(From left) Utpal Bhaskar, energy editor, Mint; J. Srinivasan, distinguished scientist, Divecha Centre for Climate Change; Jagdish Krishnaswamy, senior fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment; Aromar Revi, director, Indian Institute for Human Settlements; and Ulka Kelkar, senior climate policy lead, World Resources Institute India, at the Danfoss-Mint Transformation Agenda 2020 in Bengaluru. Photo: Jithendra M./Mint
(From left) Utpal Bhaskar, energy editor, Mint; J. Srinivasan, distinguished scientist, Divecha Centre for Climate Change; Jagdish Krishnaswamy, senior fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment; Aromar Revi, director, Indian Institute for Human Settlements; and Ulka Kelkar, senior climate policy lead, World Resources Institute India, at the Danfoss-Mint Transformation Agenda 2020 in Bengaluru. Photo: Jithendra M./Mint

‘Some stresses on biodiversity being downplayed’

There is a need to find ways to make urbanisation, linear intrusions and biodiversity coexist, say panellists at 'Danfoss-Mint Transformation Agenda'

Bengaluru: The panel discussion on climate imperatives, moderated by Mint’s energy editor Utpal Bhaskar, included J. Srinivasan, distinguished scientist, Divecha Centre for Climate Change; Jagdish Krishnaswamy, senior fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment; Aromar Revi, director, Indian Institute for Human Settlements; and Ulka Kelkar, senior climate policy lead, World Resources Institute India. Edited excerpts:

What are your views on the conundrum between environmental issues and growth?

Krishnaswamy: The reason why I mention land transformation metrics as an important lens is not because climate change is going to add a lot of stress and some of what it is likely to do is very uncertain right now—it might even destroy an ecosystem. But the other stresses on our biodiversity and ecosystems are sometimes downplayed.

If you ask any conservationist who works at the local or regional scales about threats to aquatic biodiversity in India or threats to some of our large mammals, climate change will not immediately come to mind. There are other stresses in terms of overexploitation of the species, or transformation of habitats—those are processes that we have to manage if we have to adapt, if these ecosystems have to adapt and novel ecosystems have to emerge where we have new types of livelihood and economic opportunities. It’s in that light we should not forget about other stresses.

Whatever we have done to our forests and rivers have been because of these other stresses and not climate change, as of now. We are seeing certain types of transformation that we have to manage. India is getting urbanised a lot. How do you manage biodiversity, especially biodiversity that needs to move from one patch of forest to another, when you have highways and towns mushrooming? We need to think about how urbanisation, linear intrusions and biodiversity can coexist, and it will have to be a combination of land sharing and land sparing approaches at multiple scales. If done smartly, that can potentially generate a lot of jobs.

Kelkar: There is a lot of faith in specific technological solutions but that is only a piece of the puzzle. The story is much larger—these technological solutions are embedded in a larger governance landscape and that is part of a culture or a lifestyle in itself. There is much to be said about leaving it to the community, decentralisation for example, but that alone will not take care of the issue. The important part is larger policy support, capital and know-how. Otherwise, that connection between what’s happening at the grass-roots scale and the larger scale won’t happen.

The second point is about behavioural changes. At a conference recently, somebody said a builder doesn’t just sell a building, he sells you a lifestyle. So how are we appreciating or understanding the aspirations of people and how they are changing. People are willing to go in for renewable energy when they purchase a new home. That’s where you can actually make a change.

How has Bengaluru coped with urbanisation?

Revi: Bengaluru is struggling. We are talking a lot about temperature and that’s because climate change has been looked at from a temperate climate point of view, where temperatures are a critical thing. But for India the critical issue is water, and Bengaluru is struggling and will continue to struggle on water. The really interesting thing that may happen is if we are able to transform our water management for the city. The city itself cannot do it. It has to be handled regionally and as Ulka is saying, it has to start really at the lifestyle end of things. We have to be able to bring down water consumption to 70 litres per capita and reduce inequality across the city because half the city is currently being fed by tankers. If Bengaluru is able to crack that problem, it is going to grow and develop.

The Metro is a beginning for that because one very clear thing we know for cities across the world is you need to shrink footprints. Bengaluru is like a doughnut. The centre of the city is very low in density and outside the city is growing very rapidly, and it doesn’t work for us. We have to move to a more livable, walkable city.

What are your views on India’s power sector situation and reforms?

Srinivasan: Increasing cooling load will generate more heat—that statement is true but what people don’t realize is the amount of waste the industry (generates) today is 1/100th of the amount of heat trapped by carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide trapping heat cannot be seen so none of us are aware of it. One has to focus on controlling carbon dioxide because that’s much bigger than the waste heat problem. I think coal is a curse for India for two reasons—it is of low quality and it is under the forest floor, and we are removing forests to get coal. We should have not gone towards coal but towards solar after independence.

India is extremely dependent on the monsoon and there is already a farm distress in the country. What happens now?

Revi: The fact is even at one point of time, 50% of our species, plant or others, are going to see a 50% reduction in their range. We have never seen this since the beginning of our agricultural revolution, around 10,000 years ago. Growing things in areas that are completely unviable ecologically and increasing now economically, and simultaneously, now we have a health crisis, the public distribution system has given us a lot of nice things and food security but it is creating a huge epidemic as far as lifestyle diseases are concerned. We have to radically re-examine this.

Krishnaswamy: 150 years ago, people did not eat potatoes. It is possible for changes in diet but it’s not going to happen overnight. In the Indo-Gangetic plains, even a 10% reduction in water use in agriculture, can put back enough water in some of our rivers to allow the aquatic biodiversity to thrive and to help downstream artisanal fisheries to survive. These are opportunities for creation of new jobs and skills which are linked to a transformation that we need for adapting to the future.

Kelkar: We have to look at food and diet in perspective of a farmer. Because a farmer only grows what he/she can sell, not just the question of price but also of convenience. If the demand or market does not exist, then you have to create the market and the entire support system. We must also look at some of these larger policy issues from the perspective of an individual.

Is the US walking out of the Paris climate deal an ideal time for India and China to collaborate?

Krishnaswamy: We have a shared security regime, what happens to Tibetan plateau and the catchment of the Brahmaputra is something that India and China need to work together. And also there are planned transformations of the river systems that pose, in some sense, national security concerns. We have been planning many projects thinking that these are stationary systems. The monsoon itself is a big variable. National, water, biodiversity and ecological security is as important as the security emanating from guns and bombs.

Revi: This is not the question of just India, China or the US but all humanity. Irrespective of what the other country does, the impacts are going to be felt across the world, especially in countries that have large populations. Food security is a very critical question we share as far as that is concerned. We can’t underestimate the Chinese ability to turn this to their advantage. We have to be pragmatic like China is on mutual interest.

Srinivasan: No one seems to be addressing the elephant in the room; it’s population. We are going to add 500 million people. I don’t see how we can avoid ecological stress. So we have to learn from China how to control our population.

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