The buzz about worsening climatic conditions across the world is getting louder, and a lot needs to be done if future generations are to have a reasonable chance of making their way ahead. P. Prasad Rao, head - Environment and Sustainable Development Division, Environment Protection Training and Research Institute (EPTRI), speaks to Lipi Mohapatra on the immediate environmental concerns. Excerpts:
On immediate environmental concerns for India
Several studies reveal that the impact of climate change varies considerably within and between the countries. The Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted to mitigate green house gas (GHG) emissions, is inadequate in itself to stabilize climate change. The heart of the problem is the equitable distribution of burden of climate change on all the countries. A study by the National Laboratory, Berkeley, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and Centre for Sustainable Technologies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore revealed that developing countries, including India, face immediate concerns related to forest and land degradation, freshwater shortage, food security and air and water pollution. It is also predicted that increase in the temperatures would lead to rising sea levels, which would, in turn, lead to submergence of low-lying areas, severely affecting people living in coastal areas.
Further, the adaptive capacity of dry land farmers, forest dwellers, fisher folk and nomadic shepherds is very low. Climate change is likely to impact both natural ecosystems and socio-economic systems, as shown by the National Communications Report of India to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is predicted there could be change in the hydrological cycle leading to severe droughts. Farm yield is also expected to reduce due to temperature increases.
A fisherman throws net in River Tawi. Dry land farmers, forest dwellers and fisher folk are usually the worst affected by natural catastrophes due to their inability to adapt to climate change
On how ready the country is to meet these challenges
The Government has taken number of initiatives for development of institutions to elicit the community’s participation in natural resource management besides making constitutional provisions and legal requirements for meeting the environmental challenges. A variety of laws have been enacted to achieve environment protection and preservation, including the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, the comprehensive Environment Protection Act, the Energy Conservation Act and the Electricity Act. Constitutional amendments were also made to incorporate environmental concerns into development programmes. The 42nd amendment of the Constitution enjoined both the state and the citizens to protect and improve the environment and safeguard forests and wildlife. The 73rd Amendment made Panchayats responsible for soil conservation, watershed development, social and farm forestry, drinking water, fuel and fodder, non-conventional energy sources and maintenance of community assets. Various national policies, such as the National Forest Policy and the National Water Policy (1987 and 2002) are all moves towards ensuring the sustainability of natural resources.
India is also a signatory to several multilateral treaties in matters relating to environment, health, investment, trade and finance. The government has incorporated the spirit of Agenda 21 in the form of two policy statements: the Abatement of Pollution and the National Conservation Strategy. The former conforms to the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and involves the public in decision-making, besides giving industries and consumers clear signals through market mechanisms about the cost of using natural resources. The National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development have made environmental impact assessment mandatory for all development projects, right from the planning stage.
On eco-friendly agricultural practices
Some of the initiatives include standardization of fuel-efficient irrigation pump-sets, retrofitting existing pump-sets for higher energy efficiency, better water and crop management, improved cultivars, enhanced organic fertilizer use, improved animal feeds and digesters and rationalization of power tariffs. Many of these measures serve to reduce carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen dioxide emissions.
On rising air pollution levels
Air pollution is both natural and man-made. Human induced sources of pollution include industries, automobiles and power generation. Indoors, tobacco smoke and combustion of solid fuels for cooking and heating are the most significant contributors. In addition, construction material, furniture, carpeting, air conditioning and home cleaning agents and insecticides can also be significant sources of chemical and biological pollutants indoors.
Air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and other gaseous and smoke particles not only damage the environment but also severely impact the health of the citizens. Inhalation of polluted air leads to asthma, respiratory infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer, among others.
Health impact of air pollution depends on the pollutant type, its concentration in the air, length of exposure, other pollutants in the air, and individual susceptibility. Poor, undernourished people, or those very young or old, and people with preexisting respiratory disease and other ill health, are more at risk.
On concerns related to use of pesticide in food
Pesticide residues have been found to be above normal on several occasions and there is a need to reduce pesticide use by adopting integrating pest management (IPM) practices and organic practices. The Central and State Governments have initiated number of schemes to promote IPM and organic agriculture to reduce pesticide levels in food. However, substantial investments are required to educate farmers about the need to reduce the use of pesticides.
On climate change and development
Climate change interfaces with diverse societal and natural processes and, consequently, with the development processes. Conventionally, climate change has been considered as an impediment to development and conversely development is viewed as a threat to the climate. The development and climate paradigm, alternatively referred to as development first, views development as the tool to address the challenges posed by climate change. In this paradigm, the development itself—building capacities, institutions and human capital in developing countries—emerges as the key factor for enhancing adaptive and mitigative capacities.
The last few years have seen the introduction of landmark environmental measures that have targeted the cleaning of rivers, reforestation, installation of significant capacity of renewable energy technologies, the national highway development project to convert the existing roads into four/six lane highways and introduced the world’s largest urban fleet of CNG vehicles in Delhi.