Opinion

Environmental Decay: Strategy Adaption Critical

A recent study published in ‘The Lancet Planetary Health’ journalfound that nearly 74,000 excess deaths in India annually can be attributed to abnormal hot and cold temperatures related to climate change. The deaths related to hot temperatures increased in all regions from 2000 to 2019, indicating that global warming because of climate change will make this mortality figure worse in future. The number of deaths in the country per year linked with abnormal cold temperatures is 6,55,400, while those associated with high temperatures is 83,700, according to the researchers.

 

The study helps to underscore that recognising the geographic patterns of temperature-related mortality is important for international collaboration in developing policies and strategies in climate change mitigation and adaptation and health protection.

 

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic since last year has stalled international climate governance as several governments started announcing emergency stimulus packages to rescue their economies instead. Besides, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which was supposed to give a practical shape to the Paris agreement got deferred.

 

And though some may like to profess that the pandemic offered an opportunity to plan sustainable pathways in the run-up to Agenda 2030, it does require much more attention. An ecological transition is necessary and the process is underway with a shift from fossils to renewables for faster economic recovery. However, recovery packages call for mobilising funds for achieving sustainable pathways and the crucial COP26, is now scheduled to take place in November.

 

At the same time, it is encouraging to note that a framework adopted by the UN Statistical Commission would ensure ‘natural capital’ — forests, wetlands and other ecosystems –being counted in reporting wealth of countries. A school of economists has for sometime argued that environmental capital be considered a factor of production just like labour and capital. They said if environmental degradation is measured, the ‘real growth’ of a country would be apparent. And while India, China, UK, France, Germany and many other European countries have already made some progress in implementing the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), the adoption of the new framework will push others, including US, towards figuring out worth of their natural ecosystem and including it in accounting process.

 

The new framework goes beyond the commonly used statistics of GDP in economic reporting. It means the countries’ wealth will reflect dependence of the economy on nature or its impact on it, such as the deterioration of water quality or the loss of a forest. Similarly, restoration or conservation may be a ‘credit’ that lessens the loss of GDP. India has already taken a step towards measuring values of nature when it figured out economic valuation of 16 tiger reserves as part of a conservation plan in two phases in 2013-19. The study indicated that the monetary value flow benefits from the selected 10 tiger reserves range from Rs 5094 to Rs 16,202 crore annually.

 

A UN backed IPCC report two years ago had noted the criticality of the situation, wherein nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and its impact will see extinction of one million of the eight million estimated number of animal and plant species, many of them within decades, unless their habitats are restored.

 

This apart, in India, though there has been some decline in the agriculture sector, it remains the main source of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. Methane emissions occur from this sector mainly due to livestock rearing (enteric fermentation and manure management) and paddy cultivation while N2O is principally emitted due to the application of fertilizers to agricultural soils. In the energy sector, electricity production was the single largest source, accounting for about 40 per cent of national GHG emissions in 2016 while manufacturing industries and construction together emitted over 18 per cent of total emissions.

 

Seven family conglomerates — Reliance, Adani, Tate, Aditya Birla, Mahindra, Jindal and Vedanta — are said to be responsible for emitting at least 539 million tonnes of CO2 annually. This is equivalent to 22% of India’s total CO2 emissions. In 2019-20, these seven groups operated 25% of India’s coal based power plants (50,000 MW), produced 39% of steel (43 million tonnes), 27% of cement (91 million tonnes) and 22 per cent of passenger and commercial vehicles (0.92 million).

 

To avert a crisis like climate change, forward thinking and long term planning is required, for which the value of committed visionary leadership cannot be underestimated. As family conglomerates are organised around visionaries, if they sincerely act on the climate crisis, they can help in tackling environmental degradation in a better way. Unfortunately, however, the contribution of corporates in India is quite meagre compared to most other countries.

 

At a time when natural disasters are increasing, specially floods and cyclones, affecting lakhs of people almost every year, there is an imperative need for integrated action. And for this not just the government but the corporate needs to join hands. In fact, the government should take the initiative in asking business houses what action they plan to take and in which sub-division or block during a financial year.

 

On another front, at the recent G-7 meeting, India reminded rich nations of their responsibilities citing their historical emissions and said they still owe $1.11 trillion to developing countries as per what was promised 11 years ago. Then Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar observed at a webinar that revival, regeneration and conservation of nature, India’s cumulative contribution to climate change (in terms of emissions) in the last 200 years is just 3 per cent. The unbridled carbon emissions particularly by Europe, US and in the last 40 years by China caused climate change disaster. And while these countries prospered economically they polluted the world, with India being one of the suffering countries with the least contribution to climate change.

 

Be that as it may, India is in a relatively good position as its emissions per capita are quite low despite its 1.3 billion people though total emissions continue to be high. It has the opportunity to leapfrog to LED bulbs, electric vehicles, electric cooking and digital technologies which can create an enabling environment. However the big question remains how soon India would achieve net zero emissions and how.

 

To counter the problem of environmental degradation, manifest through different forms of pollution and its adverse bearing on human health, there is need for concerted action, specially by the big polluters and financial and technological assistance to high population countries like India to tackle the crisis effectively. Individually also, nations like India, with high population growth and high population density, have to earmark more resources towards this end. Undoubtedly there is need for a good balance between environmental concerns and rapid development needs. Concrete action towards this end is the need of the hour. —INFA

 

 

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Dhurjati Mukherjee

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