COPA 21 and Climate Change: Is anyone talking about the ecology?

The truest and most visionary statement at COPA 21 in Paris was made by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, four days back. Speaking at the launch of the Solar Alliance he said:

” Convergence between economy, ecology and energy shall define our future.”

Never were truer or more prescient words uttered. Mr. Modi has intuitively identified the three driving forces on which the future of this planet rests. And yet, the conference in Paris is focused exclusively on the economy and energy, to the almost complete exclusion of the ecology, a silent backdrop desperately waiting to be addressed. COPA 21 is in effect an economists’ forum where the larger natural environment has been given short shrift. Climate change and global warming have been reduced to just two more stock market indices and are being computed only in terms of their impact on GDP percentages, industrial growth, unemployment figures. food production. climate refugees, the optimum mix of energy types, and so on. The only convergence we see is between economists and politicians. Unfortunately, notwithstanding Mr. Modi’s words, the Indian position is no different.

Ecology

No one is talking about the threat to the natural environment or ecology which has sustained man ever since he crawled out of the sludge millions of years ago: the forests, rivers, wetlands, glaciers, mountains, snowfields, coral reefs, and the flora and fauna that depend on them. The problem has been reduced to a mathematical formulation- 2* C temperature rise, and the solution to a catch phrase- ” carbon space.” As if the capping of green house gas emissions is all that is required to save the world. What about the rampant destruction of our ecology? Forests which hold the soil, retain water, give us oxygen, absorb carbon: is Paris aware that our existing forests contain more carbon than what is present in the world’s atmosphere ? Rivers which nurture civilisations but are being dammed and polluted out of existence ? The polar ice caps which hold 98% of the world’s fresh water but where it is now proposed to drill for oil and minerals? The vast wetlands such as the Pantanal and the Sunderbans which control floods and erosion and provide livelihoods to millions? The mountains and glaciers which which moderate climate and control run-offs ? The coral reefs which not only shelter islands but also provide a unique eco-system for marine life, but are now being obliterated by pollutants and chemicals in the oceans? And finally, what about the mind boggling diversity of animal life which these natural wonders contain, doomed to extinction not because of green house gases but because of our ruthless greed and apathy ?
Here is what is happening to them:

* The Tibetan plateau is the third Pole, containing 46000 glaciers and covering 100000 sq.kilometers. It is the source of 10 major rivers on whose waters depend 1.5 billion people. They are shrinking at an alarming rate, and could all be gone by the turn of the century.

* Rivers are drying up under the onslaught of dams and irrigation needs: one in 10 rivers no longer flows into the sea for many months in a year. By 2025- yes, in just ten years!- more than 2 billion people would be affected by severe water shortages. Future wars would be fought over water, not oil- disputes have already arisen between India-China, India-Bangladesh, India-Pakistan, not to mention Tamil Nadu-Karnataka and Delhi-Haryana.

* 13 million hectares of forests disappear every year. The Amazon basin has lost 20% of its green cover and Haiti has lost 98%! According to IUCN one third-34%- of the world’s conifers are at risk of extinction due to logging and diseases.

* Insatiable consumerism spells doom for our forests. The demand for paper has increased 5 times in 50 years. The world’s ever increasing appetite for meat has resulted in thousands of hectares of forests being converted into soya bean and corn fields to feed cattle. The same destruction is taking place in Malaysia to create palm oil plantations.

* This deforestation is releasing tens of millions of tons of carbon, till now locked up in the trees, into the atmosphere.

* Destruction of habitats and ecology is ensuring that by 2050 one quarter of the world’s species will be threatened with extinction- 21000 out of 70000 species of plants and animals are already on IUCN’s Red List. We harvest 100 million tons of fish from the oceans every year- much more than nature can restock. 75% of the fishing grounds are exhausted, but there is no holding back avaricious nations like Japan which just last week sent its whalers to slaughter another 400 whales in the Antarctic, even though this has been held to be illegal by the International Court of Justice.

Notwithstanding Mr. Modi’s fine words, this contempt and disregard for the natural ecology is completely missing in India too, and is getting worse under Mr. Javadekar’s dispensation. The regulatory mechanism to protect the environment set up by enlightened individuals and the courts is being dismantelled under the garb of ” ease of doing business”. EIAs and EMPs are being dispensed with, roads are being allowed in National Parks and Tiger Habitats, the sanctity of buffer zones are being violated, mining is being permitted in hitherto ” no go” areas, river-linking projects are being rammed through without any environmental studies, the Forest Rights Act has been deliberately diluted to enable easier diversion of forest land for industry. The environmental integrity of the Western Ghats has been severely compromised by rejecting the recommendations of both the Gadgil ( 2011) and Kasturirangan ( 2013) Committees’ recommendations to declare 67% and 37% of the Ghats as ESA ( Environmentally Sensitive Areas), respectively; by reducing this to 30% the present government has capitulated to the mining and developer lobby, and exposed thousands of hectares of biologically rich natural landscape to rape on an industrial scale: the price will be paid in the years to come by the millions who depend on the ghats for water, climate moderation and forest produce.

We have done more than our bit to eradicate various forms of animal life too. According to the latest report of the Zoological Survey of India laid in Parliament recently, between 2010 and 2012 India has added 253 species to the endangered list, which went up from 190 to 443 during this period. It must have crossed the 500 mark by now.

There exist also major contradictions and disregard for our natural ecology in India’s own INDCs ( Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) submitted to COPA21. In these, we have resolved to produce 100 GigaWatts- i.e. 100,000MW- of hydel power by 2025. Our current generation capacity under this head, according to the Ministry’s own website, is just 39,623.40 MW. This means that we shall be building additional capacity of 60000MW over the next ten years. This is a frightening thought:creation of the existing capacity of 39000MW has already devastated states like Himachal, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh ( have we already forgotten the disaster in Uttarakhand and the regular ” flash floods” in Kinnaur and Kullu every year?); the addition of another 60000 MW in the fragile Himalayan eco-system cannot but add to further damage to rivers and their valleys, cutting down of lakhs of trees, adverse impacts on agriculture and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and tribals.

Our INDCs also propose to sequester 100 million tonnes of carbon by bringing an additional 10 million hectares under forest cover by 2025. This has to be a joke, given our past performance in this area. According to the govt’s own State of the Forest Reports, though our “green cover” increased by 3.3 million hectares between 1999 and 2013, the country actually LOST 10.6 million hectares of ORIGINAL, DENSE forests during this period. It is the latter figure and not the former which indicates our actual forest cover: the 3.3 million ha. is partly a sleight of hand( it includes commercial plantations of tea, rubber etc. not captured earlier), and partly mono culture plantations which have no ecological value whatsoever. Therefore, given that we lose about 600,000 ha. of virgin forests every year, there is no way Mr. Javadekar can add a million ha. every year for the next ten years, especially given the industrial route he is following in the exploitation of our natural resources. In a nut shell, therefore, our efforts in the hydro sector will simply ensure destruction of our ecology on a greater scale.

If the objective of COPA21 is to guarantee to future generations sustainable development and quality of living, then this neglect of the natural ecology is inexplicable. There can be no secure cobweb if its critical strands are removed. Paris must pay greater and immediate attention to the preservation of the earth’s natural assets and features: there is little point in creating a “carbon space” at the cost of pillaging our ecology. India of all countries should realise this, not only because of the floods in Mumbai, Uttarakhand, Srinagar and Chennai, but because of our ancient civilisational values that worship Nature both as a Mother and as a God. For there can be no Plan B once we destroy the ecology. No one has posed the question, and the fear, better than the poet Mehmoud Darwish:

” Where should we go after the last frontiers ?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky ?”

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

1 Comment

  • The Question is most relevant: how imperiled would the Planet’s future be even if we did not have the scepter of Climate Change striking us with alarming frequency? Have we already committed Ecocide and these droughts (Maharashra) and deluges (Chennai) represent the kind of fire-fighting Humankind will be engaged in till the bitter end? Will reigning in the temperature at less than 2 degrees C by 2100 actually going to reverse planetary collapse or stop the glaciers from disappearing or the Tiger from going extinct? Unlikely, even though we collectively hope we are wrong. Never learnt anything from history, have we?

    So, how have we committed ‘Ecocide’? Human beings are the same everywhere and their ‘needs’ more or less the same. However, our idea and pattern of ‘the pursuit of wealth’ as the only sensible end for the powerful (and the aspiring) to pursue is at the bottom of our collective and competitive death wish. The untold wealth we have generated has been cornered by a few (mostly by cheating) while the vast majority of people in Asia, Africa and South America have been left to fend for themselves, like abandoned cattle. This ensures planetary ecocide. Long and drawn out! Or so we thought.

    It does seem that sorting out this ecocide mess is not only necessary but hugely urgent and simultaneous to any ‘sustainable’ solutions to restoring planetary health. Many say that 2100 is just too near. And the Americans are not even listening.

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