Concern over climate, compromise on nature

While technological solutions like renewable energy are being aggressively pursued for combating climate change, little value appears to be placed on keeping natural systems intact

January 27, 2015 01:56 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

VAST CHANGES: “Some of India’s environmental laws were drafted decades ago, but since then species have become extinct, forests have shrunk and coastlines and rivers have been altered.” File photo shows the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

VAST CHANGES: “Some of India’s environmental laws were drafted decades ago, but since then species have become extinct, forests have shrunk and coastlines and rivers have been altered.” File photo shows the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

On his visit to India, U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have announced a landmark civil nuclear deal, which will give India access to generating nuclear power. This follows on the heels of several announcements made by Mr. Modi on making India a hub for producing clean or non-conventional energy, posited as a measure to tackle climate change. Simultaneously, decades after environmental laws were first conceived, a review of environmental laws in India has just been undertaken by a High-Level Committee. The report of this committee is in turn being considered by a Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests. The ostensible conclusion is that the government is serious about appraising existing policy and legislation at the highest levels, to strengthen environmental protection in India and tackle climate change.

A peculiar quandary

However, a peculiar quandary appears in the discourse on environmental protection in India today: on the one hand, technological solutions like renewable energy are being aggressively pursued for combating climate change; on the other, nearly no value appears to be placed on keeping natural systems intact. Consider this: in the High-Level Committee report, the only mention of ‘climate change’ is in the newly extended name of the Environment Ministry itself — from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Ministry is now called the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. While the report asks if we will see more climate disasters such as the “Kedarnath or Srinagar valley disasters” in India, points out that governance of environmental clearances has been “flabby,” the “legal framework has not delivered,” and says environment should be considered as a “whole,” it has not addressed ways to combat climate change through environmental acts, future legislation, or state-led policy. Gaping questions remain on the protection of natural ecology and climate action. The recommendations moot creating several new institutions: a new law, the Environmental Management Act; new and quicker environmental clearances processes; and a new Environmental Service cadre. But the question of which direction this proposed overhaul will take us in needs to be raised — and answered.

Among India’s environmental laws are the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, Air and Water Acts, which were all drafted decades ago. Since then, much has changed. Species have become extinct, forests have shrunk, protected areas have been created and coastlines and rivers have been altered. We have witnessed droughts, floods, cyclones and cloudbursts; these have caused dams to burst, deaths and many forms of displacement. India has not been silent on the issue of climate action, and is likely to announce a few more national missions under climate change, with a focus on clean energy production. The stress on a diverse energy mix is a welcome step, but this appears to be confounded by an emphasis on altering natural ecologies through ‘quick clearances’ and a willingness to re-engineer natural systems in haste.

At one level, the government’s approach seems to suggest that it is okay to quickly deal with impending projects to clear forests or natural areas, as stressed by the High-Level Committee report; this will subsequently lead to a release of emissions. At another level, the government will facilitate creating green energy to mitigate carbon emissions. While both scenarios will occur, the two do not, in fact, cancel each other out. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points out in its latest (2014) report, resilient ecosystems offer effective adaptation to climate change. Resilience, as per the IPCC, is the ability of an ecosystem to bounce back to a previously undisturbed state without losing its fundamental character, even when disturbed. For instance, soil studies say soil with a range of biodiversity does not become barren easily; forests with natural diversity re-emerge afresh from forest fires, clean rivers filter their own water — all products of undisturbed or biodiverse ecosystems which are in turn resilient, a living carbon sequestering sink. For human beings the impacts are better ecosystem services, the stuff a lot of people living with nature have understood as ‘ prakriti ke karishme ’ (miracles of nature).

Why does this not have more currency in combating climate change? Perhaps because there are no ribbons to be cut and no foundation stones to be laid for forests, mangroves, rivers, et al, and no budgets to be sanctioned for their development. But on the cusp of becoming a major manufacturing power, and in the middle of an environmental act review, it would be short-sighted to only focus on engineering solutions such as clean power. We also need to focus with our commitment on protecting our natural infrastructure — a veritable carbon sink, and a major tool towards climate adaptation — which we currently possess.

Perhaps the simplest example of systematic failure towards this carbon sink is in the current ‘compensatory afforestation’ system. Forests get diverted for projects; money for their destruction is paid to a compensatory fund. But often there is no land left for replantation. The money remains untouched, or gets used for making forest department buildings. These are ‘virtual forests’ floating about in governmental files. Then, there is always the issue of the ‘new’ forests, if created, being cut again.

A starting point therefore would be to look at the issue of diversion of natural areas on a landscape scale, and not on a piecemeal basis. We need to consider, through field observations and modelling, how much disturbance a forest or a river can take before it loses its integral character and degrades; we also need to consider that replacing these systems is not only expensive but sometimes also nearly impossible. In all this enters the even more problematic question of climate hazard. While forests, mangroves and wetlands form the basis of nature, they are no longer just trees, grasses and water, but also systems that protect us, at least in moderate amounts, from extreme events — not just during the event, but also after.

It is up to Parliament to decide whether we need separate and new legislation on climate change, but there are at least two things to be addressed. One, our existing laws need to now address the issue of climate change through environmental mapping and measuring impacts of projects at ecosystem or landscape levels; and two, the approach has to include setting thresholds for avoiding irreparable degradation of natural ecosystems.

The High-Level Committee report notes that there is “need to rationalise and amalgamate many of the existing Acts,” noting the holistic nature of ‘environment.’ This observation is challenged by the report in the very next line, which suggests single-window environmental clearances; this suggestion is made without a reflection on how this “one” environment will respond, or is responding, to many sorts of unconnected pressures. Whatever system we set in place for project clearances, whether managed by a reformed ministry, a new law, or new acronyms, must take into account a serious understanding of natural systems — and how far the systems can bend. Our laws can no longer be blind to this.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal.)

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