World Environment Day: Challenges galore and the dire need to act fast

All recent reports suggest a climate crisis of disastrous proportions. This year’s theme for World Environment Day – Only one Earth – is more relevant than ever

June 06, 2022 by Tikender Panwar

“Only One Earth” – despite knowing it, assimilating it into the consciousness that we all, and that is humans, flora and fauna can only coexist, it is still difficult to imbibe.

“Only One Earth” was the theme for World Environment Day on June 5, 2022. The various reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the recent one being sixth in the series, point to the severe challenges the planet and all those inhabiting it face.

The challenge of climate change is real. The working groups of scientists – WG 1, 2 and the latest 3 – have come out with data on the causes of climate change, the currently observed and projected impact on the planet and humans; and on mitigation.

What do the reports suggest?

Firstly, the reports point to the catastrophic levels of carbon emissions in the post-industrial period. These emissions have led to a rise in temperature. For the past many COPs (Conference of Parties), particularly COP 15 in Paris, the goal has been to not allow a rise of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.

Another interesting fact is that half of the world’s human-made atmospheric carbon dioxide was emitted in the last three to four decades. And in this period, just 20 big companies that contributed to almost 33% of world-historic emissions (energy and cement) are still at work and even grabbing subsidies for fossil fuels. Between 1758-2020, CO2 emissions swelled from 0.01 billion metric tonnes to 34.07 billion metric tonnes.

Secondly, the imminent threat or the processes in which this threat is affecting the planet earth is from the various factors:

  1. Biodiversity Loss: loss of biodiversity is accelerating at a rate not found in any record (according to scientists) since the Cretaceous extinction, some 66 million years ago. Why this is a matter of concern? Simply because there is complete integration between biodiversity and us humans. As they say, if honey bees are gone, we will soon be extinct, though some pen pusher scientists of the present order may say: “don’t worry, we can produce robotic honey bees”. Utterly ridiculous!
  2. Land Use Patterns: There is a strong interconnection between the change in land use patterns and biodiversity loss. Change in land use patterns for industrial and real estate development is also causing water scarcity. The reductionist climate change theories view the problem with a very narrow lens. And in that exercise, they lose the essence of climate change, i.e., the predatory capital world that works on the essence of maximization of profit, thus denuding the environment and nature. For example, the changes being brought out in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where land-use change is proposed for real estate development or in the new laws framed in Lakshadweep, all point to a massive land-use change in the offing.
  3. Excess Levels of Nitrogen: Vast excesses of nitrogen through fertilizer run off etc., have been polluting water bodies and soil, thus risking anoxic extinctions. Once large expanses of earth’s oceans get depleted with dissolved oxygen creating toxic waters, this may lead to anoxic extinctions of many species. The scientists are warning of such an event.

All of this is interconnected with systemic failures. Global capitalism is solely responsible for such an extinction – a reality that cannot be hidden anymore. But the political forces across the world are dominated by the votaries of such a system; hence to expect a ‘climate disruption’ (in intervention) all of a sudden is inconceivable at this moment.

The big players in the global north have been pushing to continue with their high per capita emissions and promises to aid the developing and the least developed world through a financial support system through the transfer of technologies. However, this has also not been done. The rich countries were supposed to transfer $100 billion to the developing world. However, not even 20% of this was shared with the developing/least developed countries.

Indian context

Whereas it is important to note that the Working Group 3 focuses on mitigation strategies, however, the developing world must focus on strengthening its adaptive capacities.

Not that mitigation strategies or plans are not important, but the sheer impact of climate change on human lives and habitat in the global south is phenomenal. The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis vividly illustrates such a phenomenon where the largest impact of climate change takes place in the developing and least developed countries. In contrast, their contribution is the least to the human-induced changes in climate.

In the Indian context, it is high time that the developmental strategies are revisited, and in the urban Indian context, the following areas must be of priority and concern.

  1. Mobility: The multilateral institutions’ induced mobility strategies are entirely unsustainable. These strategies pertain to more widening roads in the cities, thus creating more spaces for cars and motorized transport, inducing people to buy more cars. The new buzzword is e-vehicles. This is not a sustainable model, even from the climate change perspective. A diesel bus, as they say, is better than 10 e-cars if the carbon emissions are to be taken into consideration – from cradle to crest. What Indian cities require is more focus on non-motorized transport. Almost 80% of people’s commute in cities is less than 10 km, and this can be easily managed by either cycles or public transport. The Central government’s push for more metros is also not a good alternative. There must be more focus on pedestrianization and creating infrastructure for bicycles and other non-motorized transport.
  2. Building Typologies: The COVID pandemic has taught us that the push from the world glass capital giants for glass walls and such typologies is not just unhygienic but also unsustainable from the climate perspective. With little ventilation, glass requires more energy to heat or cool during the summers. The building codes must be revisited, and experiments must be promoted for zero carbon buildings that sustain on renewable energy. The building codes must specify the carbon footprint of the buildings.
  3. Solid Waste Management: This is another major area that requires immediate attention. According to the government’s admission, nearly 70% of total waste generated in cities is collected, and the rest is thrown in the surroundings. Of the 70%, only 30% is treated, and the rest goes to large dumping sites on the outskirts of the cities. The Supreme Court recently pointed out that these dumping sites will be the new minarets of urban Indian civilization. Whereas the focus of solid waste management should have been on decentralized waste collection and segregation and treatment, the government’s thrust is for large waste-to-energy plants. No wonder none of these plants run optimally anywhere in the country.
  4. Urban Commons, More Green Spaces: The urban commons must be protected to ensure a more secure environment. These commons are in the forms of ponds, lakes and small rivulets. The speed with which urbanization is engulfing these commons is unprecedented. The story of the city of Gorakhpur, a city of ponds and lakes, is startling, where the real estate has engulfed large portions of such water bodies. Likewise, Gurgaon, the private model of urbanization, is another reminder that with the usurping of ponds and dismantling of the water channels, water inundation, even with minimal rainfall, is a common feature.
  5. Coastal Cities: These are the places which will be hit badly by the intensity of climate change. Already there are projections that by 2030 a good portion of cities like Mumbai and other coastal regions in Kerala may get submerged underwater. Immediate adaptive infrastructure is required, for which the city is not capable of bearing the cost. The Central and State governments must help such vulnerable zones and areas; the earlier, the better.

The Paris climate talks, Sendai framework, UN-Habitat III, World Urban Forum, UN Sustainable Development Goals(17), etc., all have a standard feature. The impact of climate change is accurate, and it is high time that we start working on it – both on mitigation and adaptation strategies. Those who have contributed more and have gained the most by usurping the carbon spaces must contribute more to mitigation strategies.

The ministry of housing and urban affairs in India must at least start preparing a disaster atlas for all the small and big towns in the country and do it in style like Kerala is doing-with people’s participation. So that whence the disaster strikes, as more and more are in the offing, the people who have prepared these plans are part and parcel of the resilient framework and act accordingly. This will reduce the loss of lives and assets.

World Environment Day is an apt opportunity to recollect our student days’ slogan – “Think global, Act local.”

The writer is former Deputy Mayor of the city of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. The views are personal.