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Climate change: Can India be Vishwa Guru through glib statements as glamorous pursuit?

Counterview Desk 

Shankar Sharma, a well-known power and climate policy analyst based in Karnataka, in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has said that there are “striking examples” of accelerated degradation of natural resources in India, including “fast-disappearing natural forest cover and wildlife habitats, with “unacceptable level of pollution/contamination of air, water and soil.”
He regrets in his letter, copies of which have been forwarded to Bhupender Yadav, Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), Government of India, Dr Rajiv Kumar, Vice Chairman, Niti Aayog, this is happening despite the fact that there are no official policy papers or scholarly papers or academic papers which establish that “such accelerated degradation of natural resources have not had any deleterious impacts on our people”.

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May I draw your kind attention to a few media reports and a statement attributed to the Environment Secretary, as in the news link below, in which he is reported to have stated: “We are not anti-net-zero. But without adequate climate finance being definitively available, we can’t commit on that part.”
Assuming that these media report are correct, and that views of the Environment Secretary has truly reflected the current thinking of the Union government, I would like to draw your kind attention to many serious concerns to the civil society groups on the short-term and long-term ramifications of such a thinking of the government to the people of this country.
May I submit that a truly rational thinking on part of all the concerned policy/decision makers in the country on all the associated consequences, especially from the perspective of the overall welfare of the country, will reveal the harsh realities of such a policy wherein the third largest economy depends on the climate financing from other countries to chart out a sustainable environmental upkeep policy for its own people?
Whereas, it has been generally accepted as a legitimate global demand that sufficient financing from richer nations is needed for poorer countries to help offset the high cost of transitioning to clean energy, should that be the only factor for India not to adopt the necessary course of actions for the sustainable development of its own people?
Are there not many more critical reasons for our country to decide what is good for the country independent of external finance? It will be very disastrous and hence, deeply unfortunate, for a large and the second most populous country to intricately link its developmental paradigm to financial assistance from the rich countries.
Does this approach bode well for a country seeking a place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a seat at the high table of global influence?
While India should continue to persistently demand appropriate behaviour by the industrially developed countries, not only in massively reducing their own carbon footprint but also in adequately assisting poor countries to offset the high cost of transitioning to clean energy, it must also demonstrate to those countries a truly leadership role in adopting much simpler lifestyle choices and all the associated policies to be able to move towards a sustainable future.
This is what a Vishwa Guru is expected to do; always to lead by suitable examples and practice first before preaching.
Even if such lofty ideals are deemed by our authorities as suitable only for the reasons of glamorous pursuit, there are many credible reasons for India to plan for a smooth transition to green energy economy at the earliest, and also to adopt many enabling economic, social and environmental policies; especially if we really care for the all-round welfare of every section of our own people.
A diligent consideration of various associated issues under three major categories as listed below should be able to drive home the concerns of the civil society.

Financial/commercial/economic perspective

Even if we consider only the financial/commercial/economic perspective, there can be very many serious concerns.
  • As mentioned in the media reports, “while the green transition does present infrastructure-driven economic growth opportunities, there would be trade-offs in the form of higher electricity prices and rail fares, job losses in the coal sector and fiscal challenges for states.” Media reports also have indicated: “there are also longer-term costs for inaction. India’s loss in per-capita gross domestic product by 2050 could range from 0.41%, under a low-global warming scenario if the Paris Agreement is met, to 5.08% in case of higher warming, the International Monetary Fund estimated in 2019.”
  • Draft 'National Resource Efficiency Policy' (NREP), 2019 by MoEF&CC has stated that in the endeavour for economic growth, natural resources in the country have been indiscriminately exploited, and that there is associated adverse impact on the environment and biodiversity. The same policy has also stated: “The projected pace of economic development is going to put pressure on the already stressed and limited resources and may lead to serious resource depletion and environment degradation affecting the economy, livelihoods and the quality of life.”
  • As per "Stern Review",  – ‘The Economics of Climate Change’, Climate Change could have very serious impacts on growth and development. This Review has estimated that certain scenarios of Global Warming may result in poor countries like India suffering economic costs of about 20 % of its GDP, whereas the mitigation of the same now can be achieved at a cost of about 1% of present GDP. The Review also indicates that the more we delay in addressing Global Warming the higher we will have to spend in mitigation of the same in future.
  • The World Bank report of 2013 with the title “Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges, Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: What Are the Trade-offs?”, say for India: “Although the past decade of rapid economic growth has brought many benefits to India, the environment has suffered, exposing the population to serious air and water pollution. The report finds that environmental degradation costs India $80 billion per year or 8.5% of its economy. For an environmentally sustainable future, India needs to correctly value its natural resources, and ecosystem services to better inform policy and decision-making. The report says: Green growth is eminently feasible: Green growth is necessary; Green growth is affordable; Green growth is desirable; Green growth is measurable. It can be argued that without green growth, India’s future development, however measured, will be at great risk.”
In the larger context of very many associated reports/papers, shall we not deliberate on whether there any official policy papers, or scholarly papers, or academic papers, which have conclusively established that a “Business-As-Usual” scenario for India, wherein the continued pursuit of high GDP growth paradigm, which is the root cause of high GHG emissions of the country, will not impact the welfare of people in any way?
Hence, it is very unfortunate that many of our policy makers /authorities continue to advocate for a high GDP growth rate, year after year, without referring to the overall impacts to the long-term welfare of the country. The net cost to our society because of the high GDP growth rate paradigm, is best explained by a recent report “The Dasgupta Review”.
The report concluded that all livelihoods depended on the health of the planet. It showed that while global capital produced per person had doubled in the three decades since 1992, the stock of natural capital -- that is, the quantifiable benefit an individual derives from services bestowed by nature -- had plunged 40 percent (click here and here).

Environment/climate change perspective

There is no doubt in the analysis of the scientific community that all those factors which have led to or leading to unacceptable levels of GHG emissions, and hence to Global Warming, are also the root causes of accelerated degradation of natural resources, and hence to the transgression of planetary boundaries. 
 The striking examples of such accelerated degradation of natural resources in our country are the fast-disappearing natural forest cover and wildlife habitats, and the unacceptable level of pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil.
Do we have any official policy papers or scholarly papers or academic papers, which have conclusively established that such accelerated degradation of natural resources have not had any deleterious impacts on our people since independence, or they will not lead to any concerns on the overall welfare perspective of our people in the future?
Can we confidently say that our financial /economic /developmental policies in the recent past have all lived up to the letter and spirit of various Acts of our own Parliament, various associated national policies, and of international conventions?
  • As per the sections 48 (a) and 51 (a) (g) of our Constitution it is the duty of the STATE and every citizen to make honest efforts to protect and improve our environment by protecting and improving rivers, lakes, forests and living beings. The fast-dwindling natural forest cover (as exemplified by the country level forest & tree cover of only about 22% as against the national forest policy target of 33%), fast disappearing biodiversity even within the legally Protected Areas (PAs) such as National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, cannot be construed as honestly living up to the letter and spirit of our Constitution.
  • The ongoing practice of routinely diverting massive chunks of forest lands, even in Wildlife sanctuaries, cannot be in compliance with this Constitutional mandate, and the letter and spirit of the Environmental Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act and the Wild Life Protection Act. In all such cases of forest diversion and biodiversity destruction, the state and Union govt. are being seen as primarily responsible.
  • Section 29 of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 clearly prohibits any kind of destruction of wildlife including its habitat inside a wildlife sanctuary unless the destruction is inevitable and is unambiguously for the betterment of wildlife and its habitat. Media reports indicate that "for the country as a whole, the loss of primary forest in the last five years (2014-2019) was more than 120,000 ha, which is nearly 36% more than such losses seen between 2009 and 2013" and “Over 500 projects in India’s protected areas and eco-sensitive zones were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife between June 2014 and May 2018.” It is impossible to imagine how such practices can be construed as not being a clear violation of Environmental Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act and the Wild Life Protection Acts.
  • In 2010 MoEF&CC had released the draft Mission document on the National Mission for a Green India. As per this document the three-fold objectives to be achieved in next 10 years were: (a) double the area to be taken up for afforestation / eco-restoration in India: (b) Increase the GHG removals from India’s forests to 6.35% of India annual total GHG emissions; and (c) enhance the resilience of forests /ecosystems. All these will be possible only if there is adequate containment of deforestation and degradation of the existing forests. To lose a considerable part of the rich tropical forest with very high biodiversity value because of large size power projects and coal mining almost every year have negated the very objective of this mission.
  • Are our policies consistent with the World Charter for Nature, as adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in 1982? This Charter has provided some guiding principles for protecting biodiversity of which few key principles enunciated are: (i) Activities which are likely to cause irreversible damage to nature should be avoided; (ii) Activities which are likely to pose significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that the expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed; (iii) Environmental Impact Assessment should be thorough, be given sufficient time, and be carried out in an open and transparent fashion. Can we confidently say that our project approval processes have diligently adhered to these principles in every project proposal?
  • Can we confidently say that all our project approval mechanisms have satisfactorily addressed various concerns over the upkeep of our natural resources as expressed in draft 'National Resource Efficiency Policy' (NREP), 2019 by MoEF&CC, and that the utilisation of our natural resources has been most optimal, efficient and sustainable?
  • As per Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - IV Assessment Report “Emissions from deforestation are very significant – they are estimated to represent more than 18% of global emissions”; “Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Large size conventional power projects are all major contributors for deforestation either through dams, buildings, mines, transmission lines and pollutants like coal dust, coal ash and acid rains.

Social/health perspective

 What is much more worrisome in the prevailing environmental scenario, which is being termed as gloomy by the environmentalists, is the fact that high levels of GHG emissions with a continuously increasing projection, as can be observed in India’s case, undoubtedly indicates the unsustainable exploitation of the already stretched natural resources.
This scenario, if allowed to be continued, will lead to multiple societal level calamities such as health issues and pandemics, erratic rainfall, unacceptable levels of pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil, reduced agricultural production, droughts, floods, forest fires etc.
Union government is refusing to implement a set of policies which will start reducing the total GHG emissions of the country
The grave warning from none other than the UN Secretary General António Guterres should be enough to summarise the credible threats to our people. He has said “Nature is angry” and “You cannot play games with Nature. Nature strikes back.”
Nature has already started striking back with frequent droughts, heatwaves, unseasonal and intense rainfall, hurricanes, pandemics, uncontrolled forest fires, rising sea levels, serious health issues, people’s displacements etc. The most worrisome feature of our present governance mechanism is that none of these credible warnings are being heeded to, and they also are alleged as being dismissed with disdain in favour of piling up material wealth.
A UN report by title “Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission” states that the rising trend in zoonotic diseases is driven by the degradation of our natural environment – through land degradation, wildlife exploitation, resource extraction, climate change, and other stresses.
WHO has stated: “Biodiversity underpins the functioning of the ecosystems on which we depend for food and fresh water, health and recreation, and protection from natural disasters”.
Some of the recent media reports (click here, here, here, here) can provide the basis for the associated concerns of civil society.
In a paper titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future”, 17 conservation scientists have cited a number of key reports published in the past few years including:
How ready is India for climate change? Not much. The temperatures in India could rise by 4.4°C by 2100, along with the projection for increased frequency of extreme precipitation events, and many more tropical cyclones to be born in the northern Indian Ocean and with greater intensity, and says a report by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES).
As the second most populous country and with an already stretched natural resources base, can India afford to ignore such credible warnings about the inalienable linkage between healthy environment, human health and prosperity? 
Since the phenomenon of climate change is invariably linked to the unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources, our authorities should be mandated to substantiate the implied/stated policy of the Union government is refusing to implement a set of policies which will start reducing the total GHG emissions of the country and which will improve the overall biodiversity health in the country.
If given an opportunity, the civil society can prove beyond reasonable doubts that most of the linear projects or large size projects in one location, which were approved/implements during the last few years, were either completely unnecessary, or the stated objectives could be met by credible alternatives with minimum impacts on biodiversity, or without any impacts at all.
In this larger context, the concerned Secretaries/advisors/domain experts may please be asked to diligently consider all these and various other associated issues from the overall welfare perspective of our people, and then to make suitable recommendations to the Union Cabinet on the need for early decision on smooth energy transition and other associated policy initiatives for the sustainable development of our communities.
Can the people of this country hope that under the leadership and guidance of the new Environment and Climate Change minister, the country will take highly rational and timely policy initiatives to put our country on a sustainable developmental path, and become truly a Vishwa Guru through its actions, and not just through glib statements as glamorous pursuit?

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