Counted among top four global plastic polluters, can India help save the environment?

Published February 21, 2018
INDIA is among the top four biggest plastic polluters in the world.—The Statesman
INDIA is among the top four biggest plastic polluters in the world.—The Statesman

NEW DELHI: India will be the global host of the World Environment Day on June 5 with ‘beat plastic pollution’ as the theme. This year’s edition urges governments, industry, communities and individuals to explore sustainable alternatives and urgently reduce the production and excessive use of single-use plastic that is polluting oceans, damaging marine life and threatening human health.

The World Environment Day is a UN environment-led global event, the single largest celebration of the environment. Since it began in 1972, it has grown to become a global platform, and has encouraged people to take ownership of their environment and to actively engage in its protection.

India’s minister of environment, forest and climate change, Dr Harsh Vardhan, and Head of UN Environment Erik Solheim jointly made the announcement.

“The country has demonstrated tremendous global leadership on climate change and the need to shift to a low carbon economy, and India will now help galvanise greater action on plastics pollution. It’s a global emergency affecting every aspect of our lives. It’s in the water we drink and the food we eat. It’s destroying our beaches and oceans,” Solheim said in a statement.

While Solheim called India an emerging global leader, a study by the World Economic Forum claims that by 2025, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Incidentally, India is among the top four biggest plastic polluters in the world. And, according to some reports, responsible for around 60 per cent of the 8.8 million tons of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every year. Last year, India’s National Green Tribunal banned disposable plastic such as cutlery and bags in the Delhi-National Capital Region. In the run-up to the event, pan-India plastic clean-up drives in public areas, national reserves and forests and simultaneous beach clean-up activities will be organised.

But is India really equipped to take on this role?

Facts: plastic pollution

Every year the world uses 500 billion plastic bags; each year, at least eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans, the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute.

In the last decade, we produced more plastic than in the whole last century; 50pc of the plastic we use is single-use or disposable; we buy one million plastic bottles every minute; plastic makes up 10pc of all of the waste we generate.

India and climate change

Plastic bags and climate change are linked — from air quality to ocean toxicity, plastic bags contribute to eco-system disruption.

While Solheim praised India for demonstrating tremendous global leadership on climate change and the need to shift to a low carbon economy, the country hasn’t fared well in this context.

It needs to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and aid the global community to limit planetary warming to well below 2°C, as agreed in Paris in 2015.

India currently generates 58,303.35 MW of renewable power, of which 32,508.17 MW comes from wind power. Solar energy accounts for 13,114.85 MW. This is far behind the ambitious target set by the ruling National Democratic Alliance for its renewable power programme almost two years ago — 175,000 MW, including 100,000 MW of solar power and 60,000 MW of wind power.

While the performance in wind power has been satisfactory, India may not be able to meet the 40 GW solar target by 2022. It is important for India to meet these targets to keep its commitment to help reduce global warming.

India isn’t exactly guilty of being the worst source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at 7pc. China is the biggest with 30pc of the world’s total CO2 emissions, followed by the US at 15pc.

In fact, India and Bangladesh lead the world in solar home lighting systems and the two South Asian nations together account for 97pc of the renewable energy market in the region.

But this clearly isn’t enough.

As Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of centre for science and environment, a public interest research and advocacy organisation that promotes environmentally sound and equitable development strategies, earlier told Asia News Network: “India is in deep trouble.”

“...we have had everything — heatwaves, floods, droughts, excess rainfall. India is not doing enough. I don’t think there is enough recognition of the gravity of the situation.”

India needs to tighten its belt and make that shift — move from its reliance on fossil fuels to green energy. Scientists have been warning for at least a good 30 years that unless we cut down on CO2 emissions, and unless we cut down on use of fossil fuel, our planet will be in trouble.

Being a largely agricultural economy, India may be in bigger trouble with monsoons becoming increasingly unpredictable, multiplying the misery of farmers. Media reports have already put farmer suicides at nearly 60,000 in the past three decades.

With most middle-class and urban-middle class Indians fiercely pursuing the “consumption path”, not enough people are really thinking about the environment and climate change. As Bhushan pointed out, the gravity of the situation is not sinking in — among the masses, or among the politicians.

Not enough people are thinking of reducing carbon footprints, opting for an environment-friendly lifestyle.

“The advantage is India still has very poor people who do not consume much, and therefore it has low emissions. This is the reason why an average Indian’s carbon footprint is much lower than an American’s,” Bhushan said.

It remains to be seen if India — which overtook Britain as the world’s sixth-largest economy last year, and may overtake the US to become the world’s second biggest economy by 2050 — can spearhead the movement to save our environment.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2018

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