All Talk and No Action: A Common Thread

It seems like only yesterday that we ushered in the new year, and now we are well into the third month. Although the last year was largely overshadowed by the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, one event that arguably stood out was COP26. Whether it was a success or not is another matter, but it did highlight the emergency in some ways: Sir David Attenborough’s passionate call to action, for example. In that backdrop, it is essential to see where we as a people are headed. Some may question waiting this far along into the new year to decipher directions, but recent events have put things in perspective.

In India, the budget for 2022-23 was presented. While there were some things to be optimistic about, the general consensus, depending on where you stand obviously, is that it hasn’t hit the mark, nor does it realise the seriousness of the environmental problems we are meant to tackle with the utmost sense of urgency. There is an increase in allocations for the environment ministry, the Jal Jeevan Mission (Water is life mission) and some other programmes, such as, the Save the Tiger and Deep Ocean Missions. 

The increase in the budget for production-linked incentives (PLI) had already been announced in November, but was reiterated here as well. The transition to clean energy is where the half-baked good news pretty much comes to a halt and the problems with the usual lopsided approach begin.  While the increased allocation for the environment ministry is ₹5.1 billion, the allocation for the Climate Change Action Plan is a mere ₹300 million! Additionally, mining got a boost of ₹26.74 billion. This shows the government totally missing the bus on climate resilience and adaptation, and further, despite what it may look like on the face of it, the predisposition towards industry and ‘development’ is very clear. 

 If anyone needs more convincing, do take a look at the proposed expansion of highways: a whopping 25,000 km, which experts opine will put the final nails into India’s ecological coffin. Moreover, five more river-linking projects other than the already controversial Ken-Betwa project have been planned. It is important to remember that the controversy and disputes in relation to the Ken-Betwa project had led the Indian Supreme Court to appoint a Central Empowered Committee, which had thoroughly doubted the viability of the project, stating that:

“No amount of mitigating measures can create this kind of unique ecosystem which has evolved over millions of years to reach the present level of biodiversity.”  

Unfortunately, that is not all. A bill has been tabled in the winter session of Indian Parliament that proposes to once again legalise the commercial trade of elephants, after the same had been banned for the last five decades. There was a time when India was known as one of the staunchest supporters of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, consistently raising its voice against the downgrading of any species, and itself placing the Indian as well as the Asian Elephant in List I. However, reports going back a quarter of a century from 1997 suggest that even then the country wasn't doing well; and despite that still being true, it now wants to ‘manage’ wildlife instead of conserving it. If this isn’t pandering blindly to commercial interests, what is? 

But then there is yet more that puts the stand of those meant to ‘protect’ the environment in perspective. The government has also introduced a ranking system  which is to be employed to ‘increase efficiency’ and facilitate the ‘ease of doing business.’ It ‘streamlines’ the environmental clearance (EC) process and puts a points system in place to see how quickly the permits are granted, ‘without diluting any regulatory safeguards’ and it is also reported that Indian States which take time in granting the clearance will not be ‘penalised’. Let us break that down to what it really is. Streamlining is a polite way of saying that requirements are going to be watered down, not being ‘penalised’ suggests a clear, unabashed pro-business outlook at the cost of the environment, and the no dilution-bit is clearly false because points are also allocated for the number of visits made by the authorities and the number of times documents are sought. 

It is safe to assume that there are more blows in the pipeline , given the relentless pursuit of a $5 trillion economy. 

But India is not the only one which causes sleepless flights to those fretting over the climate crisis. India’s northern neighbour, and one of the biggest economies of the world as well is, by far, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China, while it has made certain efforts and announcements to do its rather large bit to tackle the climate crisis, is yet not carrying its weight. It sets the bar too low for itself. It must also be noted that while encouraging statements were being made on the one hand, on the other, coal production hit record levels in 2021, and in the year preceding that, China was noted to be the only country whose greenhouse gas emissions increased in 2020. It is in this dark light that Premier Xi’s statements like "low carbon emissions should not interfere with normal life", and that China will begin phasing out the use of coal in 2026 becomes deeply problematic. This 'normal life' is, in other words, the race for development, because normal is an expanding concept, where people and their betterment is measured solely in economic terms. Till the time the understanding of this ‘normal’ doesn’t change, do we have a chance at survival?

In this common thread, we look at the second biggest emitter, the US, as well.  It is not an exaggeration that the term of the 45th President was disastrous in terms of the environment, and the multitude of effects that it had on the world at large is yet to be understood. Number 46 as well, while infinitely better, has not been able to and has not been allowed to achieve what is needed, repair the damage, chart the future, and take action. In what has been termed as a year of over-promising and under-delivering,  just shortly after COP26, the US government auctioned 80 million acres for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a record for that area. With a version of reality entirely possible where President Biden’s party doesn’t control the legislature, the world’s climate future just turned a few shades bleaker. 

When this is the picture presented by three of the world’s largest GHG emitters, then what does the future hold for the young people led by Greta Thumberg, Disha Ravi and those of us who are maybe a few years older? How are we to go about our ‘normal lives’, as Premier Xi puts it, knowing that people like him have put us and continue to put us in even graver danger? With the systematic dismantling of protection mechanisms or lopsided monetary allocations as highlighted in India, how do we prepare for the massive, impending displacement that is to be brought on by rising sea levels threatening the very existence of nine major Indian cities? With there being less than eight years to stop ourselves from going over the tipping point, how do we convince China that phasing out, beginning 2026 is not enough? How do we get the American political establishment to understand that there is much more at stake, for their own children and grandchildren, than mere maintenance of the Empire?

The direction in which these three countries can be seen as heading, is one of too little, too slow.  2022 marks the 50th year of the Stockholm Declaration and a stark truth is that we have still not realised its principles, even in their most anthropocentric form. In a time where opportunism, self- interest and the hunger for money are masters of the game, even that seems unlikely. 

Can this common thread, currently slated to spell doom (that may seem alarmist to a few, and they would be right, it is, justifiably so) be turned around instead to be one of realisation, planning and execution or is the quest for normal far too enticing to give up?

-Ishan Chauhan

Ishan Chauhan is an Independent Researcher, with keen interests in environmental law and policy. His work has appeared in The Hindu, Navhind Times, The Orissa Post, Deshbandhu etc. He is the writer of two and editor of one volume of fiction/non-fiction.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.