Protecting biodiversity with rigour

To protect biodiversity, India must take hard decisions and set thresholds for environmental regulation and pollution

November 25, 2014 01:33 am | Updated 01:33 am IST

A PRIORITY: “Keeping biodiversity and nature protection at the centre of climate action and growth strategy is a pressing requirement.” Picture shows a tiger in the Western Ghats. Photo: Kalyan Varma

A PRIORITY: “Keeping biodiversity and nature protection at the centre of climate action and growth strategy is a pressing requirement.” Picture shows a tiger in the Western Ghats. Photo: Kalyan Varma

The Prime Minister recently reorganised his National Council on Climate Change and called on an indigenous answer, yoga, to alter consciousness and tackle climate change. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is currently working on the National Democratic Alliance’s position on climate change, with two major United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings coming up. While some say that these recent developments have rightly raised the profile of climate change in the new government, others believe that India needs to do more, particularly in the face of a new U.S.-China agreement on mitigating climate change. Voluntary action on climate change in India has centered around economic decisions, such as cutting down on carbon intensity and increasing renewable sources of energy. But what is lacking in the discourse is an understanding of keeping the natural natural, or conserving biodiversity. Two important events have taken place in the past few months in the country, which are tied to climate change and the pressing issue of how we deal with it. First, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a Convention under the United Nations which seeks to regulate our use of the natural world, has reached important funding decisions. Second, a high-level committee set up to propose amendments in environmental laws in India has submitted its recommendations to the MoEF. Both developments set the tone for changing the character of growth.

Biodiversity and climate change

Biodiversity and wildlife protection is often termed as a ‘co-benefit’ of mitigating climate change. Other co-benefits, usually understood as secondary to economic decision-making, are clean air, potable water, ecosystem services and a stable microclimate. Conservationists have argued that biodiversity has become a low second fiddle to climate change in international negotiations, and decisions related to biodiversity are not yet part of the ‘mainstream’ decisions related to growth, trade and carbon emissions. At the just-concluded conference of parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Pyeongchang, Korea, many stressed that biodiversity targets cannot just be ‘stand alone’ targets. “In order to move the biodiversity agenda forward, approaches and tactics must evolve. In the framework of the post-2015 development agenda, stand alone targets on biodiversity would not be useful. The principle of universality and integration must define the nature of sustainable development goals,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, urging that the world could not “continue to be a mere librarian of extinction, threat and destruction.” At the meeting, an important commitment for resource mobilisation was made. Parties have agreed to double biodiversity-related financial flow to developing countries, small island developing states, least developed countries, and economies in transition. The funding is for average annual biodiversity funding for the years 2006-2010, and is to be delivered by next year. The way this funding is utilised when a part of it comes to India needs to be seen as more than just side efforts to climate change action.

For instance, climate change action in India is currently focussed on a lowering of carbon intensity in growth. But we are also seeking to peak emissions by a certain period, allowing growth to optimise by then, and then allow a tapering off of emissions. But this carbon space can also be consistently at odds with biodiversity protection efforts. For example, the concept of ‘peaking’ emissions holds no value for biodiversity, and may actively threaten it. A habitat once destroyed takes decades to be restored as we set up man-made infrastructure. So the question is: are we going to dismantle natural infrastructure and then restore it? If the answer is no, then this will mean taking hard decisions, such as identifying critical, inviolate areas in forests which cannot be mined or dammed, and setting thresholds for environmental regulation and pollution.

On the topic of regulation, a crucial review is currently underway. A high-level committee chaired by former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian has reviewed all the environmental laws of India including the Wildlife Protection Act, the Forest Act, the Forest Conservation Act, and the Environment Protection Act. While decisions related directly to biodiversity, such as species and habitat protection, are under the ambit of review, there are also indirect connections which bridge decisions for both climate change action and biodiversity protection. One of the most pressing questions is that of regulation. What will be revised thresholds for air and water pollution? The government has made moves to lift the moratorium for projects (and thus allowing more emissions) in critically polluted areas, such as Vapi in Gujarat. Further changes in these regulations will set the tone for levels of industrial effluents in seas, rivers, and the sky, and how much clustering of infrastructure and projects can be allowed in an area.

The second question is one of environmental and forest clearances for projects. In public statements, including the one made when Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar accepted the environmental act review, the government says it wants the environmental clearance process made “speedier” and “more transparent.” This sentiment is echoed in States too: for instance, Himachal Pradesh has a committee on ‘Speedy development of small hydro projects.’

Decision-making on environment should not be a question of time; rather it should be one of rigour. While developers want to believe that problems in environmental decision-making lie in time spent around getting a clearance, the issue really is one of technocratic discretion. The MoEF needs to have the forthright discretion to say ‘no’ to projects with deleterious impacts on biodiversity and climate action. While it is a Ministry meant to appraise projects and clear them, it is also one that is meant to halt projects which denigrate biodiversity and environmental conservation efforts.

Changing consciousness

The final question then is: in our development efforts, and in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, what rigour will the Indian government put in for capturing our hard-won climate quota, while simultaneously guarding a healthy environment? While conventional sources of energy will stay for a while, environmental regulation and post-project monitoring have to be strengthened and upheld because the country is a constituency wider than just developers who clamour for hasty clearances. Further, in creating a different scenario — that is new forms of energy and low carbon development pathways such as biogas, solar and marine, wind mill energy and energy efficiency — there is a real chance for new job creation.

Finally, keeping biodiversity and nature protection at the centre of climate action, and thus our growth strategy, is a pressing requirement. The World Bank estimates that India loses more than 5 per cent of its GDP each year to environmental degradation. A robust and growing biodiversity protected area framework will save money spent on pollution-related illnesses and buoy climate change mitigation work.

On yoga and its role in combating climate change, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change.” This change in consciousness and ‘oneness with nature’ has to be rethought now, at the cusp of our new climate and biodiversity action strategies. We cannot develop now to ask questions later.

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

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