Defining moment for earth: South Asia faces grave environmental concerns

South Asia Monitor, June 04, 2022

By George Cheriyan and Simi T.B.

Earth continues to grapple with an array of challenges apart from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Enduring crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, depletion of natural resources, and ever-increasing population, pollution and waste have already become the biggest threat to the existence of the earth.

Last year, the Earth Overshoot Day 2021 representing the date humanity has used up all the biological resources the planet regenerates each year happened on July 29, almost a month earlier than the year before. The fact that this day keeps moving backward every year itself proves to us that emissions are on the rise and biodiversity loss is speeding up.

Challenging the ecosystem

Unsustainable consumption to meet both human needs and greed has caused extreme environmental distress and is now threatening the existence of other species on the planet. Reports indicate that the world is losing 10,000 times more species per year than the normal rate and has already lost in the last 50 years almost 70 percent of animal populations worldwide largely due to human consumption, urbanization, population growth, unsustainable agricultural practices and increase in trade.

The situation in South Asia too is neither promising. IPBES Asia Pacific Regional Assessment Report documents that South Asia’s biodiversity loss is at a critical stage. Many charismatic species including the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Asian Elephant, the Asiatic Lion, the Snow Leopard, the Red Panda and the One-horned Rhino are all listed as globally threatened species. The World Bank has warned that even a partial collapse of ecosystem services would cost 2.3 percent of global GDP in 2030, and South Asia alone could lose 6.5 percent of their real GDP. So if unsustainable practices are not put to a stop and if nothing changes, species populations will soon diminish to an extent that will threaten the integrity of the ecosystems on which our survival depends.

Fossil fuel

The International Energy Agency, the world’s leading energy organisation, warned the countries last year that the exploitation and development of new oil and gas fields must stop immediately and no new coal-fired power stations are built if the world is to stay within safe limits of global heating and meet the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Therefore, the present energy crisis in both Europe due to ongoing war and in the South Asian region due to the shortage of coal could be utilized as an opportunity to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

According to World Bank, in South Asia, energy production is still primarily based on fossil fuels. The greenhouse gases generated through energy production represent 63 percent of regional emissions. It’s also reported that more than 1 million deaths a year in South Asia are attributed to air pollution from fossil fuels. Therefore transitioning to clean energy is not only essential for the region to meet the global climate goals but also to ensure better health of its population.

However, this rush to renewable energy should be carefully approached. For instance, easily affordable renewable energy solar panels need to be made more efficient before introducing it on a large scale as currently, the conversion of captured solar energy into usable energy and distribution is extremely inefficient. So the focus should be on improving the efficiency of solar panels, its storage and distribution.

Likewise, introducing electric vehicles will not be a sustainable solution if these vehicles use electricity from grids that are predominantly using coal. It would only become a sustainable initiative when such vehicles are charged from a zero-carbon grid.

Broken food system

Extensive usage of chemical fertilizers, growth regulators, pesticides, fungicides and insecticides during cultivation is affecting not only the health of farmers and local community but also both biodiversity and the nutritional quality of the food cultivated. This affects the health of end consumers too. It has been reported that agriculture alone accounts for 25 percent of the South Asian region greenhouse gases, emitting more than industry (4 percent) and waste (3 percent).

Besides, a World Bank 2021 report points out that the region is over-exploiting its water resource, primarily for agricultural activities. Almost 90 percent of available fresh water in the region is used in agriculture, and nearly half of groundwater too is used for irrigation. Therefore, increasing the resource efficiency of agriculture is imperative to meet the climate goals and ensure food and nutrition security in a water-stressed and energy-poor region. Technology and skills can help in this regard.

Careless consumption

Consumers across the globe are harming the environment with their excessive consumption behaviour, dependence on plastic products and packaging and careless use of energy and other natural resources. It is reported that South Asia alone produces around 300 million tonnes of solid waste annually and 70–80 percent of these ends up in water bodies or in oceans. Of these, around 27 million tonnes of largely non-biodegradable plastic is also ending up in rivers and oceans every year in South Asia alone.

What is needed is a realization within every human that we cannot continue to grow as a species and enjoy a high quality of life without changing the way we do things. Consumers certainly do have a huge role to play in achieving sustainable development as they hold the power to influence production decisions, based on what goods and services they purchase. If consumers prefer to buy sustainable products and services, it would result in a higher demand for such products and services.

Tackle it together

It’s time to take some bold and transformative steps in every sector to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. We have already lost much time, resources and political will tackling the pandemic. It is high time we now learn to tackle it along by addressing climate change and sustainable development goals (SDGs) even more strongly with strong political leadership.

But for that the world needs to mobilise all resources, financial and technological resources, to support and implement SDGs. Business should spur innovation, unleash low-carbon investments and power sustainable growth. Consumers must learn to act more responsibly. Together, on World Environment Day on June 5, we need to act because there is only one earth and it has reached a defining moment. It is now or never.

(George Cheriyan is Director and Simi T.B is Policy Analyst at CUTS International, a global public policy research and consumer advocacy group. @GCheriyan @Simi_TB. Views are personal)

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