Protecting the environment

Jun 05 2020

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EVEN though the novel coronavirus pandemic has put many burning issues on the back-burner, it still presents an opportunity to reflect on the direction the world had been moving towards in recent decades, and to course correct. Of course, the dream of a better world cannot come to fruition until we change our basic value systems. Since today marks World Environment Day, it is a good time to reflect on our attitudes towards the natural world, as we battle disaster on multiple fronts. While much of modern civilisation has been forced to pause, the effects of climate change — largely the consequence of decades of human recklessness — can still be felt. In Bangladesh, a cyclone has left thousands in need of humanitarian support. While cyclones and flooding are not out-of-the-ordinary occurrences in Bangladesh, they have intensified in recent years. But an even greater calamity may have unfolded had the government there not acted as quickly as it did to ensure 10,500 more shelters were available for those affected, along with overseeing a 70,000-strong volunteer force to mitigate the disaster. Additionally, sanitisers, masks, soap and water were made available to them, while social distancing methods were reportedly implemented. In a world that seems to be falling apart, with much of its leadership missing, in denial, or shifting blame, this is a shining example of the power of collective action and a government taking charge. Imagine if similar preventive measures were applied to the environment, keeping the long-term view in mind.

Five years ago, the Paris Agreement was drafted with the goal of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Five years later, global greenhouse gas emissions are said to have gone down, but primarily because of circumstances few could have predicted, rather than through human will and the formulation and implementation of environment-friendly policies. To curtail the rapid spread of the coronavirus, governments around the world had to enforce lockdowns, disrupting economic activities and travel. However, these lockdowns deeply hurt the poorest sections of society, amid much suffering and death — so there is little cause to celebrate. Scientists and experts are also sceptical of how long these changes will last, given the trends in recent history.

Then there is the fear that perhaps it is already too late: a recent study in Nature Climate Change says that, even if global greenhouse gas emissions were to be drastically reduced, the world’s oceans may still continue to heat up in the latter half of this century, further unsettling the already endangered marine biodiversity. But what feels like the end of times sometimes turns out to be a period of transition. Change is in motion: for the first time in more than 130 years, renewable energy sources have surpassed coal in the United States.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2020