India’s environmental issues behind COP 26 commitments

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), in Glasgow, has launched discussions to tackle the long ignored impacts of climate change.

The Glasgow pledges are equivalent to 2.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide reduction or combined emissions from Germany, Japan and the UK. India is the third largest contributor of GHG emissions (in CO2 equivalent). New Delhi has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2070.

But India’s engagement appeared to be politically motivated rather than environmentally focused. Seventy percent of China’s energy imports come from maritime trade crossing the Strait of Malacca. To lessen the impact of New Delhi’s naval plans on Nicobar Island overlooking that strait, China is investing $700 million in its controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will link China’s Xinjiang to Pakistan’s coast of Gwadar.

Similarly, China is limiting its coal dependence on Australia, with the AUKUS deal putting economic pressure on India. This move by the Southeast Asian economic giant has made coal more expensive in the international market.

In September-October 2021, relentless monsoon rains rendered coal mines across India unproductive, resulting in a shortage of coal at its thermal power stations. In September 2021, 50% of our energy is generated by burning coal. To escape the straightjacket of the geopolitics of hydrocarbons, India must turn to renewable and nuclear alternatives. This will also limit the country’s GHG emissions. Amid these energy uncertainties, India’s ‘pro-green’ energy pledge at COP 26 in Glasgow.

At COP 26, where 100 nations agreed to cut “methane emissions” by 30% by 2030, India made no such pledge.

Agriculture employs two-thirds of the country’s population, contributes 17% of GDP and 23% of national GHG emissions. Of this number, 83% of national methane production comes from its agricultural sector. The year-long nationwide farmer protests to revoke the three contentious farm laws – Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation Act), 2020, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020, an amendment to the Essential Commodities Act 1955 – lobbied central government to repeal them, ahead of major state level elections Across the country.

Enforcing environmental reforms in the agriculture and livestock sector may alienate the farming community which constitutes the bulk of the electorate in the upcoming elections. This epitomizes the political pressure on Indian environmental commitments.

The territory of the capital is suffocating due to the burning of stubble and heavy pollution. According to 2020 estimates, 46 of the top 100 most polluted cities are in India. According to WaterAid’s Water Quality Index, India ranked 120 out of 122. Major rivers in the country are clogged with pollution. Arsenic pollution in groundwater is devastating the lives of millions of people in its eastern corner. India ranked 177th out of 180 nations in the Transnational Environmental Performance Index (EPI), showing its incompetence in handling environmental issues.

Why the third sector is a major obstacle

In the context of COP 26, in 2020, the nation had tried to modify the guidelines of “environmental impact assessment” favoring a faster resolution of industrial cases, without taking into account the protection of Virgin forests. The recent Foreign Contribution (Regulations) Amendment Bill, 2020 (FCRA) sought to suffocate the “third sector” with several “bureaucratic” regulations giving more control to the government. This bill can become a tool to drown out the “green noise” of NGOs that hinder the nation’s rapid development plans. According to a recent update, 12,000 NGOs, including Oxfam, could lose their foreign funding license.

The third sector is a major obstacle to the adoption of pro-industry and anti-environmental policies. In 2015, an NGO-led petition to India’s Supreme Court resulted in the revocation of mining leases of 88 companies in Goa that were disrupting the pristine ecosystem of Western Ghat, a biodiversity hotspot.

The issue of deforestation was also sidelined during COP 26. A report indicates that India lost 38,500 hectares of tropical forests between 2019 and 2020, representing around 14% tree cover loss. Prior to India’s engagement at COP 26, around 2 lakh of trees were to be felled for diamond mining in the Buxwaha forest of Madhya Pradesh. It was only with the intervention of the MP High Court in response to the PIL filed by solicitor Sudeep Singh Sainy that this environmental disaster was averted.

This contradicts Indian government claims of an increase in forest cover to 24.56% of its geographic area. Proposed amendments to the Biodiversity Act 2002 may worsen the situation by giving unrestricted access to researchers working on ethno-medicines and may also disenfranchise traditional forest dwellers.

There is a disparity between our nation’s environmental “commitments” and its implementation on the ground.

Commitments and publicity of environmental programs alone are not enough. Appropriate climate change policy is needed to protect the rapidly deteriorating environment in India. Good environmental governance and transparency are key to tackling climate change issues and meeting COP 26 commitments.

(The author is an associate professor at Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India, and researches environmental pollution, wildlife conservation issues of the subcontinent. He is involved in mangrove restoration initiatives in the Sundarbans of India and writes regularly on socio-political-environmental issues.)

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