Need political will to curb stubble burning : The Tribune India

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Need political will to curb stubble burning

India figures alongside the industrialised countries of the West that have contributed the bulk of the global stock of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and they are the ones who should take responsibility of fixing the mess they’ve made. It can’t be fixed by denying energy choices to developing nations.

Need political will to curb stubble burning

Toxic blaze: Stubble burning is estimated to add to the atmosphere 91 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Tribune photo



Navdeep Suri

Former Diplomat and Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

AS we drove up from Gurugram to Amritsar on November 6, thick smog that kept us company for over 500 km was a grim reminder of both environmental havoc and the health hazard being wrought by the invidious practice of burning paddy stubble across the farmlands of Haryana and Punjab.

We decided to avoid the crowded NH-44 or the GT road and took the alternate route via Rohtak, Jind, Narnaul, Sangrur, Barnala, Moga, Harike and Tarn Taran. Driving through Haryana, we saw scattered evidence of the farm fires, but the contrast once we entered Punjab was stark. Charred fields and dense plumes of smoke could be seen mile after mile, particularly along the stretch of NH-52 from Sangrur to Moga.

“We are on a highway to climate hell with one foot still on the accelerator…the clock is ticking…and we are approaching the tipping point.” Those words of UN Secretary General António Guterres during the opening ceremony of the world leaders’ summit of COP27 at Sharm El-Sheikh on November 7 were ringing in my ears as I recalled the dystopian sight on both sides of that particular highway.

A few days earlier, the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi had released its equally depressing ‘Adaptation Gap Report-2022’ and described the world’s efforts to combat climate change as “Too little, too slow”.

By now, the evidence of the inexorable slide towards global warming is almost too vivid to be ignored. We are seeing it in the near doubling of major climate-related disasters — the catastrophic floods in Pakistan and Nigeria, four consecutive years of drought in Kenya, record temperatures across Europe and North America, the rapid melting of polar ice caps…the evidence is all around us.

The COP21 agreement in Paris in 2015 had agreed to set an ambitious target of limiting global warming to a maximum of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. That goal, most experts recognise, is probably unattainable and we’ll be lucky if we can limit warming to 2 °C, aiming for a net-zero target for major economies by 2050. To put matters in perspective, India will be the third largest economy much before then, but has announced a net-zero goal for 2070!

That is because India, like many other developing countries, argues passionately for climate justice. It figures alongside the industrialised countries of the West that have contributed the bulk of the global stock of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and they are the ones who should take responsibility of fixing the mess they’ve made. It cannot be fixed by denying energy choices to developing countries and pressing them about the virtues of green transitions.

The rich countries have the financial resources and the technology and must come forth to assist poorer nations in making their development pathway greener and less destructive for the environment. At least, hypothetically. Because, the reality is that even $100 billion for climate finance, promised during COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, has missed its 2020 deadline and it may now happen by 2025.

And so COP27 will hear much debate on possible ways to address the simmering issue of ‘loss and damage’, even as it takes up the older issues of adaptation and mitigation. There is also a recognition that the growing incidence of extreme climate events requires early warning systems and the building of disaster-resilient infrastructure.

There is also a deeper issue of a global climate budget put together by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the basis of scientific computer models. According to this budget, total carbon dioxide stock of 2,890 billion tonnes gives us only a 50 per cent chance that the world will avoid the 1.5 °C threshold. But, by 2019, the world had already dumped 2,390 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leaving a residual carbon budget of just 500 billion tonnes. The math after that is fairly simple. If we continue to emit 40 billion tonnes a year on a business-as-usual basis, the carbon budget will get exhausted in 12 years and the 1.5 °C target goes out of reach. Which means that countries ranging from the Maldives to Pacific Island states will go under water and coastal cities around the world will be threatened. And so every responsible country will have to cut its carbon emissions and move much faster towards a net-zero trajectory.

How does this relate to Punjab? Because stubble burning is estimated to add to the atmosphere as much as 91 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, along with significant quantities of carbon monoxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Look at these numbers from the perspective of a global family that is on a tight budget, and is asking everyone to be frugal and save on every penny, but there is a profligate child, who is needlessly spending a part of the budget.

Now, let’s place this in a broader context. In announcing the logo for India’s G20 presidency on November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined the theme of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ and ‘One World, One Family, One Future’. Or let’s not even go as far as Delhi and the G20. Every ardas performed by a Sikh ends with the expression ‘Sarbat da Bhala’ — a noble prayer for the welfare and prosperity of all. But what we are seeing is the reckless pursuit of individual gain at the expense of the greater good. It runs counter to the Sikh scriptures and to the very ethos of the Sikh faith. It mortgages the welfare of future generations for the ephemeral profits of the present one. And it potentially attracts the opprobrium of bringing the farm fires of Punjab into the climate change discussions in forums like COP27.

The experience of the US under Donald Trump and Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro showed the crucial importance of political will or its lack in the way a country addresses the clear and present danger posed by climate change. Here, in Punjab, successive governments have passed the buck and the destructive cycle of paddy cultivation, ground water depletion and stubble burning continues year after year. Instead of focusing on early warning system of Pakistan-style floods, building resilient infrastructure and working on mitigation measures, we are, literally, engaged in a fire-fighting mode.

Will the present government show that it has the political will to meet the challenge, to protect the future of the state and its people, and to stop them from hurtling down the “highway to climate hell?”


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