• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
home_icon-01_outline
star
  • Earth.Org Newsletters

    Get focused newsletters especially designed to be concise and easy to digest

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Earth.Org PAST · PRESENT · FUTURE
SHOP Support

The Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 in India, drafted by the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) with the intention to overhaul the process of environmental regulation of infrastructure projects, has been widely criticised for its “pro-industry” and “anti-environment” legislation clauses, which may regularise projects that violate environmental norms.

The Draft EIA Notification 2020 is a formal legal decision-making process enacted to examine, evaluate and predict the environmental impact of any developmental project or programme. According to the MoEFCC, this notification seeks to make the decision-making process more transparent and expedient “through [the] implementation of [an] online system, further delegations, rationalisation, standardisation of the process, etc.”. 

Many believe, however, that the notification was drafted in such a way that allows for industries to continue turning a blind eye to environmental concerns. Echoing the sentiments of many activists, environmental groups, students and biologists, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi described the notification as “a disaster [which] seeks to silence the voice of communities who will be directly impacted by the environmental degradation it unleashes.”

You might also like: How China Could Become Carbon Neutral by 2060

Critics have particularly taken issue with how 40-plus types of industries – including but not limited to clay and sand extraction and the creation of solar thermal power plants – are exempt from prior environment clearance (EC) with the approval of expert committees or prior environmental permission or provision (EP) without the approval of expert committees. These industries were previously required to secure prior EC or EP. Further, some projects – such as irrigation, production of chemical fertilisers, acid manufacturing, and the development of roads, highways and buildings – are totally exempt from public consultation. 

Solar energy projects are likely included in this notification because they reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, however this overlooks environmental concerns such as the requirement of large land area, diversion of agricultural land and changes to drainage patterns brought on by the construction and operation of solar parks. 

The undertaking of an EIA is a minimum environment and social safeguard and the lack of them may discourage investment. For example, The World Bank, which funds solar projects in India, including the Rewa Solar Park in Madhya Pradesh, insists on an EIA before embarking on projects, something that this “anti-environment” draft legislation violates.

As many critics have argued, the notification’s endorsement of this ex post facto environmental clearance goes against the precedent set by the Supreme Court in the case Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Rohit Prajapati, which had struck down such clearance as unconstitutional. In the words of the Supreme Court, “allowing for an ex post facto clearance essentially condones the operation of industrial activities without the grant of an EC (environmental clearance). In the absence of an EC, there would be no conditions that would safeguard the environment…” 

Further, the period for public consultation on projects has been reduced from 30 to 20 days, endangering the tenets of public participation. It even exempts massive construction projects under category B2 from having to conduct public consultations at all before seeking environmental clearance.

It also creates confusion as to how the country will embark on environmental projects in the face of its membership in the Rio declaration adopted by the UN in 1992, which calls for EIAs. They are also required under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), both of which India is a party to, which both contain a requirement to have a prior EIA in situations having a significant threat to the environment. 

Accordingly, if the draft notification is passed as law in its current form, it will set a very bad precedent for the future. As environmental lawyer, Parul Gupta, wrote in a document by Vindhyan Ecology and Natural History Foundation, “the proposed safeguards of penalties and compensations are inadequate to counter the inevitable and irreversible ecological destruction. It is submitted that if the Draft Notification is implemented, it will ultimately lead to unscientific and unsustainable development.” 

Hopefully, the Ministry of Environment in India will take this outcry into account and withdraw or modify this “anti-environment” draft legislation. As Shibani Gosh – fellow, Centre for Policy Research and Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court – reminds us, the Ministry of Environment needs to “be clear about its role – its mandate is to create and sustain a regulatory framework that prevents the plunder of our natural resources, not actively accelerate the pace of environmental devastation.”

A rich and biodiverse Indian forest called Hasdeo Arand, home to indigenous communities, ancient trees, elephants and sloths, is under threat by the coal mining industry. Under a new ‘self-reliant India’ plan issued by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, that aims to boost the economy post COVID-19 and limit costly imports, 40 new coalfields in some of India’s most vulnerable forests will be opened to commercial mining. 

The plan marks a shift from state-owned coal to the creation of a privatised, commercial coal sector in India. Among those supporting the plan are India’s wealthy and influential industrial giants, including the US$14 billion Adani group run by the Indian billionaire Guatam Adani, who manages India’s largest coal power plants and is well acquainted with Modi. 

However, not all are on board with the new plan. The coal auction has sparked controversy at both the local and political level for its obvious environmental ramifications, namely the coalfields in India’s forest lands. More than seven coal blocks up for auction have been previously recognised as prohibited areas for mining due to their environmentally valuable status, and approximately 80% of the expected coalfields are home to indigenous communities in India who depend on the forests. 

Four state governments, namely West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Chhattisfarh, have written to Modi in opposition or raised legal objections to the plan. One coalfield that intersects India’s Tadoba tiger reserve in Maharashtra has already been removed. 

You might also like: More Than 500 Dams Planned Inside Protected Areas: Study

Adivasi Objection 

Local Adivasi- a term used to describe India’s indigenous people- village leaders wrote to Modi demanding a stop to the auction in Hasdeo Arand.

These communities have witnessed first-hand the environmental obstruction caused by open-cast coal mines. In 2011, two vast open-cast mines were dug out on the outskirts of the forest, demolishing the fragile land and polluting the surroundings with smoke, heat, noise and poison.

With this, crime became more prevalent and elephants that lived in the forest became more aggressive, due to the hostile living conditions, leading to dozens of deaths. Locals say that the prospect of more blocks of the forest being handed over to private mining operations as coalfields will destroy five villages and displace more than 6 000 indigenous people in India. Thousands of hectares of trees will also be torn down to make room for mines and roads. 

Green Recovery Post COVID-19

With many governments across the world aiming for a ‘green recovery’ post COVID-19, there is “no good reason for any country to include coal” in recovery plans, as stated by the UN secretary general, António Guterres. 

By putting fossil fuel at the forefront of its recovery strategy, India is prioritising economic opportunity over environmental sustainability and longevity. 

Modi hopes for India to be the world’s largest exporter of coal, a concerning goal considering that local coal is made up of 45% ash content, making it some of the most polluting coal in the world. Additionally, as countries move away from coal, there may not be the demand for Indian coal. Besides, many major factories in India cannot run on such ‘dirty’ domestic coal, meaning that they will have to import coal from abroad. 

India is the world’s second largest consumer of coal, importing 247 million tons annually and costing more than US$20 billion. However, due to the lasting impacts of COVID-19, electricity demand is forecast to fall by up to 15% over the next five years. 

A report published last week by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that the ‘current state-run coal mines of India already have capacity to produce 20% more coal than the expected demand in 2030’.

Environmental Activists 

Environmental and climate activists question why India does not rely on more environmentally sustainable energy sources and invest in domestic renewable energy such as solar instead.

In August, Modi inaugurated Asia’s largest solar farm in Madhya Pradesh, which makes sense given that India is the world’s cheapest producer of solar power and the cost of constructing a new solar plant is 14% less than that of building a new coal plant. In terms of investment and sustainability, the solar industry should trump the coal industry- especially in light of a global shift to a green economy. 

With correct investment, it has been estimated that the solar energy industry could generate as many as 1.6 million jobs in India by 2022- far greater than what would be generated by domestic coal. 

However, India’s secretary for coal, Maddirala Nagaraju, says that the demand for coal in the foreseeable future is bound to rise and therefore insists that increased domestic coal-mining is the ‘cheapest way of meeting the energy needs of the people’.

“We are the country with the fourth largest coal reserves in the world and we need to provide energy security for over a billion people: coal is the only way,” said Nagaraju.

He acknowledged that there would be ‘costly trade-offs’ in transforming protected forest areas into mining sites, but said this action had the support of local communities who ‘want the land to be acquired because they get high compensation packages’. 

He asks, “How else will we develop these Adivasi people in central India?”

Opponents to the Plan 

Former environment minister, Jairan Ramesh, is among the most vocal opponents of the plan and wrote a letter to Modi condemning coal auctions. 

During his time in office, in 2010, a survey was conducted on the biggest coalfields in India which found that 30% were “no-go areas” due to their biodiversity or resident tiger or elephant populations.

Since Modi’s win in 2014, that 30% of coalfields in India has been reduced to about 5%- demonstrating his lack of concern in investing in environmentally sustainable infrastructure.

Ramesh alleged this resulted from the pressure of the powerful corporate coal lobby, Adani: “Adani is behind this … He is one of the most influential forces on the government.”

“Modi poses as a great environmental champion globally but his track record is one of complete loosening of environmental laws and regulations,” Ramesh added. “The corporate lobbies are just too powerful and in the name of ease for businesses, the environment has become the biggest casualty.”

The Adani group rejected the allegations as baseless and politically motivated. A spokesperson said the company ‘has always strived to provide balanced and affordable energy supply to an energy-deprived population of 1.3 billion people whose per capita energy consumption is less than half the world’s average and almost one-tenth of many of the developed economies’. 

They add, “The Adani Group has been a leading contributor to India’s vision for a balanced energy mix and an enabler of India’s leadership in meeting its Paris agreement target.”

The company says it aims to become the world’s largest renewable energy company by 2025.

Featured image by: Adam Cohn

Over the first half of the year, more coal power generation capacity has shut down than has started operation around the world for the first time on record, according to a US research and advocacy group. 

The Global Energy Monitor, which tracks fossil fuel development, found that the closure of coal generators across Europe and the US, exceeded stations being commissioned, largely in Asia. 

China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, dominates coal power development, having built nearly two-thirds of the world’s operating plants and being home to nearly 90% of generators under construction. 

However, the amount of coal power commissioned in China to the end of June was more than 40% below the same period last year, at 11.4 gigawatts compared to 19.4 GWs, because of COVID-19.

Thankfully, India shut more capacity than it opened. New Delhi commissioned 0.9 GW of coal generation, while 1.2 GWs were closed and more than 27 GWs of proposals were cancelled. 

Christine Shearer, Global Energy Monitor’s coal program director, says that India had reduced the amount of coal it planned to build because it struggled to compete with cheaper alternatives, such as new solar and wind. 

You might also like: Climate Hypocrite: Canada Continues To Prop Up Fossil Fuels

She adds that the global decline was due to COVID-19 and record retirements in the EU after the carbon price was increased and pollution regulations tightened. Coal-fired generation fell by an estimated 3% last year. 

China and India’s coal fleets were running at barely half capacity before the pandemic started, but China was continuing to grant permits for construction at the highest rate since 2016. 

There is already overcapacity in China’s coal industry. A study from the University of Maryland projected that the average utilisation rate of the country’s coal plants could drop to 45% by 2025. 

“The COVID pandemic has paused coal plant development around the world and offers a unique opportunity for countries to reassess their future energy plans and choose the cost-optimal path, which is to replace coal power with clean energy,” says Shearer.

Globally, 18.3 GWs of coal power was commissioned in the first half of the year, and 21.2 GWs shut. About 8.3 GW of this was in the EU, with Spain shutting half its fleet and Britain going coal-free for two months, and 5.4 GW in the US. 

Japan opened 1.8 GW but plans to retire 100 inefficient coal-fired units and Germany opened the 1.1 GW Datteln coal plant. About 72 GW of planned new coal was cancelled, but 190 GW remains under construction. 

IPCC scenarios suggest that coal power generation must fall 50% below current levels by 2030 to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. 75% will need to shut over the decade to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Despite this, world demand for coal is set for its biggest annual drop since World War II because of COVID-19, according to the International Energy Agency. Additionally, global investment in offshore wind power increased 319% in the first half of the year, with financing approved for 28 new projects totalling USD$35 billion, more than what was approved in all of 2019

Featured image by: Henk Verheyen

In honour of Global Tiger Day, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar released the fourth All Tiger Estimation- 2018 report, in which he said that the number of tigers in India has increased by 741 from 2014- 2018, an increase of 33%. 

There are five zones in the country serving as conservation areas for tigers- Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains Landscape, Central Indian Landscape and eastern ghats, Western ghats Landscape, North East Hills and Brahmaputra plains Landscape and the Sunderbans. In 2014, these zones had 2 226 tigers, which jumped to 2 967 in 2018. 

The report assesses tigers in terms of spatial occupancy and density of individual populations across India. In addition to data gleaned from the “Status of Tigers in India” report in July 2019, this new report compares information obtained from three earlier surveys in 2006, 2010 and 2014 with data obtained from the 2018-2019 survey to estimate population trends as well as factors likely to be responsible for changes in tiger status at the fine spatial resolution of 100km. The report also evaluates the status of habitat corridors connecting major tiger populations and highlights vulnerable areas that require conservation attention. 

You might also like: ‘It’s a Success’: Pangolins Return To a Region Where They Were Once Extinct

On Global Tiger Day in 2019, India announced that it had fulfilled its pledge to double its tiger numbers four years earlier than intended. With numbers now at 2 967, India is home to 70% of the global tiger population. Javadekar says that India is working with all 13 tiger range countries to continue nurturing the tiger and increase numbers. 

Javadekar announced that his ministry is working on a program to provide water and food to animals in forests to deal with the challenge of human-animal conflict killing animals. To embark on this program, LIDAR-based survey technology will be used for the first time. This is a method for measuring distances by illuminating the target with laser light and measuring the reflection with a sensor. 

According to a new analysis, nearly 24 000km of new roads will be built through tiger habitats by mid-century, stimulated through major investment projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This makes it all the more important that conservation efforts such as those seen in India are emulated around the globe to ensure that tiger populations don’t dwindle to where they cannot maintain their numbers. 

The 1950’s were known as the Great Acceleration which was marked by profound human transformation of the planet. Forests have declined rapidly since the Great Acceleration due to industrialisation, urbanisation and land degradation, particularly in South Asia. There are almost 16 different forest types in the region which vary from tropical rainforest to coastal mangroves. With the population of South Asia set to grow to 2 billion in 2050 from 1.8 billion today, how can South Asia ensure the survival of its forests?

The graph below shows forest area as a share of land in South Asia from 2000 to 2015, which excludes agricultural production systems. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are seeing a gradual decrease in forest cover while India has seen a gradual increase in forest cover. Only Bhutan has seen a small increase in overall forest cover.

You might also like: Insects Decline on Land, Fare Better in Water, Study Finds

south asia forests
A graph showing various countries in South Asia and their forests as share of land area (Source: Our World in Data).

India

India is the 6th largest country in the world and has 4 types of forests: tropical forests, subtropical, temperate and alpine. Since the early 1950’s the country has been increasing its afforestation and reforestation efforts and consequently, the country has increased forest cover by 70.5% between 1950 and 2006; there are now more mangrove forests and forests in hill districts.

In 1952, the country set a target to have 33% of its land under forest cover, however this is currently at 21.54%. Ajay Narayan Jha, the secretary of the ministry of environment forest and climate change, wants to convert open, moderate and degraded forests into dense forests to improve the quality of existing forests. 

The overall increase in forestry in India is attributed to both conservation efforts and better satellite data, however a research paper states that the figures ‘ignore’ the ground realities of India’s situation – by including commercial plantations which are largely monoculture and should not be counted as an increase in India’s forest cover. This could mean that India’s actual forestry numbers are far less than the official counts. Additionally, within the country, there are massive differences in forestry among states with Andhra Pradesh and Kerala recording increases in forest cover while the North-Eastern states of India are recording India’s largest rates of forest cover decline. This is attributed to cultivation and development activities.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, with 163 million people living on a delta plain bordering the Bay of Bengal. As a consequence of this, only 6% of Bangladesh is forested, paling in comparison to the rest of South Asia. Over 50% of Bangladesh’s forests have been deforested in only the last 20 years, which can be mainly attributed to the massive increase in urbanisation and agriculture. Further, illegal sand mining is prevalent in the country, which is an extremely destructive process that has been linked to floods in Kerala. For Bangladesh this illegal practice has led to a sharp decline in river bodies and forests; when sand and minerals are illegally extracted, river banks become unstable and collapse during times of heavy rain or monsoons season, affecting water quality. The Sundarbans is a 10 000 sq km mangrove forest which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been badly affected by sand mining and deforestation. 

This mangrove forest environment is crucial to protecting Bangladesh’s coastline from tropical storms. Additionally, conflict in Myanmar has led to the large-scale movement of refugees entering Bangladesh through Cox’s Bazaar. This mass migration has forced Bangladesh to build security outposts in the region, however, these have been built on protected forestry land. The government has also drained and filled wetlands to create settlements to relieve the overpopulation crisis which has hampered the country’s forest preservation efforts. Bangladesh is in a difficult position as the country will need to find a balance between relieving its overcrowding crisis in urban areas while conserving forests.

The rise of aquaculture in Bangladesh has also contributed to the decline in forests; in 2013, there was an estimated 8.3% loss in forest cover, partly because land was cleared to make way for shrimp farms.

Sri Lanka

Between 1990 and 2005, Sri Lanka had the world’s highest rate of deforestation. Deforestation is attributed mainly to the rise of the plantation sector, particularly for coconut production.  However, since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has made significant progress in protecting and preserving its forests, with 22 national parks and a newly-added UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2015, the country declared all mangrove forests to be protected by law. The country also plans to quadruple the size of the Sinharaja Rainforest to 36 000 hectares, which is the country’s only UNESCO Heritage Site- listed rainforest with over 50% of the country’s endemic species and 60% of endemic trees  found in this rainforest. The country hopes to utilise the forest’s bufferzone and incorporate nearby defragmented forests into the rainforest

However, this progress was marred when the state built a second international airport inside a bird sanctuary in 2013 in the south of the country. This project, along with two expressways which run through many sensitive environmental areas, was seen as a major setback in the government’s promise towards environmental protection. Although the state has been paramount in setting out legislation, it has been the work of grassroot community action which has spearheaded Sri Lanka’s protection of forests. There are women-led initiatives that cultivate mangrove ecosystems which allow for the careful fishing of prawns which reside in mangrove ecosystems. Other citizen-led groups, such as Reforest Sri Lanka, have been planting trees in neglected areas such as abandoned tea estates. Despite the failings of the government to protect its forests, citizen-led groups have been educating, preserving and protecting Sri Lanka’s natural environments. 

Bhutan

Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country, which means it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces. This small mountainous country is 80.9% forested– the highest rate of forest cover in South Asia. Almost 51.4% of the country’s area is designated as natural parks and sanctuaries. The country enforces strict environmental policies such as ensuring that 60% of the country remains forested; this is also contained in the country’s constitution. Such policies fall under the country’s four pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which has helped the country concentrate on conservation and forestry. GNH is the measure of economic and moral progress of Bhutan, which differs from the typical practice of focusing on economic indicators. However the country’s rigid environmental policy has been criticised as rural communities continue to lose livestock due to the protection of snow leopards (however, the government compensates farmers for killed livestock by). 

Bhutan’s efforts should be commended both in South Asia and globally. The country’s stern environmental laws have allowed it to protect and maintain its forests, setting a precedent for the rest of the world.

South Asia is fast developing economically and is experiencing rapid population growth. If countries in South Asia are to combat global warming, they will have to work together to protect forests which transcend national boundaries such as the Sundurbans and forests on the Himalayas. Although environmental progress has been slow, concern for the environment is becoming an important macroeconomic objective of South Asian governments and with the rise of citizen-led groups and the involvement of communities, the fight for South Asia’s forests remains far from over. 

Pangolin scales have been removed from a 2020 listing of ingredients approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The move has been applauded by animal protection groups, who say that it will help curb trade of the pangolin, the most trafficked animal in the world. 

Reported by China’s Health Times newspaper, the news comes after the country’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) raised the protected status of pangolins to the highest level earlier this month with immediate effect.

Zhou Jinfeng, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, says, “I am very encouraged. Our continuous efforts for several years have not been in vain. But we still have a long way to go. We need to be vigilant about so-called ‘captive breeding’ and medicinal research because some wrong findings could lead to the wrong policy decisions.”

You might also like: Study Projects 30% More Forest Cover if Wood Biomass is Managed Right

The trade of all eight species of pangolin are protected under international law and three of the four of these species are native to Asia, which are included on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered species, including the functionally extinct Chinese pangolin.  

In February, the China’s National People’s Congress enforced a ban on the consumption of meat from wild animals, although clarification as to what wildlife will still be allowed for use in TCM and the fur and leather industries is expected once China finalises the revisions to its wildlife protection law. 

Although the SFGA currently permits TCM pharmaceutical companies to use parts from previous stockpiles or so called, poorly regulated ‘farmed’ wildlife, this practice is shown to enable the trafficking of animals. 

Up to 200 000 pangolins are consumed each year in Asia for their scales and meat. More than 130 tons of scales and live and dead animals were seized in cross-border trafficking busts in 2019, which is estimated to represent up to 400 000 animals

Pangolin meat is eaten by China’s elite in the hope of reaping health or sexual benefits, even though early TCM texts warn against eating the animals.

Since 2015, more than 14 000 whole pangolins have been seized at border crossings in Asia, with 95% of those in shipments of 21 animals or more. 99% of all whole pangolin seizures have occurred in Asia, with 24% of those at China’s borders, followed by Vietnam and India. Most whole pangolins are trafficked from Laos, Thailand and India. 

Amanda Shaver, a wildlife crime analyst with C4ADS, says, “There has been a significant drop in reporting on pangolin seizures since December 2019. This is most likely due to the increased media focus and coverage on COVID-19, but our databases have not recorded a single seizure of whole pangolin in Asia in 2020.”

Regarding seizures of pangolin scales, in the past five years, 32% have been at mainland China’s border, although Hong Kong accounted for 17%. C4ADS says that the top sources for scales are Nigeria (25%), Malaysia (17%) and Indonesia (12%). 

Featured image by: A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF 

A study shows that within 50 years, a billion people will either be displaced or forced to live in insufferable heat for every 1°C rise in global temperature, illustrating that the human cost of the climate crisis will be far worse than previously believed. 

The paper, which examines how the climate crisis will affect human habitats, warns that under worst-case scenarios of increasing emissions, areas where a third of the global population currently live will be as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara desert within 50 years.

Even in the most optimistic outlook, a rise in global temperature will cause 1.2 billion people to fall outside the comfortable ‘climate niche’ where humans have lived for at least 6 000 years.

Tim Lenton, one of the researchers in the study, says, “The numbers are flabbergasting. I literally did a double take when I first saw them. I’ve previously studied climate tipping points, which are usually considered apocalyptic. But this hit home harder. This puts the threat in very human terms.”

You might also like: Urban Agriculture: How Viable Is It?

The majority of humans have always lived in regions where the average annual temperatures are around 6°C to 28°C, ideal for human health and food production. However, this range is shifting and shrinking as a result of anthropogenic climate change, which is dropping more and more people into what the paper describes as ‘near unliveable’ extremes.

The researchers say that they are shocked at how sensitive humanity is, because we are concentrated on land- which is warming faster than the oceans- and because most future population growth will be in already hot regions of Asia and Africa. Because of these demographic factors, the average human will experience a temperature increase of 7.5°C when global temperatures reach 3°C warming.

At this temperature, about a third of the world’s population would live in average temperatures of 29°C, conditions that are rare outside of the most scorched part of the Sahara, but with global heating of 3°C, this is expected to be the norm for 1.2 billion people in India, 485 million people in Nigeria and more than 100 million in each of Pakistan, Indonesia and Sudan. This would create hundreds of millions more climate refugees and pose challenges to food production systems. In fact, David Wallas- Wells, the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” says that even at 2.5°C warming, the world would enter a global food deficit- needing more calories than the planet can produce, mostly thanks to drought.

Professor Marten Scheffer, one of the lead authors of the study, says, ““We did not expect humans to be so sensitive. We think of ourselves as very adaptable because we use clothes, heating and air conditioning. But, in fact, the vast majority of people live- and have always lived- inside a climate niche that is now moving as never before. There will be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6 000 years.”

The authors hope that their findings spur policymakers to accelerate emission cuts and work together to cope with migration.

In late 2018, the UN World Meteorological Organization warned that global temperatures are on course for a 3-5°C rise this century, far overshooting the Paris Agreement target of limiting this increase to 2°C or less by 2100.

According to estimates from over 70 peer-reviewed studies, Carbon Brief paints a grim picture of the world under 2°C, 3°C and 4°C temperature rise this century:

At two degrees, the melting of ice sheets will pass a tipping point of collapse, triggering flooding in dozens of the world’s major cities and resulting in a global sea-level rise of 56cm. It is estimated that that global GDP will be cut by 13%. 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity and heat waves in the northern latitudes will kill thousands each summer; this will be worse along the equator. In India, there would be 32 times as many extreme heat waves, each lasting five times as long and exposing 93 times more people. This is our best-case scenario.

At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. The average drought in Central America would last 19 months, in the Caribbean, 21 and in northern Africa, 60 months- five years. Those areas burned annually by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple in the US. Cities from Miami Beach to Jakarta will be submerged by sea-level rise and damages from river flooding will grow 30-fold in Bangladesh, 20-fold in India and up to 60-fold in the UK. This level of warming is better than we’d do if all of the nations of the world honoured their Paris commitments- which only a handful are.

At four degrees, there would be eight million cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone. Global grain yields would fall by as much as 50%, producing annual or close-to-annual food crises. The global economy would fall more than 30% than without climate change, and we would see at least half again as much conflict and warfare as we do today.

While great strides have been made in terms of the plummeting costs of renewable energy and the increasing global divestment from coal, carbon emissions are still growing. It is important to decrease emissions to level and then bend the curve.

One way of doing this is through a carbon tax. However, a tax needs to be far higher than any of those currently in use or being considered; The IPCC has proposed raising the cost of a tonne of carbon possibly as high as US$5 000 by 2030; they suggest this may have to increase by US$27 000 by 2100. Today, the average price of carbon across 42 major economies is US$8 per tonne.

These numbers would shock even those most optimistic; if estimates are correct, then by the end of the century, a rise in global temperature will displace up to 5 billion people, nearly two-thirds of the current global population.

Featured image by: Oxfam East Africa

Efforts are being made in various places around Asia, including China, India, Singapore and Hong Kong, to combat the plastic waste crisis. What do they include and how effective are they?

Plastic Issue in Asia

China has announced plans to ban all single-use plastics by 2025, replacing them with bio-products and non-plastic products. In a country where the standard of living is continuously improving, demand for plastic goods will no doubt follow. Can China show the world that it is capable of a ‘green revolution’? 

Straws, plastic bags, and cutlery are all being targeted under the new legislation. It doesn’t stop there: shampoo and conditioner miniatures will no longer be offered during hotel stays either. Landfills in China are overflowing faster than anyone imagined, and the problem can no longer be ignored. In 2017, China implemented a ban on foreign plastic waste. For a country that has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, this is a drastic move, one signaling a changing attitude towards plastics and waste management.

Pek Hai Lin, executive director of Singapore-based environmental group Zero Waste SG, says that the ban may have resulted in an excess supply of recyclable materials across countries and a drop in the prices.

She says, “With buying prices of cardboard going as low as 4 cents per kg, it might not be worth the effort on collectors’ part to recycle much of it.” Prices used to be around 10 cents per kg prior to the ban.

You might also like: Saving the Ocean’s Invisible Forests

How Will the New Policy Work?

The new ban will outlaw the distribution of single use straws and plastic bags in major cities by the end of 2020. This is certainly a lofty goal in a country of 1.4 billion, but the ban will occur in stages, with the final goal of banning all single use plastics in all cities and towns by 2025. This format of the ban, initially starting with certain restrictions and advancing to a complete ban over time, is meant to ease Chinese residents into the transition. If the recent ban on plastic bags in New York is any indication, it is a good idea to bolster public education campaigns and awareness-building to ensure that the policy is effective and well-received. 

The ban was announced in January of this year, and outlines a commitment to utilising alternative materials instead of plastic, which could include compostable plastics.

Less Plastic= More Reliance on What?

China is the world’s largest plastic producer, and is responsible for 30% of global marine plastic pollution. Between 5 and 12 million metric tons of plastic are produced in China each month.

For a major oil-dependent country like China, the ban will create a heavier reliance on alternatives to petroleum-based products. The new policy states that the Chinese government will ‘promote the use of non-plastic products’, including cloth, paper, and degradable bags, and establish a system to reuse shopping bags in shopping centers. There is also a focus on ‘bio-based’ products made from plant materials that will compost or biodegrade. 

Production of these bio-plastics is expected to climb by more than 15% per year up to at least 2022 in China. Despite the rising popularity of these products, production remains insignificant with just 2.27 million tonnes produced in 2017, compared to a global plastic production of 335 million tonnes.

Plastic Alternatives Require Specialised Infrastructure

Banning plastic is not as simple as it may seem. In addition to educating the public and enlisting support from the communities affected, cities and towns must be able to successfully dispose of the new kinds of replacement products. China plans to beef up and revamp domestic recycling capabilities in order to manage this new kind of waste. In 2017 China announced a goal of recycling 35 percent of waste by 2020. To do so, cities will be setting up recycling facilities, building waste transport systems, creating online information resources and discouraging waste by charging for disposal. Steps towards this goal include setting targets and launching pilot programs. One such program to manage waste in Shanghai focuses on improving the sorting of waste, while also creating 10 new recycling centers in the one city alone. A modern recycling system in China may also require imported technology and expertise, according to Plastic Recycling Update. By the end of 2020, cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing and all capitals of provincial regions will be required to have their plans and regulations in place. 

According to a news release, Weng Yunxuan, secretary-general of the China Plastic Processing Industry Association’s degradable plastic committee is optimistic about the plans; “The ban will not be imposed all of a sudden, but phase by phase. The current production capacity (for substitute products) in China will not fail to meet the market gap caused by the ban.” 

Producing these substitutes may not be an issue, but for a country that either burns- nearly half of the country’s waste is burned in incinerators- or sends to landfills nearly all of it’s trash, effective recycling systems are a necessity and enforcement of the ban has to be reliable to show the rest of Asia, and the world, that banning plastic waste is a feasible solution. 

India Bans Plastic

China is not the only country in Asia imposing bans on plastic waste. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India generates 26 000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. Beginning in 2018, India’s government imposed a ban on plastics in the state of Maharashtra, however pushback from the plastic lobby and poor implementation of fines failed to curb the plastic tide. Eventually the government lifted the ban on several items including plastic bottles. The lack of programs in place to address waste management and the high cost of producing alternatives left people with few other options and illegal plastic trade boomed.

The government says that it will instead ask states to enforce existing rules against storing, manufacturing and using some single-use plastic products such as polythene bags and styrofoam, as well as educate the public on the ill-effects of plastic.

Regulations don’t exist in a vacuum, and therefore it is imperative for governments to work within cultural and social norms and existing economic structures if they hope to see success with plastic bans in the future. 

Hong Kong and Singapore’s Battle with Plastic Waste

These cities in Asia both have massive plastic waste problems, which will no doubt become all the worse as it can no longer send waste to China.

The government introduced the Plastic Shopping Bag Charging Scheme in 2009 and enhanced it in 2015 to reduce the use of plastic bags in the city. However, recent statistics from the Environmental Protection Department have indicated that the average daily disposal quantity of plastic bags in 2017 rose to 793 metric tons, just short of the 867 ton level recorded in 2008, a year before the levy scheme was introduced.

Furthermore, a recent survey showed that in supermarket chains, around 90% of vegetables and fruit are packaged in plastic, sometimes using multiple materials. This packaging problem has been made all the worse by the rise in popularity of online shopping.

In 2018, Hong Kongers sent an average of 1.53kgs per person of solid waste to landfills every day. The city sent a total of 5.87 million tonnes of solid waste to local landfills in 2018. Just 30% of solid waste was recycled in the city in 2018, which is made all the more concerning due to the fact that recycling facilities in the city are very basic, sorted by hand.

There are continuous calls from environmentalists and consumers alike that the government should adopt tougher and more pro-active measures to regulate the use of plastic packaging. Additionally, recycling facilities in the city need to be bolstered.

In 2017, it was estimated that Hong Kong threw away 5.2 million bottles every day. According to Patrick Yeung Chung-wing, a project manager for ocean conservation at WWF Hong Kong, about 80% of the city’s marine litter is plastic, especially disposable products such as plastic bottles, plastic bags and packaging material. 

Similarly, Singapore is battling to combat waste that is sent to landfills, however, it is making positive steps through public education.

Last year, the Republic sent almost three million tonnes of trash to its only landfill on Semakau Island- almost 30% of that was plastic waste, followed by food waste at 20%, and paper and cardboard waste at 19%.

While there was a 6% reduction in the total amount of waste generated last year compared with 2018, overall recycling rates to 59% from 61% in 2018, which could have been influenced by China’s ban on foreign plastic waste ; the Republic’s National Environment Agency (NEA) says that 34% of Singapore’s recyclables are exported, so ‘the status of the external market and policy of other countries towards recyclables would have a significant impact on our recycling rate’. 

Last year, the government outlined its first Zero Waste Masterplan to reduce the amount of waste sent to its landfill by 30% by 2030, put in place to extend the landfill’s lifespan beyond the projected 2035.

While these cities in Asia are no doubt making efforts to tackle and reduce the plastic waste crisis plaguing them, it is essential that these policies and efforts are correctly regulated to avoid them making no significant gains or even collapsing. Without effective intervention by both states and citizens, the planet will continue to be inundated with plastic waste, which will have disastrous consequences for the health of the planet and those who inhabit it. 

Featured image by: Thibaud Saintin

This piece was written with Ariella Simke.

All around the world, high mountain ranges have glacial water supplies known as water towers, which account for half the global population’s freshwater supply. However, these ecosystems are highly vulnerable to subtle environmental changes and a recent report by Nature suggests that water towers may disappear in the next 30 years, threatening the water supply of nearly two billion people.

Rising global temperatures and reduced rainfall are the two main factors in the shrinking availability of water in water towers. While these areas usually act as natural reservoirs, providing populations with clean water even through droughts, less glacier ice and rapidly increasing water consumption are threatening this resource.

What are water towers?

The term ‘water tower’ describes the importance of mountains meeting freshwater needs for adjacent areas downstream. 

Mountainous regions generate higher runoff seasonally due to orographic precipitation- snow and rainfall caused by moist air rising over mountains. Due to low temperatures at high altitudes, water is stored in snow and glaciers in mountains, therefore delaying the release of water and enabling mountains to have a buffering capacity. 

What are water towers for?

This means that downstream and upstream communities have a consistent supply of water for irrigation, energy and local ecosystems from water towers. Mountain systems are also home to around 50% of the global biodiversity hotspots, containing one third of terrestrial species diversity and rich plant diversity. 

Apart from regulating the hydrosphere and biosphere, the world’s mountains provide a host of other ecosystem services such as food supply and genetic resources for agriculture and medicine, with major crops such as wheat, rice, oats and grapes having originated or diversified into multiple varieties in mountain regions. Further, various indigenous communities who live in these regions have a wealth of traditional knowledge on climate adaptation, water and land management that needs to be preserved. However, rising temperatures are reducing glacier mass and increasing the rate of ice melt in warmer months and there isn’t enough cold weather to make up for this during other parts of the year.

Importance of Water Towers

Until now, the world’s mountain systems have never been quantified according to their importance or vulnerability. Researchers set out to fill this gap and studied 78 water towers globally. They ranked mountain systems in order of their supply of water, and demand for this water from adjacent lowland communities. The water tower’s vulnerability to future shocks include factors like hydro-political tension, government effectiveness, climate change, population change, baseline water stress and projected change in GDP. The quality and quantity of these freshwater supplies are essential to large populations, especially considering that less than 1% of the earth’s water is fit for human consumption.

Water towers most threatened with future scarcity primarily exist in Asia. The most relied-upon water tower is the Indus Basin, supplying water to India, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

In fact, nearly all important water towers in Asia, such as Amu Darya and Ganges-Brahmaputra, were found to be more vulnerable than mountains in other countries. This is because these regions tend to be transboundary, densely populated and have competing land use needs. Unfortunately, these factors are met with weak governance and geopolitical tension, amplified by the worsening effects of the climate crisis, leaving Asia’s water towers in a highly vulnerable state.

South America’s water towers are just as vulnerable, more so than Europe and North America. However, even mountain towers in the developed world like the Colorado River Basin, the Rhone and the Po are vulnerable to pressures such as population growth and temperature rise.

Anthropogenic changes, such as the climate crisis, have been long identified by scientists as a leading driver of unprecedented and irreversible changes in mountain systems. Mountains are warming faster than the global average- temperatures high in the Himalayas have increased by nearly 2 degrees Celsius since the start of the century, 1 degree higher than the planetary average. 

Population growth and increased consumption also deplete water resources in mountain regions. For example, the population in communities dependent on the Indus River is expected to increase by 50% in the next few decades. The human factor plays just as significant a role as reduced rainfall and higher temperatures, if not more, since human activity is proliferating these conditions.

The climate crisis will affect the shape and size of glaciers and the level, frequency and intensity of precipitation. Countries that are socioeconomically vulnerable facing issues such as conflict over water rights, such as India and Pakistan, will be hard hit by the climate crisis, even with minute changes in the hydrological cycle in mountains. 

What Are the Solutions?

Mitigating the effects of the climate crisis will be the most pressing issue of the future. If global warming increases by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists predict that 80% of water in tower storage units will evaporate by the end of this century. 

Communities affected by the inevitable consequences of changing water towers such as reduced water shortage in mountains, are already adapting. In Ladakh, located in the Indian region of the Himalayas, an engineer Sonam Wangchuk has come up with a solution to bring glaciers to people. He builds glacier stupas, small piles of ice that provide irrigation for farmers to counter shrinking glaciers and unpredictable rainfall. 

The research concludes with a call to protect Earth’s water towers with a global, mountain-specific approach, focusing on local water conservation policy and transboundary cooperation in affected countries, along with global climate mitigation actions to prevent the degradation of the cryosphere.

Increased water usage by growing populations and heightened power generation are lowering water storage units faster than the environment can replenish itself. Better managing water resources will be significant in minimising the impact of upcoming scarcity and preserving precious water for future generations. 

This piece was written jointly by Emily Folk and Lavanya Prakash.

The largest mangrove forest in the world in the Sundarbans is shrinking. A new coal power plant might wreak havoc on the already vulnerable region.

The Sundarbans: The World’s Largest Mangrove Forest 

The Sundarbans- the largest continuous mangrove forest on the planet that spans more than 10 000 sq km along the Bay of Bengal- is shrinking. Thanks to human encroachment and climate change, the forest has been losing almost 16 sq km of vegetation per year since 1991.  Earth.Org’s own analysis based on satellite imagery shows that in Bangladesh, home to the largest swath of Sundarbans mangroves, the forest has lost 442 sq km of its vegetation in the last 28 years. 71% of the forested coastline is also retreating by as much as 200 metres a year due to coastline erosion. 

Containing multiple UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites within itself, the Sundarbans forest is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. The flora is comprised of a rich mosaic of different types of vegetation; half of all known 110 mangrove species are found within the delta. It is home to over 260 bird species, Indian otters, spotted deer, wild boar, fiddler crabs, mud crabs, three marine lizard species and five marine turtle species dwell in this impervious maze. The forest also hosts endangered species like the estuarine crocodile, Indian python and the iconic Bengal tiger. The mangrove ecosystem plays an indispensable role as breeding and nursery ground coastal fisheries in the Bay of Bengal. 

The Sundarbans is also a natural barrier that protects over 6.5 million people who live in the region from tides and cyclones. For the inhabitants of surrounding areas, the forest is an abundant source of subsistence. 

Human interference in the form of upstream agriculture, industrial shrimp farming, logging and hydrologic interventions have been gradually deteriorating the mangrove ecosystem. 

Active human encroachment is coupled with the collateral effects of the climate crisis.  The forested coastline is being rapidly overtaken by rising sea levels and storm surges. The increased salinity of the soil has made hectares of mangroves weaker and more vulnerable to retrenchment. Scientists warn that a continuing coastline retreat will trigger major mangrove disappearance within the next 50 years. 

You might also like: The Climate Crisis Could Increase Volcano Eruptions

Earth.Org used NASA’s Landsat satellite data to generate images to analyse the changes in vegetation in Sunderbans.

A new threat 

Construction of a new cross-border coal-fired power plant is underway in the nearby town of Rampal. Despite strong opposition from UNESCO, the 1320-megawatt plant is set to start generating power by March 2021. 

Leading conservationists argue the power plant would spew thousands of tons of toxic coal ash and air pollutants, and discharge mercury-laden water at varying temperature into rivers, damaging water quality.

“Despite objections from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh has approved more than 320 industrial projects in the area, including the massive Rampal coal-fired power plant, bypassing requirements for public participation and environmental impact assessment,” says United Nations (UN) expert John H. Knox

Preservation of Mangrove Forest in Sunderbans

The bilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and India and the Ramsar Convention had improved conservation strategies at the Sunderbans in the last decade. But experts say it is highly critical to avoid human pressure on the wetland and its resources in the future too. Both governments need to take environmental concerns into account while installing industrial projects near the mangrove forest.  

Governments should invest towards agricultural techniques that mitigate damage caused by environmental changes and by the encroaching threat of the fossil fuel industry. Traditional practices endemic to the region can adapt to periodic ecosystem disruptions, such as rising sea levels or waterlogging. An example includes a practice in Bangladesh of implementing floating cultivation systems that utilise soilless beds made from seaweed. Sustainable and regionally traditional agriculture can significantly increase the market value of commodities. If traditional and sustainable agriculture becomes the norm in the region, the value of commodities will rise and revenue from foreign markets will increase substantially. With more diversified revenue streams, the state can justify the higher cost of implementing renewable energy infrastructure rather than allowing the region to become reliant on fossil fuels.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Hand-picked stories once a fortnight. We promise, no spam!

SUBSCRIBE
Instagram @earthorg Follow Us