publicity of focusing on non-renewable energy.
The change in weather events, which have become quite frequent in recent years in the country range from climate change to anthropogenic commissions such as cutting down of mountains, indiscriminate felling of trees, stone quarrying in ecologically sensitive zones, conversions of paddy field that used to absorb rains, the mining of river beds, razing hills for indiscriminate construction, mono crop cultivation and so on. One may refer to Madhav Gadgil’s report way back in 2011 that predicted the possible calamities that would be caused by the destruction of the Western Ghats on account of encroachment, quarrying and other factors. But political parties of all hues worked together to reject the report to appease vote banks.
In an article in Nature in 2013, it had cautioned that rising temperatures in the Himalayas raise the threat of glacial floods. Of the 8800 glacial lakes in the Himalayas, over 200 have been classified as ‘dangerous’.Himalayan nations were urged to build an international network to monitor risks such as those from glacial lakes and give early warning of hazards. The landslides in the Himalayan river catchments is well-known and are triggered by a plethora of natural and man-made factors such as heavy rainfall, earthquake, deforestation, large-scale land use changes and so on.
Similar to the Rishiganga disaster, the destructive 1970 floods that caused devastation in the Ganga Valley also lay in the Rishiganga watershed. The question arises – why do we suffer death and destruction despite available scientific information? Experts believe, and quite rightly, that investment in proactive scientific approaches – natural hazard surveillance or flood forecasting – to prevent disasters is missing. The other concern is that our policy makers do not appear to take cognizance to good science and implement recommendations of scientists, at least with regard to disaster management.
One may refer here to a study by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNIDR) which, in consultation with the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), found that India suffered economic losses of $80 billion during the 20-year period of 1998 to 2017. India has been ranked among the world’s top four countries in absolute economic losses, the others being US, China and Japan. The losses increased by over 120 percent in the last 20 years compared to the preceding two decades (1978-1997).
If losses from climate related disaster are taken into account, they have gone up by 151 percent. India has been found to be the worst sufferer of disaster related deaths and economic loses. Thousands of lives are lost and hundreds of crores worth of properties destroyed every year, though not all of them are reported, a fact authenticated by the UN report.
The lack of government action has once again become a reality this year though scientific studies and international reports have urged the need to take remedial action. As mentioned earlier, the government is not much interested in adhering to advice of experts in tackling adverse weather events, specially floods, cyclones and landslides which mostly affect the poor living in mountainous regions and coastal areas.
It may be pertinent here to refer to an US intelligence assessment which identified India and Pakistan among 11 countries that are ‘highly vulnerable’ in their ability to prepare for and respond to environmental and societal crisis caused by climate change. This first ever US National Intelligence Estimate on climate stated that India and China will play crucial roles in determining the trajectory of global temperature rise while glossing over the West’s contribution to the crisis. “China and India are the first and fourth largest emitters respectively, and low carbon sources and both are growing their total and per capita emissions whereas the US and the EU – as the second and third largest – are declining”, the report observed while acknowledging both countries are incorporating more renewable sources into the energy mix.
The introduction of environmental assessments in the Himalayas would protect the fragility of the mountains and address concerns about providing economic incentives to local people without harming the environment. Compensation afforestation programmes funded by hydropower corporations need to be effectively monitored. These activities must mandatorily involve local communities, civil society organizations and women’s self-help groups for meaningful results. The relocation of vulnerable villages and imposition of penalties for erecting structures on river banks are also necessary.
Thus all talks and plans of action will not become a reality unless there is political will and proper strategy in tackling the climate menace. The challenge for India is possibly more than most nations due to the population density, coastal crowding coupled with rampant violation of environmental rules and regulations. Moreover, keeping in view the fact that “in a moderate climate change scenario, India is projected to potentially lose between 0.8 percent and 2 percent of its GDP by mid-century”, as per a G20 report, it is all the more necessary that remedial action be taken at the earliest.