Picking up the Pieces—An Update on the Environment
Whales have washed ashore dead on several beaches because of the plastic in their body. We are facing the sixth wave of mass extinctions which is resulting in the loss of about a dozen species every day. Delhi had to declare a Health Emergency protocol due to the severe smog, both in 2017 and 2018. The intensity of typhoons and hurricanes hitting coasts across the world has increased exponentially. This is the stark reality that the world is facing today. An environmental crisis is upon us, and unless firm steps are taken to deal with it, it will become close to impossible to turn back the dial.
Global Warming—A Global Crisis
Though global warming has been part of the conversation for many years now, the present day calls not just for deliberate conversation but also planned and immediate action. The term, global warming, was first coined in 1975 by oceanographer Wallace Smith Broecker. What is most challenging about global warming is that it is not an isolated problem that individual countries can deal with on their own. It requires the concerted efforts of all humankind to come together to reverse the process. Scientists are trying to get an extensive understanding of the way our planet is changing due to the increase in atmospheric temperatures, the causes behind this phenomenon, and what we, as humans must do to alter the coming future. In May 2019, meteorologist Eric Holthaus tweeted, “This is the first time in human history our planet’s atmosphere has had more than 415 ppm CO2. Not just in recorded history, not just since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Since before modern humans existed millions of years ago.”
In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature published an extensive study concluding that the heating of the ocean is the ‘greatest hidden challenge of our generation’. Oceans contribute to 75% of the surface of the earth and absorb up to 90% of the heat that enters the atmosphere. In 2018, scientists revealed that the amount of heat in the upper part of the world’s oceans was the highest ever recorded since the 1950s. In the past decade, ocean heat has been increasing exponentially. The rise of ocean temperatures leads to floods, devastating typhoons and hurricanes, and loss of coral ecosystems due to heat stress which in turn is jeopardising several other oceanic species as well. Cyclones have become 10% more damaging than in the 1970s. Global warming also affects evapotranspiration—the movement of water into the atmosphere from land and water surfaces and plants due to evaporation and transpiration—which is expected to lead to increased drought in dry areas and expansion of the arid regions.
The Conference of Parties
In the fight to combat global warming and climate change, it is essential that world leaders take a firm stand regarding environmental issues. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change holds what is known as the Conference of Parties, or the COP, every year, bringing together world leaders to discuss what changes can be made on a national and international level to reverse the catastrophe. In 2015, over 190 countries gathered in Paris to discuss what could be done to save the planet. The Paris Pact is the first legal and universal binding amongst countries promising to ensure that the global temperature increase does not cross 1.5 degree Celsius. A year after COP21, in November 2016, a final legal statement was signed by several countries including India, Brazil, and China stating each country’s initiative to protect the planet.
However, the United States of America announced its withdrawal from the agreement in June 2017. In a press release, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, said that the accord would cost the USA trillions of dollars and hinder the progress in oil, gas, coal, and manufacturing industries. With such a large global power refusing to play by the rules, the responsibility shifted to other developed and developing nations to push for action against climate change more aggressively. India played its part by announcing its eight Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to encourage sustainable development. These are determined by the country itself and must contribute to achieving the larger global goals. The target is to have 175 GW of renewable energy sources by 2022 and reduce emissions intensity by 33 to 35 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.
On the Indian Front
India is the world’s third largest producer of carbon emissions. 9 out of 10 of the most polluted cities in the world are in India. In 2017, a Greenpeace publication claimed that 1.2 million lives are lost each year due to air pollution in India. In the electricity sector, about 33% of the total installed power capacity is accounted for by renewable energy. As of 31st March 2019, the hydro installed capacity was 45.399 GW, which is 13% of total power capacity, and wind capacity was 36,625 MW. India also has some of the world’s largest solar parks such as the Kamuthi Solar Power Project (648 MW), Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar Park (900MW), and Bhadla Solar Park (2255 MW). Cochin International Airport is the first airport in the world to run entirely on solar power. In 2013, this airport started a pilot project of installing 400 panels, and today has more than 46,000 panels near the runway. They produce more energy than is needed for the airport’s operation and bank the energy they do not require immediately. There is no doubt that significant progress has taken place. However, several other aspects of environmental sustainability still need improvement and attention.
During the Indian Lok Sabha elections of 2019, no political party included environmental protection, preservation, and sustainability in their agendas or major policy outlines. Considering that India is a country with ambitious goals to become more environmentally sustainable, it is disappointing that the government did not include the environment as part of their agenda. In a speech delivered by Narayana Murthy at Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management, he said that as Indians, we do not take an active role in fulfilling our civic duties. Thus, electoral candidates do not see ‘environment sustainability’ as a viable brownie point.
In a recent article in The Hindu, Ruchir district of Karnataka was said to have been left to wither away in the heat of summer. Their candidate started work on an overhead tank, but after the elections came to a close, no pipelines have been laid out, signalling that this project might have been a gimmick to garner votes. Even though the area is located between two rivers, the land remains parched. Several projects also get clearance though they pose significant threats to the environment and wildlife in the surrounding areas. For instance, in August 2016, the Ken-Batwa river-linking project was given clearance. This project intends to supply water for domestic and industrial purposes to several parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. But, this project will result in over 89 sq km of the Panna National Park getting submerged in water. It will also require over 1.8 million trees to be felled. Experts have been criticising the project since its inception and fear that this project may be the end for the National Park and the valuable carbon sink it provides. Not only does this project pose a threat to the tiger population but it does so to vultures as well. The loss of this scavenger can result in serious environmental issues which the government and the Forest Advisory Committee have failed to take into consideration.
Economics and the Environment
Neglecting the environment as part of their manifesto shows us that the people in power do not care and as a result, neither do we. Saving the environment is neither the sole responsibility of the government nor the citizens, but rather it must be a joint effort. India, being a developing economy, also needs to ensure that the policies which are being made are economically feasible. The government needs to find ways to take up environmental techniques that provide direct monetary benefits. It cannot expect companies to take up green manufacturing techniques if it is not economically beneficial for them to do so.
While one cannot deny the small efforts of several groups of people around the world to protect the environment, it is vital that industry policies also change for the better. Economical feasibility and environmental sustainability have been assumed to be exclusive of each other. However, going forward, it is essential to recognise that being eco-friendly can be profitable for industries. Being environmentally conscious is inclusive of using resources optimally. This is where companies and industries benefit. DuPont had committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 65% before 2010. By 2007, DuPont was saving 2.2 billion USD through being energy efficient. When M&S launched its sustainability program in 2007, it was believed that this program would cost 200 million pounds in the first five years. However, the initiative has generated 105 million pounds by 2011/12. The World Wildlife Fund and CDP show that the economic price for curbing carbon emissions in the US economy is 780 billion USD. The report puts a return on investment for lean and green interventions at 233%. The idea that ‘environment is cost’ must be dissipated, rather we must encourage companies and industries to take up green practices that not only save the environment but also reduce costs. This is a mindset that we must encourage within communities, companies, industries and countries at large. Several countries are already walking down that path, leading the rest of the world by example.
How Other Countries are Faring
Scandinavian countries like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark are some of the front runners in being environmentally friendly. For instance, 60% of land in Denmark is used to produce barley. Hence, contamination of soil due to fertilisers is a significant issue. However, to tackle this issue, Denmark has been tracking the use of fertilisers since 1993. To address air quality issues, it has put a tax on nitrogen emissions. In 2017, a record 99% of Finland’s municipal waste was put to use in one way or another. Most paper and paperboard is recycled in Finland. Almost all of the beverage containers are collected and recycled. Plastic bottles are recycled to make new ones. Similarly, recycled glass is used to jam jars and even used in civil engineering projects. Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world. It protects more than 50-60% of its land area as national parks. It also invests in three main socio-economic programs—development of hydroelectricity, improvements in agriculture, and intensification of production and lastly, modest industrialisation. These ideas are needed more than ever. The key to reverting from this crisis is to restore the balance between the urban world and the natural world. The key lies in finding ways to incorporate smarter, greener ways of living in this modern urbanised world.
The Environment and Technology
While it is largely technology that brought us to this situation, it is still in technology that, perhaps ironically, the best hope for averting the looming disaster lies. With turning back the clock to an age of lower demands and industrialization not being a possibility, the focus of the scientific community must be on developing the technology further to shift us onto a more sustainable path. There have already been some breakthroughs. The 21st century is booming with technological advancements from commercial spacecraft to submarines traversing the Mariana Trench. There is no doubt that engineers are using their creative and logical skills to come up with solutions to this global crisis. In 2018, Jennifer Wilcox delivered a TED Talk on Carbon Engineering that discusses a way to reuse carbon emissions, since we have been unable to reduce them. Dean Karmen’s ‘Slingshot’ can transform polluted water, salt water, and even sewage water into high-quality potable water for less than one cent a litre. Despommier’s vertical farms replace traditional farming methods with a technique that uses 80% less land and 90% less water. Ideas like precision farming and smart homes can help reduce overall energy consumption and indirectly they can also reduce our carbon footprint.
Due to this global crisis, there is a scarcity of natural resources such as clean air and groundwater today, but there is no scarcity of ideas and the people who can turn these ideas into reality. We live in a world where the power to create solutions is abundant. It is time we take responsibility for having that power and for making sure that we leave no stone unturned in this battle against the past actions of humankind to shape a better future before it is too late.
Featured Image by Vibha Bhat