We live in troubled times: State of the environment and suggested programmes

Ennore Thermal Power Plant Coal

We live in troubled times—wars, caste conflicts, water scarcity, poverty, global warming, etc. Our problems can be clubbed into two categories—environmental problems (water pollution), and problems associated with inequality–economic (poverty), social (gender inequality), and political (apartheid). We face three tipping points—Resource depletion, climate change and inequality. Each of them can independently tip society over. Two of the tipping points are associated with the environment.

Resource depletion

Fossil fuel exhaustion with no viable alternatives: If the current energy growth rate of a little over 2% pa can be maintained, we will triple our current energy consumption in 50 years. Oil will exhaust in ~40 years, gas in ~50 years and coal in <100 years. Alternative energy sources cannot replace fossil fuels. We have already used 40% of the earth’s hydroelectricity generation potential. Uranium ore reserves will last only another 150 years for the currently operating nuclear reactors. Renewable energy sources—PV, concentrated solar power, biomass, wind, geothermal, and wave energy do not have the potential to replace fossil fuels. Where will we get our energy from in future?

Depletion of other non-renewable minerals: About 90 non-renewable minerals, including cadmium, cobalt, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, phosphate rock, silver, tellurium, titanium, tungsten, and zinc are going to become scarcer within the next 2-3 decades. When their extraction slows down and ultimately ceases, if their recycling is inadequate, the global economy will seriously falter.

Civilizational collapses: Declining energy resources have the potential to cause economic crises, exacerbate inequity, and even cause civilizational regress or collapse. Energy shortages were responsible for many civilizational collapses, e.g., Mayan, and Polynesian civilizations. In the past, such collapses were confined to single civilizations. In today’s globalized economy, a collapse will not remain local.

We are unable to accept that decreasing consumption and energy equity is a viable solution.

Climate change

Global warming is a consequence of fossil fuel overuse and deforestation. These two processes have emitted about 2,500 Gt of CO2e to date, increasing the atmospheric CO2 concentration that was stable at 280–300 ppm for 800,000 years before the industrial revolution, to 421 ppm today. This has warmed the earth by an average of 1.1°C above pre-industrial times.

Paris Agreement failure: The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to 1.5–2°C above pre-industrial times, above which catastrophic consequences may ensue. The non-binding pledges made by nations to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and sequester additional atmospheric CO2 have been ineffective. GHG emissions have been rising by 1.5% pa in the recent past. To restrict warming to 1.5°C, GHG emissions must decrease by 8% every year for the next 25 years, a difficult target.

Global warming impacts: Even if the Paris Agreement pledges are fully implemented in the specified timescale, a 3-4oC warming by 2100 will cause impacts such as an increase in extreme weather events, sea rise, glacial shrink, increase in incidents of glacial lake outburst flood events, food and water shortages; increase hunger, deprivation, malnutrition, disease and poverty, raise the incidence of mortality and morbidity, loss of forests and biodiversity and decrease the ecosystem services they provide, a sixth mass species extinction; loss of employment and work opportunities, disruption of the global social and political order, social conflict.

Winners and losers: The Global North, with 16% of the global population today consumed 69% of all fossil fuels used since the Industrial Revolution, whereas the Global South with 84% of the world’s population today consumed only 31%. The average per capita GDP of high-income countries in 2018 was US$ 44,787, i.e., 10-fold greater than that of low- and middle-income countries (US$ 4,971), and 20 times that of South Asia (US$ 1,903).

Catch-22 situation for the Global South: To restrict warming to less than 1.5oC only another 100-400 GtCO2 can be emitted. At the current emission rate of 40 GtCO2, the remaining carbon space will be erased in the next few years. If developing nations burn more fossil fuels to ‘develop’, they will contribute to warming that will exceed 1.5–2°C. If they restrict their emissions, they will remain permanently backward in comparison to the developed countries. Even if the entire remaining carbon space of 400 GtCO2 is given to the developing countries, they cannot achieve the material development standards of developed countries.

South Asia’s high vulnerability: South Asia is one of two regions that will be most affected by climate change. It has a quarter of the world’s population but has emitted only 3.6% of the world’s historic emissions. Bangladesh and Maldives will be hard hit by sea rise. With a likely 2 m sea rise in the Sundarbans area, Bangladesh will lose 20% of its land mass by 2100. An estimated 50 million Bangladeshi climate refugees will leave the country by 2050. By 2100, sea rise will drown the island state of the Maldives, causing its entire population (current population ~5 lakhs) to emigrate.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka will be severely water-stressed within the next few decades. The Indus and Amu Darya which flow through Pakistan and Afghanistan are dependent to the extent of 60-70% on snow and glacial melt, whereas the Ganga and Brahmaputra get only 10-20% from meltwater. The entire Himalayan region is vulnerable to being impacted by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), as happened in Sikkim recently. GLOFs can wash away villages, fields, and everything else that is in their path for up to 150 km.

Environmental degradation

Air:Per the World Health Organization, air pollution causes 8 million excess mortalities annually, 52% of which are due to outdoor air pollution and 48% due to indoor air pollution.

Water: Many parts of the world are now water-stressed. In a few decades, global water demand will exceed supply. Climate change will decrease the amount of useable water and acidification processes will alter the pattern of water availability. Together, both will compromise the water security of many regions of the world. This is likely to have two consequences within the next 2-3 decades. First, mass migration from areas that become severely water-stressed. Second, existing water conflicts may be militarized and turn into international water wars, well before energy wars start up.

Water quality in many parts of the world is poor. Waterborne diseases, e.g., diarrhoeal diseases, cholera shigella, typhoid, hepatitis A and E, and poliomyelitis, are transmitted by ingestion of contaminated water. Diarrhoeal diseases alone account for more than 1.5 million deaths attributable to unsafe water supply, inadequate sanitation, and lack of hygiene.

Land: Large tracts of the world’s drylands are degraded, particularly in Eastern Europe, West, South and East Asia, and Central and Southern Africa. About one-third of the earth’s land area is affected by desertification due to poor soil conservation practices in agriculture.

Biodiversity–Human activity decreased biodiversity below optimal levels on >58% of the land mass. Southeast Asia is the most affected region. Agriculture, logging, residential and commercial development, introduction of alien species and pollution are the major reasons for posing the risk of biodiversity loss.

India’s environmental problems

Air: Air pollution in urban areas routinely exceeds national standards. Air pollution-related excess deaths in India are estimated to be 1.6 million per annum. Air pollution causes extensive injury to other sensitive receptors, e.g., crops, water bodies, forests, and monuments. Studies indicate that crop yield losses around major Indian cities may range from 15-40%. Air pollution-related crop yield loss for 6 crops–wheat, paddy, sugarcane, maize, cotton, and soya in India is estimated at Rs 1 lakh crores for the year 2019.

Water: Water tables have declined steadily due to the overdraw of groundwater by agriculture. Over the next couple of decades, water stress is expected to increase. Fertilizer runoff has caused nitrate pollution of surface water. Over 70% of surface water is contaminated. Arsenic contamination of groundwater affects 22 states and fluoride contamination affects 14 states.

Land: As much as 96.4 million ha of land in India is degrading, of which 86% is desertifying. Soil erosion has increased from 3,000 million tonnes in the 1980s to >5,300 MT in the last decade. The generation of municipal solid waste has seen a 200% increase from 39,000 TPD in  2001 to 81,000 TPD in 2010.

Biodiversity: Four of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots are in India.

Climate change: India will be impacted by many types of climate change-related events—sea rise, GLOFs, extreme weather events (abnormally high temperatures or precipitation), floods, drought, cyclones, significant crop yield losses, heat stress, etc. Many extreme weather events have occurred in India in the last 15 years, indicating that more of them are likely to happen in future.

Extreme weather events in India in the 21st Century

YearEventLocationEstimated deaths
2005Very heavy rainfallMumbai1,100
2015Very heavy rainfallChennai500
2018HeatwaveAll India2,405
2018Very heavy rainfallKerala500
2019Extremely high temperaturesMaharashtra, Madhya Pradesh50
2019Heavy rainfall & floodsMaharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala~300
2020Heavy rainfall & floodsHyderabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai100

A study on heat stress and mortality done in Surat concludes that There is an increase of 11% in mortality when temperature crossed 40oC. There is a direct relationship between mortality and high heat index.”

Environmental movement: The next big movement in the 21st Century

The 20th Century saw four movements that attempted to correct certain inequalities. The anti-colonial movement won independence for Asian and African colonies. The civil rights movement succeeded in getting equal political and social rights for blacks in the USA and South Africa. The anti-capitalist movements attempted to alter the socio-economic system in certain countries to obtain economic equity. The gender equality movements fought for equality for women, and subsequently for LGBTQs. Every one of these movements was led by people.

The next big movement will be the environmental one. Human society has overused nature, particularly in the last century, causing the depletion of many critical non-renewable minerals and some renewable natural resources, and environmental degradation due to the dumping of excessive wastes.

In addition to fighting inequitable distribution of resource use, the environmental movement has to tackle anthropocentrism, which none of the previous movements contended with. The environmental movement will be unorganized and chaotic, and uneven in time and space. Yet, it will bring about the most profound changes to the fabric of human society as it will redefine not just relationships between humans but also the relationship between humans and nature.

Need for a rainbow coalition platform of environmental groups

Despite the increasing number of environmental laws and regulations, the Indian environment has deteriorated perceptibly in the last 50 years. Environmental regulation has not succeeded in doing its job. Public action too has not succeeded very well as much of it is working in silos. For example, people working on forest and wildlife conservation do not coordinate their activities with those working on issues related to industrial pollution. And neither of these sets of people relate to those working on climate change. And non-chemical farmers work in isolation from others in the environmental movement. For every 10 battles that are fought to conserve or protect the environment, 9 are lost.

It is time to form state-wise platforms or rainbow coalitions of environmental groups so that the groups can support one another in the work and battles in the spheres in which they are working.

Suggested directions for action programme

Local programmes

Local programmes can be as varied as doing non-chemical farming to fighting industrial pollution. So, these programmes will not be suggested here except to say that they should try to reduce social energy consumption and try to reduce energy inequity between people (energy consumption is a good surrogate measure for environmental injury).

National programmes

Environmental protection: These measures pertain to protecting the environment from facilities that pose environmental risks. The public may ask the Union Government to implement may be as follows:

  • Acceptable environmental impact standard: There is no definition for acceptable/unacceptable environmental impact of a proposed project. Consequently, EIAs are a sham as the grant of environmental clearances is highly subjective. The following standards should be set up: a) A risk standard for acceptable carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic toxic risks, b) an Allowable ecological footprint (eco-footprint) standard, c) An area vulnerability standard, d) A conflict potential standard, e) A carbon net-zero standard. If any one of these standards is not met, the project should be deemed to pose an unacceptable environmental impact.
  • UNEP EIA guidelines: To improve the quality of EIAs, the United Nations Environmental Programme Goals and Principles of EIAs may be followed in letter and spirit.
  • Potentially impacted people to do EIAs:  The potentially impacted peopleof a proposed project/ facility shall supervise/ do the EIA and submit it under their signatures to the EIA Authority and other regulatory authorities.  Technical portions of the EIA may be subcontracted to consultants recognized by the EIA Authority.  The project/ facility proponent shall provide all necessary information and non-monetary assistance for doing the EIA.
  • EIA Authority: AnEIA Authority (EIAA) should be set up to grant environmental clearances.  The EIAA should be an autonomous body with the same powers as the Election Commission.
  • Power to grant/revoke CFE/ CFO to be handed over to local self-governments:  The power to grant and revoke the Consent for operation (CFO) for existing facilities shall be handed over to local self-governments—Panchayat Raj Samitis (PRSs), Zilla Parishads (ZPs), municipalities and municipal corporations.

Climate change: The following demands may be made to the Union Government:

  • Fully decarbonise India by 2040-50: Pass legislation in Parliament for India to commit to fully decarbonise by 2040-50 through sequestration focussed on Nature-based Based Solutions that centre climate and social justice. In addition, decarbonization strategies must eschew failed, untested, hypothetical market-based solutions and techno-fixes. Through these means, gross global consumption should be reduced to sustainable levels, the measure for which should be a quantifiable justice-centric sustainability index. This requires that proposals to open new coal mines be dropped, and a phased reduction of fossil fuel production and imports.
  • Compensate farmers and farm workers for CO2 sequestration: Compensate farmers and farm workers for CO2 sequestration on their croplands. The compensation payable is ~ ₹  7 lakh crores. Additionally, Compensate farmers for urban air pollution-related crop yield losses.
  • Mandate Energy and Carbon footprinting, institute carbon tax, and reduce footprints by 5% annually: The Government should pass legislation mandating all government ministries and departments, enterprises that have over 100 employees and residential colonies that have over 500 families to do energy and carbon footprinting annually. Footprints may be attached to annual reports and audited statements (wherever such statements are mandatory) of the organization and submitted to the local government, which then may put them up on a website. Carbon footprints should be reduced by 5% pa. A definition for sustenance and luxury emissions should be arrived at through public dialogue. Given India’s significant and growing carbon inequality, a carbon tax on luxury emissions should be levied to fund carbon removal processes and activities that use nature-based solutions and that centre social and climate justice and compensate people involved in these processes and activities, e.g., farmers who are not paid for the solar energy used in agriculture.
  • Green jobs: MNREGA should be used to create green jobs, particularly those that restitute degraded lands, and polluted air and water. This will help in the just energy transition India requires.
  • Strengthen the Right to information and enact a Right to Act: To make climate governance truly democratic, transparent and grassroots-oriented, the erosion of the Right to information should be stopped and the act strengthened. A Right to Act should be legislated to give the public the right to express peaceful and non-violent opposition to development plans and projects that move India away from the path of sustainability (measured by a sustainability index) and equity.
  • Right of Mother Earth: A Charter of Rights for Mother Earth should be legislated and enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Such a charter may be preceded by a demand to make water bodies “living beings.”

Suggested core values and demands

  • Sustainability: Developed nations must pledge to become net carbon negative in consumption emissions by 2030-35 to create space for developing nations to fully decarbonise by 2040-50.

Note: Decarbonisation must focus primarily on: a) Mitigation focussed on the reduction of consumption levels in the Global North, and supply-side management, leaving >90% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground;  b)  Sequestration focussed on Nature Based Solutions that centre climate and social justice. In addition, decarbonization strategies must eschew failed, untested, hypothetical market-based solutions and techno-fixes. Through these means, gross global consumption should be reduced to sustainable levels, the measure for which should be a quantifiable justice-centric sustainability index.

  • Environmental justice: a) Responsibility for loss & damage: Nations/regions should take responsibility for climate change impacts attributable to them—displacement, property loss, etc—in proportion to their cumulative emissions (emissions from 1750-to date); b) Sharing benefits and risks equitably: Engineering and administrative controls should be put into place (e.g., global warming mitigative and adaptive measures, facilitating population migration where risk becomes high) such that all people of the world face roughly the same degree of risk from the impacts of GHG emissions; and the wealth created by the use of fossil fuels are distributed equally to all people of the world.
  • Equity: The ratio of the maximum income consumption for all people in the world should be≤5
  • Natural resource sharing: To engender global peace, natural resources should be shared cooperatively and equitably by people as usufruct rights (and not ownership rights).
  • Decentralization, democratic, transparent governance: Governance should be decentralized and democratic; all governance information should be in the public domain.
  • Environmental restitution: Degraded land, water, air, and to the extent possible, biodiversity should be restituted.

Sagar Dhara Male, Upper class & caste, College-educated, City slicker, Member of the fiercest predator that ever stalked Earth—humans. [email protected]

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