Pakistani economist, Tariq Banuri once told Jairam Ramesh (Chairman of Parliament's Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forest and Climate Change) that the global environmental discourse has been shaped by four events. The first three were the publications of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968), and the Club of Rome's The Limit to Growth in early 1972. The fourth was Indira Gandhi's speech at the first ever United Nations conference on Human Environment about 50 years ago in Stockholm. She created a benchmark, by not just being the only head of government to speak at the conclave, but also by looking at environment issues from development perspective and at developmental challenges from an ecological standpoint. Her stand on the environment made her a naturalist. She had reactivated the Indian Board of Wildlife in 1969 and hosted the 10th General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature the same year later.
Where it all Started
One line in that historic speech and probably the most quoted or recalled has her saying, "Poverty is the greatest polluter". Truth be told, records do not show the exact verbatim. The line was "Are not poverty and need the greatest polluter?". She said so to bring home to the west that developing nations like India have their own pressing challenges to raise the standard of living of millions of citizens.
While the stand made at Stockholm on that day resonates with India's stand today with regards to the Zero Emission pledge, that is to put a developing nation's interests first, its is nevertheless an important issue to be looked upon seriously. Environmental challenges and issues may be regulated on a national or local basis, but some environmental challenges may affect more than one nation and would therefore require regional or global actions and agreements. In addition, transboundary issues where one environmental challenge emerging in one country could shift to a neighboring country could also lead to tension and aggravation of the situation.
Over the last half a century since the Stockholm speech, India has put in place laws, regulations and standards, established institutions and announced numerous polices, programmes and projects to ensure ecological balance as it pursues high economic growth. Nothing can and should remain frozen. Even so, while the rhetoric in international forums has stressed India’s environmental commitment and while dramatic declines in costs have enabled a huge expansion in renewable energy capacity, a sense of discomfort on the current regime’s actions at home will not be unjustified. In the name of ease of doing business, the regulatory edifice is under systematic assault and enforcement, always weak, has further slackened. When Indira Gandhi spoke at Stockholm, the public health consequences of environmental (mis)governance did not occupy centre stage. They do today.
India & UNEP
India has had a close engagement with United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) since its inception and there are ongoing and implemented UNEP projects in India. Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change is the nodal Ministry dealing with India’s engagement with UNEP. India’s High Commissioner to Kenya H.E. Mr. Rahul Chhabra is accredited as the Permanent Representative of India to UNEP. Besides, in the UNEA-4 o 2021,
India piloted resolutions on two important global environment issues relating to Single-use Plastics (UNEP/EA.4/RES.9) and Sustainable Nitrogen management (UNEP/EA.4/RES.14), and both resolutions were adopted with consensus. India also hosted, in the High-Level 2 Segment of UNEA, a session on “Global Partnerships: Key to Unlocking Resource Efficiency and Inclusive Green Economies”.
UN Environment India in partnership with governments, private sector, UN agencies, civil society, communities, citizens, research and academic institutions and other organizations is working towards raising awareness and galvanizing action on critical environmental issues that contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. UN Environment’s approach to environmental management revolves around partnerships – combining the values and interest of governments with the strengths of UN agencies, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and private sector.
India being a Torch Bearer in such Transformations
Predictions suggest, India will soon be the most populous country in the world – and also, home to one of the youngest populations. With 80 per cent of demand met by coal, oil and solid biomass, India is the world’s third-largest energy consuming country. India is predicted to be among the top three emitters by 2030. With improved life style and standard of living, with increased disposable income, millions of Indian households are set to buy new appliances, air conditioning units and vehicles. Such exponential growth is expected in building stock, other infrastructure, and construction materials.
Evidently, India has made commitments. India is making progress.
Lately, India has made giant leaps in renewable energy. India’s attempts at encouraging LED lighting are a huge success story. Over 367 million LED bulbs, 7.2 million LED tube lights and 2.3 million energy efficient fans have been distributed. This has brought big savings in power use, greenhouse gas emissions and household bills. Let's not forget our strides in building solar capacity. India has now surpassed 50 GW of cumulative installed solar capacity, as on 28 February 2022. This is a milestone in India’s journey towards generating 500 GW from renewable energy by 2030, of which 300 GW is expected to come from solar power.
India has also taken measures to control plastic pollution, including bans on single-use plastic and strengthening extended producer responsibility. Equal commitment to restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 is also in play.
However, India, like every nation, has a calling to do much more. And doing more is in the best interests of the entire nation, not just in terms of reducing environmental vulnerability, but also ensuring societal & economical growth. Studies by IEA indicates that a transition to net-zero carbon can catalyze new industries, create millions of jobs, and drive trillions of dollars of economic value. A recent World Economic Forum estimate suggests that India’s decarbonization journey represents a USD 15 trillion economic opportunity by 2070. This journey could create as many as 50 million net new jobs. With an estimated 10 million Indians having lost their jobs from the second wave of the pandemic, investing in ecosystem restoration becomes even more important for sustaining economic and societal growth, more so, catapult it.