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What Does the Future of the Environment Hold?

Sunita Narain, Director General at the Centre for Science and Environment and Editor, Down To Earth, speaks to Cosmo about the future of environmental change.

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THE FUTURE OF THE ENVIRONMENT

BY SUNITA NARAIN
Director General, Centre for Science and Environment, and Editor, Down To Earth 

“Today, globally climate change is in crescendo mode. Last year, in June and July, some 140 wildfires raged across California; 80 people were killed in similar wildfires in Greece; Europe has been sizzling under heat waves; unseasonal dust storms have killed over 500 in India; torrential rains in Japan and other such extreme rain events are devastating crops and homes across vast parts of the world. All of these weather events are far beyond normal variability, called stationarity, as it followed past patterns. Now, we are in the era of the unprecedented and unknown. What we know for certain is that this intensity, variability and ferocity of ‘weird weather’ will only get worse. The connection with strange weather and climate change is also being seen through studies called attribution. The World Weather Attribution network estimates that climate change has more than ‘doubled the likelihood of the European heat wave’. It has also tripled the likelihood of drought in Cape Town—the South African city that narrowly missed Day Zero—when it would run out of water.

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The question is: what now? In the coming months, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its 1.5°C report on the impacts when the world hits this level of temperature rise. The report, I say, will only state the obvious. If the weather related calamities being experienced at 1°C rise—roughly the temperature increase today over the pre-industrial period—then it will only get weirder and worse. That much is for certain.

‘What do we do now?’ This is what we should be focusing on. The fact is that we are nowhere close to staying below the 1.5°C guardrail—a temperature increase that was once considered to be relatively safe. We are on the fast track to increase emissions and break all temperature barriers. The good news is that India and China are aware of emissions from coal burning because of our horrendous air pollution. In India, we need to close old and polluting thermal plants—this winter, Delhi shut down its only coal-based power plant—then new emission standards for coal must be implemented. Pet coke has already been banned, including its import from the US. 

The urgency is to make a massive move to cleaner fuels like renewables or natural gas. This is essential and we will push for it—not for climate change reasons, but for cutting air pollution. But we are not the question. The fact is that the world has completely run out of its carbon budget—it has been occupied by the already rich world for its growth—and now that there is nothing left, we will be told to jump off the bridge. This is not acceptable as climate justice demands that the poor must get their right to development, their right to clean energy.

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The India Gate in New Delhi as seen during the smoggiest days of 2019

Another problem is that the world is still nowhere close to giving up its fossil addiction. For all the talk of renewable energy—other than in Germany where it has been scaled up—it is still at the edge of supply. In fact, in the past year, the demand for coal is rising; investment in oil and gas is up, and all of the climate change solutions are fighting to survive. It is not working.

I believe that India must take the lead in putting forward our vulnerability; the economic and human cost of the climate change ‘attributed’ disasters, to the global stage. We must demand that the world acts—at speed and scale—only then can we expect natural resources to last. The future of environment, as multiple studies and research states, is bleak. We need to push for the world to take climate change seriously today, to be able to save what we’re left with for our future generations. We must put forward our own plan to cut emissions for local air pollution, which we have co-benefits in terms of climate change. We must have something to show—we need to be decisive in our words and our actions.”