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2021-2030: A decisive decade for Earth. Will we be able to carve for ourselves a habitable future?


Global warming, Pollution, Biodiversity Loss
A planet in crisis

According to climate scientists, the global maximum average temperature rise should not be allowed to increase beyond 1.5°C to avoid tipping points that would render the earth uninhabitable for all living organisms. To achieve this, the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) needs to be reduced by 43% by 2030 and carbon dioxide emissions should reach net zero by 2050. And even if we achieve this, our Mother Earth will inevitably exceed this temperature threshold temporarily but will probably return to below it by the end of the century.

Hence, the next few years are crucial for the planet and our collective actions towards the common objective (to reduce GHGs by 43% by 2030) will decide whether we can heal our planet and save ourselves in the process.

 
Some Snippets of Observation during my stay at Bokaro
  • Every time as the Howrah Ranchi Intercity Express leaves Chandrapura station and enters Bokaro Steel City and the illuminated outline of the Bokaro Steel Plant comes into view, I feel profound sadness at the view because I can never see a clear view of the plant but only a smoky one. The sky is always filled up with smoke and other gases coming out of chimneys, flare stacks etc.

  • In my daily travel (for work) across the city (Bokaro) into the countryside, I often see men and women, at times children, covered in coal dust, on the roadsides carrying overloaded sacks of coal on their backs or bicycles for selling to the interested buyer. Easy availability and easy cash have made these locals (who are uneducated and without an alternate source of income) largely dependent on these illegal coal mining activities for sustenance.

  • Also, as I travel through the sparsely populated countryside, I am disheartened to find plastic waste scattered everywhere where human settlements are there.

  • During my weekend travels from Bokaro to Howrah, as my train (Ranchi-Howrah Shatabdi) crosses Chandrapura station and moves towards Dhanbad, I can see heaps of coal on both sides of the track. In some places, one can see smoke rising from the heaps, even coal-burning fires in some heaps while children are playing nearby and inhaling the toxic fumes. The children know no other way of life!

    • This route between the Chandrapura and Dhanbad is a changed route which was diverted in 2017 due to safety concerns. Initially this section of the track used to pass through the unstable Jharia coalfields which have been burning for more than 100 years. These underground fires at Jharia have created numerous sinkholes over the years which have engulfed lives of many. In addition to this, it is also a huge health and environmental concern as the burning of coals emit all sorts of particulates and gases (which includes GHGs) into the atmosphere.

The state of Jharkhand, much of which lies on the Chota Nagpur Plateau, has a beautiful topography and hosts 40% of India's mineral resources. The Jharia coalfield in Jharkhand is known to be the largest coal reserve in India with an estimated reserve of 19.4 billion tonnes of coking coal. About 8% of the state's revenue comes from coal mining taxes and royalties. The coal mining sector is not only responsible for livelihoods in the mining industry but several other industries viz. iron and steel, thermal power plants and other industries are dependent on this sector.

Despite these, Jharkhand remains one of the poorest and most polluted states of India. The state is thought to suffer from the "Resource Curse".


Keeping in tune with India's climate commitments (to cut climate-heating emissions to net zero by 2070 and reach 500 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030) made on the global stage (COP26), the Government of Jharkhand has constituted a 'Task Force for Sustainable Just Transition' in December 2022 with the aim to phase out coal mines and fossil fuels as the source of energy for various industries and prepare for a sustainable transition to renewable energy. This means that the government needs to find ways in tackling a heavily coal-reliant economy with alternate job prospects for the present and the future generation. Closing down coal mines without proper education and awareness, without adequate solutions and alternate opportunities will only lead to social unrest, more illegal mining and other illegal activities, and further destruction of the societal order and the environment.

Whether this sustainable transition can be achieved in the State, where many children still travel to school barefoot through burning and smoky coalfields, and their parents scavenge the coalfields for their livelihoods, remains to be seen....

 

According to most scientists, modern Homo Sapiens evolved about 1,30,000 years ago. Their modern and creative thinking manifested around 40,000 years ago and the oldest human civilization emerged some 10,000-12,000 years ago.

All through these years since the evolution of modern humans, nature and humans have existed in a perfect symbiotic relationship, evolving and working in perfect equilibrium with each other.

However, even a small tipping of this balance can affect all the interconnected systems and have an adverse effect on the planet. This is how it all changed around 1945 (when the first atomic bomb was tested), when we started our dominion over the planet with blatant disregard to the fact that we, the most unique and intelligent beings of the planet, should be the preserver of the planet which sustains us. In our selfish desire for power and acquisition, we forgot the simple fact that we are alive and well because Nature is bestowing us with it's bounty. And thus, in a span of just 70 years, we have managed to make such radical changes in the earth's climate and ecosystem that it is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable for all existing living beings.

Such is our control over the planet that our activities have majorly transformed (rather degraded) the planet in so many ways that scientists are calling this era (since the 1950s) the Anthropocene epoch; a human-impacted epoch where we hold the control to shape future of our planet.


Let's take a review on some of the major the planetary crises we face:

  • Air Pollution: Air pollution kills 6.7 million people a year, with nearly two-thirds of the premature deaths caused by fine particulate matter (PM). According to an article in The Lancet Planetary Health, only 0.001 of the global population breathes in air that is considered safe as per WHO limits. 99.82% of the global land area is exposed to PM2.5 pollution at levels higher than the recommended limit which has led to increased incidences of breathing problems, lung cancer, and heart problems. In addition to this, gaseous pollutants, (majorly oxides of carbon, sulphur, nitrogen from various sources) from various industries, transportation, power plants and other sources, are major contributors to global warming.

  • Biodiversity Loss/Species Extinction: According to a Guardian article, we have wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970.

Through millions of years of evolution, nature has produced an astounding amount of diverse species which integrate into the natural cycles and provide a perfect balance for a life-supporting ecosystem. Removal or addition of even a single species in a particular biodiversity can throw the whole cycle off-balance.

In the 1950s, the British introduced the Nile perch into Lake Victoria, in eastern Africa, as a sport fish. This large predator fed on the native fish population and caused the extinction of as many as 200 endemic species of cichlid fish. Because the cichlids are algae-feeding fish, the lake has since become choked with decomposing aquatic vegetation, depleting the oxygen in the water and leading to further species loss. -- From the book 'Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet" by Vikram Soni.
  • Global Warming: According to climate scientists, human activities have already heated the earth roughly by 1.1°C since the 19th century through carbon emissions mainly by burning fossil fuels. Even though climate predictions can never be definitive, there are numerous pieces of evidence, past data, and scientific proofs to support the following climate change projections:

    • Increased frequency of severe weather events

    • Sea level rise

    • Reduction and extinction of animal and plant species

    • Increase in ocean acidity and reduction in oxygen

    • Damage to marine and coastal ecosystems

    • A warming feedback loop

    • Increase in illness and mortality

    • Impact on food production

    • Economic Impacts

[For detailed information on Global Warming Impacts, the readers may refer to a previous blog of mine]

[For detailed information on Plastic Pollution, the readers may refer to a previous blog of mine]

  • Soil Degradation: Soil degradation is the loss of the intrinsic physical, chemical, and/or biological qualities of soil either by natural or anthropic processes. It has become a worldwide problem which has resulted in the diminution or annihilation of important ecosystem functions. About 25 per cent of the total land area has been degraded globally and when land is degraded, soil carbon and nitrous oxide are released into the atmosphere, making land degradation one of the most important contributors to climate change. The major causes that have led to soil degradation are loss of arable land due to urban expansion, overgrazing, erosion, unsustainable agricultural practices, organic matter decline, compaction, contamination from various sources, pollution, salinization, changes due to climatic changes, and loss of biodiversity.

  • Water Scarcity and Water Pollution: More than 2 billion people throughout the world live in water-stressed regions where they lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Water pollution from various sources (pesticides and fertilizer run-offs, industrial waste, untreated wastewater from domestic and other sources, oil spills, plastic pollution, radioactive pollution, etc.) has shrunk freshwater resources leading to the endangerment of the ecosystems, wildlife, and our well-being. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), polluted drinking water causes around 485,000 diarrhoea-related deaths and ocean waste kills almost a million seabirds and marine life every year.

  • Ozone Layer Depletion: The ozone layer protects the Earth from the harmful UV radiation of the sun. However, the use of Chlorofluorocarbons, emission of nitrogenous substances, and uncontrolled rocket launches have led to the depletion of the Ozone layer which may cause increased incidences of skin cancer, sunburns, cataracts, rapid ageing, and weakened immune systems in humans and animals. This excessive UV radiation may also cause the destruction of plants, and death of phytoplanktons in water bodies and consequently affect the food chain.

  • Decrease in the reproductive potential of living organisms leading to endangering of various species and extinction: Microplastic pollution, climate change, soil degradation, water pollution, air pollution have all led to ecosystem impairment and thus to a lack of suitable environment for breeding. Thus, this has led to a decrease in the reproductive potential of most living organisms worldwide.

  • Reduction in green cover: The world has lost one-third of its forest land and along with it there has been a loss of biodiversity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, a total of 20334 tree species had been included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2019a), of which 8056 were assessed as globally threatened (Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable) as of December 2019.

  • Rise in infectious diseases: As per a Nature article, the risk of disease emergence in the coming decades will increase due to climate change, rapid urbanization, and changing land-use patterns. Climate change, in particular, may alter the range of global pathogens, allowing infections, particularly vector-borne infections, to expand into new locations.

  • Depletion of Natural Resources: Ever-increasing popu lation, over-consumerism, deforestation, and resource contamination are some of the causes that have led to the global environmental problem of depletion of natural resources like oil, natural gas, coal, minerals, and many more.


While it is incumbent upon us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (43% by 2030) to save ourselves and our future generations from the impending disaster of our planet crossing the tipping point when it becomes uninhabitable from the effects of climate change, it is also necessary to preserve the existing natural ecosystems and restore whatever we have damaged.


Thus, we are faced with a mammoth challenge to bring the ecosystem in order, failing which we and our descendants are doomed to a world of ever-increasing climate crisis, afflictions, spiralling food and water scarcity, further resource destruction and escalating misery for humans and all living organisms.


Can we meet the challenges?


The onus of the challenge and the achievement of the objectives do not fall upon the industries, the corporates, the various institutions, or the governments only, but also on every individual throughout the world. But to know that a mammoth challenge exists in the first place, there should be awareness and understanding of the facts and the actions that need to be taken to meet the challenges. So education and raising awareness is the key to addressing climate change and bringing the ecosystems in order.


Following the 'Father of Green Revolution' Norman Borlaug's train of thought that human ingenuity is the solution to all our problems - we know that we can find solutions to the impending climate crisis, rather we have to if we want to survive for another millennium or more. However, while looking for alternatives and solutions to address the crises our world is facing, it is also imperative to remember that the solutions we finalize should not be such that they lead to another crisis in the long term. Example,

Borlaug's 'high yielding' seed varieties offered the prospect that postwar hunger could be averted, people could move out of poverty and that rural societies – just like new wheat varieties – could grow strong and thrive on giant fields of high-yielding crops. However, the long-term cost of depending on Borlaug's new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests.

So, in addition to looking for alternate solutions to the causes that are causing climate change and other crises, we also need to cut down our over-consumerism so that we can reduce GHG emissions, we do not drain the earth of all its natural resources and aggravate further problems. As William Vogt would say, "Cut back, cut back". According to Vogt, affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. He said, if we continue taking more than the Earth can give, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale, which already is becoming true!


It is indeed a decisive decade for us where we must constantly remind ourselves that we need to change for the betterment of our life-sustaining planet and for ourselves and our descendants, even if it is against all odds! We need to change ourselves from being a society of selfish over-consumers, hoarders, and destroyers to that of minimalists, selfless givers, nature builders, and repairers. Only then can we hope to have the odds in our favour of saving ourselves from the devastating consequences of climate change and other planetary crises.



Selected References







2 comentarios


Kaushal Pandey
Kaushal Pandey
09 jul 2023

We are gonna fail, no doubt about it


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Brishti
Brishti
09 jul 2023
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