Suman Sahai | In India, has the environment now been destroyed beyond recovery?

Update: 2023-11-19 18:35 GMT

With dramatic changes in the climate overtaking our world, the ferocious pollution in Delhi, the most polluted city in the world and across North India, the irony should not be lost on anyone that world leaders will be sitting down to yet another ineffectual talkathon on arresting climate change just over a week from now.

The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference will be held in Dubai from November 30 to December 12, 2023. The main meeting will be the COP 28 (28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties) as well as the 18th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol. And the fifth meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement.

The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was an international treaty to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases causing global warming. Industrial countries with high emissions were required to cut back more than the less polluting developing countries.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 was a pledge to keep global temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to aim to keep the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The hyperbolic agenda of COP 28 is: Fast-tracking energy transition and slashing emissions before 2030; Transforming climate finance, delivering on old promises and setting the framework for a new deal on finance; Putting nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action; and even more immodestly -- Mobilising for the most inclusive COP ever. I wonder how many people believe any of this.

Nothing except hot air has emerged from these treaties and the global climate has only worsened, causing the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to despair recently that humanity has “opened the gates to hell” by allowing the climate crisis to worsen.

As if to provide the scientific underpinning to Mr Guterres’ hopelessness, a new report has just come in October titled “The 2023 State of the Climate Report: Entering Unchartered Territory”. Brought out by Oxford University Press, the report is authored by a multi-disciplinary team of scientists from different countries. 

The headline message of the report is that “Life on Planet Earth is under Siege and we are now in Unchartered Territory’’ This bald, terrifying statement says in so many words that it is possibly too late to reverse the damage done to the climate and that it is going to get increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to predict the timing, the nature and severity of anomalous events that will take place in the future.

2023 will probably turn out to be a benchmark year when many planetary boundaries were irretrievably breached. In July, 2023 was recorded as the hottest year on record. Scientists derive from paleo evidence that this July was probably the hottest in 100,000 years. If that doesn’t sound crazy enough, July 2023 is also when the Antarctic Sea ice reached its lowest level so far and unprecedented numbers of wildfires were seen across temperate areas, particularly in North America.

Asia is turning out to be particularly vulnerable to climate upheavals and disasters. We are seeing the increasingly vulnerable state of North India, particularly in the Indo-Gangetic plains, where high levels of pollution persist for months and uncharacteristic weather events have become more frequent. Cloud bursts and heavy monsoon rains cause flash floods and landslides in northern India. The heavy, nonstop rain for three days starting with a cloud burst wrought havoc in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand in 2021. If the devastating floods of Pakistan in 2022 and the frequent flooding in Bangladesh and China are any indication, the Asian region has already slipped into a highly atypical weather pattern.

The climate of the regions around the Hindukush and Himalayan mountains is directly influenced by the snow-capped ranges which are bearing the brunt of global warming. Glaciers here are melting at a quickened pace. It is estimated that over half of the earth’s 215,000 glaciers will melt by the end of the century, even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Images captured by Nasa satellites reveal that the Himalayas have already lost about one third of their permanent ice (permafrost) in just the last 50 years. This has serious implications for the water availability in the major rivers of North India.

When glaciers melt and retreat, glacial lakes are formed collecting the melted water. These are fragile, highly unstable structures that can rupture their banks easily, resulting in large volumes of water flowing down in torrents, producing devastating floods. Such GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods) are becoming more frequent. A GLOF event is what caused the 2013 Kedarnath disaster, when at least 5000 people lost their lives.

A GLOF is also what caused the flash floods in Sikkim in 2023 where along with a significant number of lives lost, huge damage was caused to expensive infrastructure, including Chungthang dam and hydroelectric power project. In a swiftly warming world, there is a greater likelihood we will see more instances of catastrophic floods caused when the unstable glacial lakes breach their insubstantial banks. As it is, satellite data show that the last 30 years have seen a big surge in the volume of glacial lakes.

All this tells us how precarious our hold now is on the planet that has sustained human civilisations over millennia. Population growth coupled with an economic growth model that is anchored in a rapacious appetite for more and more has extracted more resources and emitted more pollutants that the environment could handle. We have destroyed the equilibrium of nature. I could end on a prescription of “What to Do” to make things good again, but the solutions have been screamed from the rooftops at every COP meeting. Only, nobody listened. I am afraid that they will not listen at COP 28 either.


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