Seven minutes to midnight. That was the setting of the doomsday clock the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists devised in 1947 to indicate just how close humanity was to a man-made global catastrophe caused by unchecked scientific and technological advances. Initially meant to warn of the dangers of a nuclear war, in recent decades, the threats caused by climate change have made the clock tick even faster. The Covid pandemic is a grim reminder of the consequences of upsetting nature's fragile balance by overexploiting earth's resources. The big message being, act now or face horrendous consequences.
Two goals are critical to India's environment. The first was set in 1952 when the country's national forest policy targeted bringing 33 per cent of India's geographical area under forest cover. The needle for that goal has moved only a little, with the total forest cover being 21.67 per cent in 2019, 11 percentage points short. Untrammelled urbanisation and a population explosion that has seen India add a billion people since Independence have not only destroyed vast amounts of our natural resources but also exerted tremendous strain on what's left of them. Experts believe afforesting a third of India's land mass will be a distant dream unless we radically change how we go about development.
The second goal may enable us to move in that precise direction. This is India's commitment to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent by 2030 through additional tree and forest cover, as part of its nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the 2015 Paris Climate Change agreement. (Deforestation is responsible for around 12 per cent of India's greenhouse gas emissions.) In 2015, the total carbon stock in India's forest and tree cover was estimated to be around 29.6 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent.
Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty; Illustration by Sidhant Jumde
The most cost-effective strategy to achieve the target is to restore open forests apart from afforesting available lands through agro-forestry and in urban landscapes and highways. As part of its 2014 Green India Mission (GIM), India's ambition was to increase forest and tree cover by five million hectares and to improve cover in forest and non-forest land by five million hectares in 10 years. But the 2019 Forest Survey of India by the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) estimated that at the current pace, India will fall short of its 2030 Paris commitment by 0.25-0.75 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Ministry officials say the quickest way to meet the target is to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act and permit commercial plantations to be part of agro-forestry which could encourage large-scale private investment. Environmentalists, however, oppose these changes fearing a return to the commercial logging of yore. But India needs to find a solution soon if it is to honour one of the key targets it set for itself in Paris.
The other major concern is the rising air pollution in most of India's major cities, as well as the growing contamination of water. The July 2020 Air Quality Life Index produced by the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute rated India as the world's second most polluted country after China. The previous year, it estimated that 21 of the world's 30 most polluted cities were in India. The widespread air pollution has shortened average life expectancy in India by 5.2 years, and by 9.4 years in Delhi. Average annual particulate pollution, the institute estimates, has increased 42 per cent in the past 20 years.
In 2019, the Modi government launched National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), to reduce air pollution levels by 20-30 per cent by 2024 in 240 of the worst-affected cities. The NCAP's first major task was to set up 573 pollution monitoring stations across these cities to measure major air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and suspended particulate matters. Steps are now being taken to reduce vehicular pollution by introducing the Bharat Stage (BS) VI standard for fuel that significantly reduces the harmful sulphur content a running vehicle releases. Simultaneously, the government is providing incentives to push the use of vehicles using electricity and LPG. However, what is needed is an efficient public transport system that will obviate the need for private vehicles for commuting.
When it comes to industrial pollution of air and water resources, the MoEFCC is focusing on developing laws to define output parameters rather than monitor and regulate inputs being used to reduce pollution. This would free up industry to use technology of its choice to reduce pollution. The ministry is also considering proposals for carbon emission trading to enable entities to meet their targets as well as rules for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that will compel industry to collect their own products at the end of their life cycle, such as lithium batteries or plastics, and tackle the waste thus generated. "Our view," says environment secretary R.P. Gupta, "is that by 2050, the technologies themselves will develop to such an extent that economically, it will make sense for entities to go in for carbon neutrality." It may be a long haul, but it is a shift India and the world will have to make to prevent the doomsday clock from striking Zero Dark Zero.