As a student of India’s natural environment for more than six decades, I closely follow global discussions about the health of our planet and efforts to protect it. The recent 26th Conference of Parties (CoP26), a major forum where countries formulate joint action plans for mitigating climate change, ended in Glasgow with decidedly mixed results, but also with some rays of hope.
On a positive note, participating countries acknowledged that increases in temperature must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond preindustrial levels, and more than 140 countries agreed to meet the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050; with India by 2070.
But there is more here than meets the eye, as our ATREE team in Glasgow discovered as they actively participated in this process. Perhaps most surprisingly, biodiversity and nature-based solutions (NbS) were discussed intensely for the first time in the final text; they were cited as the approaches needed for “protecting, conserving and restoring nature.” I see this as a big step forward and a strong endorsement of what our organization has been advocating for years.
When it came to fossil fuels, the major source of carbon emissions, countries vigorously debated a watered-down draft of the agreement before ultimately agreeing only to phase “down,” rather than phase “out” coal. With many blaming India for diluting the fossil fuel provision, India’s Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change pointed out that there is no reason to single out coal without addressing equity. I see, however, why there was an emphasis on coal, given that it is the worst emitter of greenhouse gases among fossil fuels.
With the increasing numbers and severity of climate-induced disasters, one can legitimately question the relevance of arguing about largely unenforceable commitments that will be phased in over several decades.
Indeed, ATREE’s researchers have found that climate change is already impacting biodiversity, the economic livelihoods of the poor, and other critical issues facing India. For example, while millions are seeing the impacts of rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers in the north, dramatic shifts in the otherwise predictable monsoons are placing agricultural livelihoods of the rural poor at risk in and around the Deccan plateau and all the way to the southern tip of India.
The reality is that unaddressed climate change will continue the degradation of our soils and land, water, and biodiversity. Policy-makers are just beginning to recognize the strong link between climate change and the conservation of natural ecosystems, and not a moment too soon. At the most basic level, the biodiversity in these ecosystems sequesters carbon, whereas the loss of biodiversity leads to an increase in atmospheric carbon and worsening climate change thus exacerbating the myriad of problems we face.
There is growing evidence that if the world had retained the forest cover that existed in the recent past, temperature increases might have been significantly reduced. Now, ironically, the intensity of climate change itself threatens remaining forests through increased droughts and forest fires. We urgently need to reverse this vicious cycle.
Importantly, CoP26 did recognize these linkages, and more than 100 countries that contain 85% of the global forest cover agreed to halt deforestation by 2030. Critics argue, however, that we can’t wait that long. At ATREE, we are demonstrating through our on-the-ground programs and national policy work how the global community can rise to this challenge. For example, ATREE has played a key role in planning a National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being that will support coordinated action on these interlinked issues in selected landscapes. It was the promise of these kinds of initiatives that prompted Ms. Rohini Nilekani, an ardent defender of the environment, to pledge $7 million to ATREE, half of which is serving as a matching grant to encourage others to contribute.
India was not a signatory to the deforestation agreement. The country, nevertheless, is committed to increasing forest cover through the restoration of forest lands and agroforestry. Further, as noted in the CoP26 sessions organized by groups like the ATREE led Alliance for Reversal of Ecosystem Service Threats (AREST), the restoration of soil and above-ground biodiversity outside the protected areas constitute relatively inexpensive nature-based solutions to the problems of climate change, climate-resilient agriculture, rural employment, and alleviation of poverty.
It’s time to acknowledge just how interconnected most social, economic, and environmental issues have become, and that they now require comprehensive and timely solutions with the necessary funding to underwrite them.
Indeed, far off the radar screens of most of the media focused on climate change, were the recommendations of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the first part of meetings related to the CoP on biodiversity held earlier in October in Kunming. The IUCN statements emphasized the importance of nature-based solutions for livable planets as we recover from the pandemic.
Financial support directed from developed to developing countries for reducing emissions was a major issue during CoP26. But promises of $100 billion per year, made over a decade ago, never materialized, and more recent pledges to at least double these resource flows are highly uncertain. Funds needed in the coming years will be much higher, with India alone seeking $1 trillion in climate finance over the next decade.
Meeting this pressing need is where the private sector and philanthropic organizations have an essential role to play. Recently, high-tech giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google pledged $200 million to support restoration. That helps, but much more is required.
Climate change directly impacts many issues of concern to Indian philanthropic organizations: poverty, public health, water, air, agriculture, institutional reform, education, economy, and nature. Building the resilience of the less privileged to environmental vulnerabilities in the short term, while working to lessen environmental pressures in the longer term, could become the core of new development and giving model. A wide range of donors could step up to help fund climate change and other environmental projects as they realize how their own areas of concern will benefit, and thereby provide a model for how the governmental funds pledged in Glasgow could be best be used.
In today’s world, we need to care about the environment in order to comprehensively address perennial social problems. This approach could provide new frameworks forgiving, with both environmental amelioration and societal well-being viewed as twin, intertwined goals.
Kamaljit Bawa is the Founder and President of the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
He can be reached at email@example.com.