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Will India's G20 leadership bring relief from increasing exposure to climate change?

Political promises ring hollow as climate change impacts biodiversity and induces unprecedented hazards across the country

Sumaira Abdulali
Published: Sep 4, 2023 02:54:27 PM IST
Updated: Sep 4, 2023 03:06:22 PM IST

Will India's G20 leadership bring relief from increasing exposure to climate change?A Metro station being constructed at Mumbai’s BKC. The area has seen a sharp rise in dust pollution due to construction of infrastructure and residential buildings Image: Anshuman Poyrekar /Hindustan Times via Getty Images

As India commenced its prestigious G20 Presidency on December 1, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi identified climate change, pandemics and terrorism as the three “greatest challenges we face”. His words brought hope for enforceable action against our climate woes: India is ranked among the most polluted countries in the world and is second only to Brazil in deforestation. Would India’s G20 leadership bring relief from our increasing exposure to the felt effects of climate change, including floods, droughts, landslides heatwaves and pollution?

Will India's G20 leadership bring relief from increasing exposure to climate change?Just two months after India’s G20 Presidency commenced, in February 2023, the government’s National Clean Air Plan Tracker identified a massive increase in average breathable particular matter (PM 2.5) in the comparable months of February 2021 and February 2023: From 92.7µg/m3 to 164.4 µg/m3 in the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) in Mumbai. The safe limit for 24-hour exposure, according to the World Health Organization, is 15 µg/m3 and the initial interim target to achieve this limit in a phased manner is 75 µg/m3. Air pollution has been directly linked to the warming planet and to the climate crisis.
BKC has been the focus of major infrastructure and private building for over a decade, mostly undertaken without mitigation measures to control pollution. Dust surrounding the Mumbai Metro 3 project, whose construction has continued for the last seven years, layers the street and visibly darkens the sky. Although funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and promising world-class infrastructure, the environmental safeguards during construction remain primitive, and the health risks they pose would likely be impermissible within Japan itself.

Other private and public building projects without mitigation measures have also contributed to the pollution crisis and severe health problems of residents of the area. BKC resident Radha Rajadhyaksha described her elderly mother’s suffering. “Last February, my 80-plus mother went down to our colony garden sit-out. She immediately caught a bad cough, which lasted for two months, and stopped all further outings. I realised the air was thick with dust thanks to the construction going on all around us, especially from residential towers being constructed by Adani Realty next door. Most senior citizens had stopped going down at that point because of the ambience.”

The air pollution crisis at BKC abated during the rainy monsoon months and it was the venue of the three G20 meetings held in Mumbai in July 2023. During this same time, the Earth experienced its hottest month in recorded history, with unprecedented heatwaves in Europe, North America and South America, prompting UN secretary general, António Guterres to lament “the era of global boiling has arrived”.

As July ended amid worldwide, unrelenting heatwaves, the Lok Sabha passed a controversial amendment to the Forest Conservation Act on July 27. The amendments provide exemptions from environmental safeguards to certain strategic projects if located within 100 km from the international border. This withdrawal of legal protection will particularly impact the densely forested northeastern states.

Ravi Chellam, conservation scientist, CEO, Metastring Foundation, and coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative, explained that many of the forests at greatest risk are “located in the Himalayas and are habitats which are very rich in biodiversity.

Also read: Businesses profit off the environment so they have to let go of money to save it: Aakash Ranison

The amended Act has done away with the forest clearance process for defence-related projects in these areas which would have ensured a detailed case by case examination of the potential environmental impacts of these projects and put in place mitigation efforts. Without the detailed assessments it is quite possible that, from now, these projects would result in significant losses of biodiversity.”

India, home to some of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world, also has among the highest deforestation rates in the world, second only to Brazil. Rapidly increasing mining for coal and other minerals, stone quarrying and infrastructure development are leading causes of deforestation. Already, areas where irreplaceable forests are being destroyed, including the Himalayas and Western Ghats, are being devastated by climate events: Landslides, floods, droughts have displaced, wounded or killed hundreds of people over the last several years.

Just one day after the passage of the controversial amendments to the Forest Act, on July 28, the G20’s Environment and Climate Ministers’ Meet concluded in Chennai without consensus on key issues such as phasing down polluting energy sources like coal and other fossil fuels and drew criticism from the EU and its constituent countries.

The G20 Environment and Climate Ministers’ Meeting Outcome Document and Chair’s Summary concludes: “We note with concern that global ambition and implementation to address climate change remain insufficient to achieve the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre- industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

Also read: 5 difficult but feasible steps to reverse the climate crisis

“There are some issues about energy and target-oriented issues,” MoEF Minister Bhupender Yadav acknowledged in a press conference.

The UNFCC (CoP26) in Glasgow brought together 120 world leaders and over 40,000 registered participants, including President of the USA Joe Biden and Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, and urged participant countries to make ambitious commitments to meet net-zero by 2030. However, India’s commitments pushed the date forward to 2070, beyond the tenure of current leaders, even as India increased coal usage and extraction, deforestation and other activities escalating climate change prior to 2030.

The recently-concluded CoP27 in Egypt brought greater awareness about water and reiterated CoP26 commitments of net-zero by 2070 even as the ecosystems of the Himalayas and Western Ghats, sources of many great Indian rivers, suffer further destruction. CoP28 in the UAE follows soon after India’s G20 leadership role, with climate as one of its focus areas, concludes.

However, Modi said in a recorded statement in March 2023: “The experience of the last few years—financial crisis, climate change, pandemic, terrorism and wars—clearly shows that global governance has failed.”

While statements of future intent, present policy and grassroots implementation remain in opposition to each other; while the fastest-developing countries like India accelerate the catch-up to aspirational development models of the Global North, we are inadvertently also racing to catch up and add to the pollutants they released historically.
Historic pollutants have triggered the global climate crisis. While the Global North is cleaning up their own local environments, we in India rank high among those most at risk from the health effects of pollution and of life-threatening climate events.

As we await the Summit of India’s G20 Presidentship in September 2023, timely grassroots implementation towards our own climate ambitions will define the success of India’s leadership role in limiting the climate crisis. Our planet’s climate emergency is here. It is now.

The author is convenor, Awaaz Foundation

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