Climate Change: We’ve been warned enough

This year, tempestuous environmental changes have sounded an alarm. Will 2020 be the year of action?
Last Updated 27 December 2019, 19:52 IST

A nation’s capital is often representative of the world’s perception of a country. And if this was true, the view of New Delhi and thus India this year, was of a dark, smog-ridden urban-scape shrouded in a humongous cloud of grey.

But with ‘Climate Emergency’ being chosen as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, it becomes apparent that the battle is not India’s alone.

Looking back, 2019 provided the world ample evidence and much to think about in relation to what climate emergency meant with challenges like air pollution, water shortage, climate crisis, rising sea levels and deforestation faced by most countries worldwide.

Murky air

The United Nations said in an article this year, ‘In India, extreme air pollution has become its own season, from October to February’. The proof was the health emergency declared in Delhi this November when its air quality index settled at a shocking 484 , considered ‘severe’. Not only this, a World Air Quality Report in March had an embarrassing 15 of the top 20 spots taken by Indian cities.

A new analysis by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago showed how the average citizen living in the Indo-Gangetic Plain region of India could expect to lose about seven years of life expectancy because of the foul air.

Additionally, a report by the Health Effects Institute says if this trend continues, deaths from air pollution in India will rise from 1.1 million in 2015 to 1.7 million annually in 2030 and 3.6 million deaths annually by 2050. And as per another study — those most affected are children under the age of five. The National Clean Air Programme announced at the beginning of the year proposed a framework to achieve a national-level target of 20-30% reduction of PM2.5 and PM10 concentration by 2024, but given the present scenario, even 2024 seems too late.

On a positive, though, is the country’s greater push towards renewable energy with India investing more in solar energy than in coal for the first time this year, and the Prime Minister vowing to double India’s non-fossil fuel target to 450 GW by 2022.

Water woes

If the air we breathe has been a cause for anxiety, the water we drink or the lack of it has been an equally worrying issue these last few months. Dry -out taps, shut-down schools, businesses closing shop, police protection for water — these were scenes from Chennai this year as it ran out of water. The reservoirs of the city that had overflown because of the unprecedented floods of 2015, dried out completely leading to serious water woes for a city of 4.9 million. The World Resources Institute in August put India as the world’s 13th most water-starved country making it evident that Chennai, and most other urban economic powerhouses of the nation, need resilience, not stopgap arrangements.

What is equally worrisome is the unpredictable nature of the weather nowadays.

The trend of flood and famine occurring in the same region frequently and with greater ferocity annually continued. According to NASA, Cyclone Fani was the strongest to hit India in 43 years. Kerala, a state that once boasted of steady monsoons and salubrious climate, is now under the grip of meteorological unpredictability due to after-effects of climate change, population and unscientific land utilisation. Another disturbing report in October pointed how parts of Mumbai, Surat, Chennai and Kolkata could be either underwater or ravaged by recurring floods by 2050 as sea levels across the world continue to rise with increasing carbon emissions.

The most comprehensive evidence to human-led pressures to the environment affecting all life on earth was the landmark Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report released by the United Nations in May. It proved by examining hundreds of global reports how one million species are facing annihilation inside the earth’s sixth mass extinction event occurring right now. Even as the world found a new advocate in the fierce teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, the report gave concrete proof that transformational and sustainable change cannot remain a dust-laden policy file anymore.

Troubled wildlife

India’s threatened wildlife benefitted from a number of action plans in 2019. The environment ministry initiated a Rs 33-crore project for conservation and protection of the rarest bird species in the world and India’s pride the Great India Bustard.

Under the supervision of world-renowned experts, bustard egg collection, incubation and captive breeding have also begun in the country, rekindling hope that the species could still be saved. Another iconic species endemic to India, the Gangetic River Dolphin will get a research centre in Patna soon, after a wait of eight years.

The biggest global celebration though was in July this year when India announced a rise in the number of tigers to 2,967 as per the 2018 census. Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka host the largest number of the national animal with 526 and 524 respectively.

Adding to the cheer was also the news of a tiger seen roaming in Sikkim for the first time and one seen in Gujarat. Sadly, while one wild cat strengthened its grounds, another continued to bear the brunt of a society snapping at the minutest incident of a big cat venturing into human spaces.

India became the ‘world leader’ in leopard deaths with Uttarakhand reporting over 90 deaths in 2018 and an overall figure of 486 deaths.

Same was the case with the elephants with 373 dead due to rising human-elephant conflicts in the past three years. This included the frequent train hits in Assam, Odisha and West Bengal with the tracks turning into a death trap for the gentle giants.

Anthropogenic pressure on forests and wildlife kept rising as numerous urban development projects, roads, dams and railway projects were either exempted from forest approvals or given an easy way out from following the environment norms.

Ironically, the indigenous tribes who have the closest insight to how natural resources can be utilised keeping with the balance of nature were asked to vacate their forest homes as per a Supreme Court order. While some believe it is a necessary step, others feel it only gives urban encroachers a better chance to sweep clean forests for more mines and roads. The ever-growing wildlife crime menace showed no signs of respite this year despite the CITES elevating protection to two much-trafficked species — the star tortoise and the otters found in India. Custom officials seized seven crore worth of pangolin scales, shark fins and other wildlife items in a Chennai go-down early in 2019.

A turtle survey programme informed how over 11,000 turtles and tortoises entered wildlife trade each year. With Indian cities like Kolkata becoming a hub of illegal wildlife trade, the efforts to stop it need to be local as well as centralised.

The year has conveyed in many ways how intertwined are our everyday life and progress with environmental protection, and how even the most technologically advanced accomplishments are not enough when deprived of the basic needs of air and water. As economist Herman Daly observed, “The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.”

Hopefully, 2020 would be mapped keeping this in mind.

(Published 27 December 2019, 19:30 IST)

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