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Environmental Woes

EPI projections indicate that according to current trends, just four countries China, India, the United States, and Russia will account for over 50 per cent of residual global greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.

DEVENDRA SAKSENA |

India was ranked at the bottom, at the 180th position, in the recently released 2022 Environmental Performance 

Index (EPI) Report. The publication of the EPI Report led to consternation in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Government of India categorically rejected the EPI 2022 Report, stating: “The Environmental Performance Index 2022 released recently has many indicators based on unfounded assumptions. Some of these indicators used for assessing performance are extrapolated and based on surmises and unscientific methods.” 

The Government may have sound technical and/or statistical reasons for rejecting the EPI 2022 Report but routine rejection, in the immaculate bureaucratese, of all studies and reports that show the Government of India in a poor light, e.g., the US State Department report on religious freedom, the World Bank’s report on Human Capital Index (HCI) or the WHO report on Covid deaths, makes the next rejection sound even more hollow than the last one. 

The Environmental Performance Index was developed by Yale University (Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy) and Columbia University (Center for International Earth Science Information Network). The EPI 2022 Report was audited by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. 

The 2022 EPI Report ranks 180 countries on an integrated index derived from the country’s performance vis-à-vis climate change, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality. The ranking is based on 40 performance indicators across 11 issue categories (Climate Change Mitigation, Air Quality, Sanitation & Drinking Water, Heavy Metals, Waste Management, Biodiversity & Habitat, Ecosystem Services, Fisheries, Acid Rain, Agriculture and Water Resources) which are in turn aggregated into the three policy objectives: Environmental Health, Ecosystem Vitality, and Climate Change, and finally into the integrated Environmental Performance Index, which is aimed at providing practical guidance to countries to move toward a sustainable future. 

The EPI 2022 Report reveals that despite solemn promises, the latest being at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), most countries have not done enough to protect the environment. To recapitulate: In the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact, the global community established a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and made commitments for more ambitious climate policies to achieve this aim. 

However, the EPI 2022 Report shows that only a handful of countries ~ which included the top rankers, Denmark and the United Kingdom ~ are currently slated to reach greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. Many other nations like China, India, and Russia are headed in exactly the opposite direction, with rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions. 

EPI projections indicate that according to current trends, just four countries ~ China, India, the United States, and Russia ~ will account for over 50 per cent of residual global greenhouse gas emissions in 2050. A total of 24 countries ~ the “dirty two-dozen” ~ will be responsible for nearly 80 per cent of emissions in 2050 unless climate policies are strengthened and there is a change in emission trajectories. 

The EPI 2022 Report notes that disruptions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have added to the challenge of meeting climate change goals. The remarkable improvements in air quality and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions noticed during the lockdown came at a terrible cost in terms of human health and economic well-being. Moreover, policymakers squandered the chance to preserve pandemic-induced gains in environmental health and ecosystem vitality and in rebuilding their economies and societies on a more sustainable basis. Air pollution has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels almost everywhere, as have many countries’ greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the response to the Covid- 19 pandemic generated millions of tons of plastic waste in the form of facemasks, plastic food containers, and protective equipment, much of which is still to be disposed of. 

The Indian Government has unequivocally rejected the EPI 2022 Report, but citizens can ignore our rapidly deteriorating environment at their own peril. Rivers that flowed unhindered in living memory have degenerated into cesspools, pleasant Indian summers are now reminiscent of sweltering ovens, spring winds now bring only smog and dust, ice on the snow-clad Himalayas is melting at a record rate and our majestic forests have lost their trees to furniture makers. 

What must be apparent to everyone, except to the most myopic, is that our environment has been immensely degraded, and evaluated by any methodology, our environmental performance would rank nearer the bottom rather than the top. 

India’s consistently low EPI rank, 141 in 2016, 177 in 2018, 168 in 2020 and the rock bottom of 180 in 2022 calls for serious introspection. There is a feeling among environmentalists that current Government policies promote industrial development, at the cost of the environment. A case in point is the Government’s response to public opposition to the Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020, which would have facilitated many kinds of mega-projects to sail through with lesser public scrutiny. The Draft EIA Notification received 20 lakh objections from the public and one hundred environmental groups, organisations and individuals launched a nationwide campaign to oppose the draft notification. 

Faced with massive opposition, the Government allowed the draft notification to lapse – only to reintroduce its provisions by way of a number of office orders, office memoranda and other draft notifications. This subterfuge has severely curtailed the consultative mechanism between project promoters and other stakeholders including affected community members. 

Similarly, the Government is seeking to dilute the Forest Conservation Act, the centrepiece of environment protection laws, with a view to exempt project promoters from seeking forest clearance in many cases. Similarly, the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (CRZN) 2011 has been replaced by CRZN 2019, permitting the opening up of coastal areas, more particularly, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to big commercial, tourism and shipping projects that are sure to destroy the delicate ecology of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. To rub salt in the wounds of environmentalists, the Government has approved a proposal to expand palm oil tree cultivation, which is a significant threat to the environment, in the hitherto untouched North-East region and the Nico- bar Islands. 

Drastic changes have been brought about in the Wildlife Act to facilitate industrial projects in forest areas, and the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act has been amended to facilitate the mining of cheap- er and dirtier coal. On the other hand, little is being done for environmental concerns, like scientific water management, including management of saline ingress, and controlling pollution of aquifers. 

One result of such environment unfriendly policies is that natural forests are being depleted, at an alarming rate. Accord- ing to the Global Forest Watch, in 2010, 11 per cent of our geographical area, i.e., 31.3 million hectares were covered by natural forests, but instead of increasing forest cover, we lost 132,000 hectares of natural forests by 2020. 

The findings of the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021, are somewhat different, but then according to the definition of ‘forest’ in ISFR 2021, a cluster of 30-40 trees in a park could be called a forest. The Government and many public-minded bodies have tried to enhance tree cover, but the result of such efforts has varied widely ~ while some places like the Tirumala Hills have been successfully greened, a majority of saplings planted in lieu of trees cut down for making highways, have perished. 

The EPI Report 2022 high- lights a decidedly unhealthy trend in environmental performance; richer countries have almost always performed uniformly better than poorer countries (Please see the figure reproduced from the EPI 2022 Report). 

According to the EPI Report, the relationship between 2022 EPI scores and per capita GDP is positive and strong (r = 0.70), although many countries out or underperform their economic peers. This phenomenon can be explained by the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) ~ which suggests that environmental degradation first rises with country wealth but then falls as countries dedicate more resources towards environmental protection. If true, this hypothesis does not bode well for India, being ranked at number 144 in per capita GDP ~ in the natural course, our environment would be irretrievably damaged before any improvement could be expected. Little time is left for repairing the earth’s degraded environment. Barack Obama, the former US President, succinctly summed up the urgency required from the human race: “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” 

Let us act while we can.