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India can’t turn into another China. It must protect our ‘mother nature’ from danger

India must reorient its strategy towards an ecologically sustainable pathway. There is no space in the world for another China.

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The climate change summit in Glasgow is probably the last chance for the assembled leaders of the world to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change. They will have to negotiate a safe passage for our threatened planet through a perfect storm that is building up right around the corner. These negotiations will have to be approached in a new spirit, where each leader comes as a maximalist, not displaying the minimalist mindset that we are familiar with in international negotiations. The latter is guaranteed to deliver least common denominator outcome and the time for that is long past. The results of the G-20 summit in Rome, held on the eve of the Glasgow climate change summit, are mostly disappointing in that respect.

What is at stake is the fundamental question of how humanity relates to nature. For many centuries, Indian sages and philosophers taught us to revere nature as a mother and as a source of nurture; never take from her what she, even in her plenitude, could not replenish. But that message of harmony with nature has become a barely audible whisper in our own ravaged landscape. And yet, it is in our own redemption that we can nudge the world down a different path from the dead-end that awaits it on its present trajectory.


Also Read: India will reach net-zero emissions by 2070, PM Modi says at COP26 as he promises ‘panchamrit’


Neglect of the biodiversity conference

There has been virtually no coverage in national and international media of another major conference related to ecology, the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biodiversity, the first of which was convened in the Chinese city of Kunming between 11 and 15 October 2021. But if we are talking about the relationship between humanity and nature as the very heart of the challenge that confronts us, then the outcome of the Kunming meeting should have demonstrated a modicum of the ambition that we all expect from Glasgow.

We cannot be ambitious on climate change but remain indifferent to the relentless and growing loss of biodiversity that is taking place across the planet. They are symptoms of the same ecological degradation that is taking place across our world. You cannot arrest climate change while ignoring the accelerating loss of biodiversity. Think of the growing clamour to sign on to net zero emissions by 2050 as the key goal for the Glasgow summit. Net-zero implies that emissions by that date will be offset by carbon sinks in the shape of forests, the oceans, and technological fixes, as yet unviable, of carbon capture and storage.

Forests around the world are depleting at historically unprecedented rates. So how much of this green sink will still be available to absorb emissions by 2050? The oceans are getting clogged with plastic waste, while other hazardous material is also being dumped into them. There are several dead zones devoid of any marine life as a result of chemical runoff from chemical fertilisers and toxic pesticides being used in agriculture upstream of rivers. The oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon emissions is depleting.  With continued and increasing biodiversity loss, is there any credibility to the goal of net-zero in 2050?


Also Read: What is COP26, why it is important & India’s role at the climate change conference


The depressing biodiversity story

The biodiversity story is as depressing as the climate change saga. In 2010, the Aichi Declaration listed 10 biodiversity targets to be achieved by 2020. The latest biodiversity summit in Kunming acknowledged that not one of the 10 targets had been met. Let me just cite one of the targets:

“By 2020 the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible, brought close to zero and degradation and fragmentation is significantly reduced.”

The ambition was not even to stop the loss of forests but to try and halve the rate of loss. And we are now putting our bets on there being enough forest cover by 2050 to serve as a massive carbon sink.

There is a draft of the Framework Process for post-2020 goals which is expected to be finalised when the 15th COP meets again in Kunming between 25 April and 22 May 2022. It is likely to end up with vague but high-sounding goals but with little focus on implementation and financing. The declared objective is to ensure that “biodiversity will be put on a path to recovery by 2030 at the latest.” More grandly, it will seek to bring about a “transformation in society’s relationship with biodiversity and ensure that by 2050 a shared vision of living in harmony with Nature is fulfilled.”  Here is another goal for 2050. But if humanity really learned to live in harmony with nature by mid-century, would there be a need for a net-zero emissions goal at all? The reality is that we need a broader ecology convention that incorporates commitments on both biodiversity and climate change since both are integrally enmeshed together.


Also Read: India doesn’t have to match climate commitments expected of China. Modi must make it clear at US summit


Ecology and the lack of substantive action

The Kunming Declaration is entitled somewhat grandly as Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth. But the label camouflages the lack of substantive action. It has been estimated that in order to implement the proposed post-2020 framework process, a $700 billion annual financing gap will have to be filled. When we are unable to get even $100 billion a year for climate change action by developing countries, how likely is it that this much larger sum for biodiversity conservation will be raised?

India is right in advocating a global climate change regime that will advance, not diminish, its developmental prospects. But the time has come to define our developmental objectives that align with our civilisational values of respect for nature.

There is no space in the world for another China. We must reorient our development strategies towards an ecologically sustainable pathway pioneering a trajectory different from that followed by the industrialised world and later by China. It must be based on a different concept of affluence, one which values fresh water to drink, clean air to breathe, and green earth to walk on. We need to help create a world where a tree growing in the forest has more value than one which is cut down and sold as timber. In this alone lies hope for future generations.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR. He was Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Climate Change between 2007 and 2010.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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