Bharat H Desai
Professor of International Law and Jawaharlal Nehru Chair, JNU
IT became a historic event when the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) in a meeting on May 21, 2019 decided to accept the unmistakable imprint of human activities on the Earth. Tre AWG took this decision to recognise Anthropocene as a new geologic 'epoch'. For the first time, it has been accepted that human activities have changed the face of the planet. It comes with a tacit warning that if such activities continue at the current pace and magnitude, the planet will become uninhabitable in the not-too-distant future. This comes as a grim warning just ahead of the World Environment Day (WED) on June 5. Stocktaking at this annual milestone throws up issues that need urgent attention.
Breathing clean air: China will host this year's WED with a theme of 'air pollution'. We need to worry about the quality of air that we breathe. It is estimated that seven million people worldwide die prematurely each year from air pollution. Of this, about four million people die in the Asia-Pacific. India is facing a grim air pollution scenario. The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) prepared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that some six lakh people die annually in India due to air pollution. The WHO data for 124 cities reveal that almost all of them exceed the WHO guidelines. The plight of Delhi, especially during winters, is such that it has the dubious distinction for the worst air pollution in the country.
All efforts and random fire-fighting by the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal have gone in vain even as people of Delhi, especially children and the aged, suffer from high levels of respiratory problems. It remains to be seen if the 2019 WED wakes up the Delhi state government from stupor.
Challenge of plastics: Last year's WED celebration brought about focus on beating plastic pollution. It led to an emphatic Indian pledge to ban single-use plastics by 2022. The United Nations recognised India's environmental leadership by conferring the 'Champions of the Earth' award on PM Modi. The positive fallout has been that some major corporations, states and institutions have taken initiatives to make their operations free of single-use plastics and ban non-biodegradable plastics.
Global production and consumption of plastic has been on the rise, as the ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy. Most plastics are derived from fossil fuel feedstock such as natural gas, oil or coal; although biopolymers are also being used. As a result, they accumulate, rather than decompose, in landfills or the natural environment.
Of the over 300 million tonnes of plastic manufactured every year globally, India generates around 5.6 million tonnes of plastic waste. Delhi alone accounts for 9,600 metric tonnes per day. Over-reliance on single-use or disposable plastic has proven to be an environmental and human health hazard. Marine litter has been a major problem in India, having a long coast and big islands. Most marine litter originates in land-based sources. It calls for strengthening of the legal institutional regime, capacity building, public awareness, and research for proper regulation and management of marine litter in India.
Climate change: On the climate change front, India took a big step to join the 2015 Paris Agreement. India joined others nations to accept the new criteria of 'nationally determined intended contributions'. India has finally swallowed pressure from industrialised countries to dilute the core principle of 'common but differentiated responsibility and respective capability' (CBDR-RC) under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The National Adoption Fund on Climate Change (NAFCC) was created in 2018. Moreover, Rs 42.16 crore has been provided to seven projects on climate change issues in Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. Apart from it, the National Policy on Biofuels, 2018, aims to increase the use of biofuels in the energy and transportation sectors during the coming decade. Still, India needs to bring in a special climate change legislation to provide a concrete legal basis for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Biodiversity and bio-safety: In December, 2018, India submitted the Sixth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The report carried an update of the progress in achieving 12 National Biodiversity Targets (NBT) developed under the convention. India has claimed attaining two NBTs, eight are on track and the remaining two by 2020. Since approximately 20 per cent of the total geographical area comes under biodiversity conservation, it is reported that "India has exceeded the terrestrial component of 17 per cent of Aichi target 11, and 20 per cent of the corresponding NBT relating to the area under biodiversity management." India has also claimed attaining NBT for access and benefit-sharing by implementing the Nagoya Protocol on ABS.
Global proposals for the environment: The United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution 72/277 (May 10, 2018) entitled "Towards a Global Pact for the Environment." It led to the establishment of an ad hoc open-ended working group to report possible gaps in international environmental law for strengthening and better implementation of the law. The global pact was to provide an umbrella text in dealing with environmental issues. Since India has a plethora of policies, legislations and institutional frameworks for the protection of environment, we needed to make a concrete contribution by giving a big push to this futuristic global pact.
In a refreshing development, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) presented a special note (December 10, 2018) on the UN Secretary-General's report that cited some of my cutting-edge ideas. However, the Ad-hoc Working Group's Nairobi meeting on May 22, 2019 has shown that consensus eludes the global pact taking the form of a legally binding instrument. Apart from it, my idea for the ‘revival of the UN Trusteeship Council with a new mandate for the environment and the global commons’ has gone global and won laurels from the President of the UN General Assembly and the UN Secretary-General.
Thus, even as the global environment shows a grim scenario and craves for big ideas to materialise on the governance front, it presents a challenge for India to provide leadership. This is especially so since India aspires to sit on the global 'high table'. Hence, Indian stewardship in providing solutions for global environment is need of the hour. One hopes that the WED 2019 propels the Modi government to take big bold initiatives to contribute to the simmering 'battle of ideas' in the environment field.
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