On the environment front, bridging practices to prevent land-use degradation and slashing the inefficiency of water use will be key to preventing the enormous GDP loss that India is staring at today.
Climate change is the defining issue of our times. Combined with increased population, over extraction of coal, oil and gas, and an increase in deforestation and degradation of land, it is becoming the worst driver for rising emissions and a deteriorating planet.
The recently released report of IPCC, the world’s landmark body on climate change, explains two main issues in this context. One, that our land is already degrading under human pressure and climate change is intensifying the issue. Second, that there is no silver bullet to check global warming, and emissions from all sectors, including land and agriculture, will have to be checked if we are to reduce impacts of climate change. The transition to low carbon development and the thrust on renewables will yield benefits only if land is managed well.
For context, most greenhouse gas emissions stem from the burning of fossil fuels. However, according to the report, agriculture, forestry, and other types of land use, from 2007 and 2016, accounted for about 23 per cent of global net human-related greenhouse gas emissions. The report also explains that climate change is accelerating the process of land degradation through increases in rainfall intensity, flooding, higher frequency of droughts, heat stress, dry spells and sea level rise.
Climate change is not only a key driver in desertification (due to increased evapotranspiration and decreased precipitation), but has also adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems, which will imperil several hundred million people, mostly in the lower income regions of the developing world.
India has no reason to not plan for its future according to these scientific findings. The Indian land degradation report, the last edition of which was published by ISRO in 2016, already showed that 30 per cent of the country’s total geographical area is undergoing degradation. The most affected were Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana (in this order). All other remaining states are contributing to less than 1 per cent (individually) of India’s net desertification/land degradation.
However, the spread was quite uneven. The analysis showed that Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat and Goa had more than 50 per cent area under desertification/land degradation, whereas it had affected less than 10 per cent of the land in Kerala, Assam, Mizoram, Haryana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Arunachal Pradesh.
As India prepares to host the UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification) COP in New Delhi, which is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainable land management, there is recognition to put our own house in order. The ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) claims to have begun the process of setting voluntary targets to address the problem.
Tackling land degradation, along with boosting the efficiency of freshwater use — both for agriculture and industry — will be necessary to solve the problem, but this needs convergence of policy. Extreme weather events necessitate strong and far-reaching policies at a time when the world is witnessing its hottest ever temperatures, record breaking heat waves, and extreme rainfall — the likes of which is affecting large parts of Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra and other states right now. There can be no doubt that we are well and truly being impacted by climate change.
Fortunately, the Government of India has officially acknowledged that India is facing an acute water crisis. With rapidly depleting ground water tables, polluted rivers and a rapidly rising demand for fresh water by agriculture, industry and communities, this crisis is afflicting each and every aspect of the economy. This includes heavy manufacturing industries such as iron and steel, and thermal power, each of which require large amounts of freshwater. It also includes the agriculture sector, which is India's largest consumer of freshwater, but is currently battling with acute shortage.
Globally, the IPCC report recommends several mitigation practises to be widely deployed. The most immediate of them are improved and controlled land management, crops and cropping patterns, water use in irrigation and reduction in post-harvest losses and food wastage (as much as 25-30% of it is wasted today). Coupled with scientific soil management, biodiversity conservation, reduction in the use of land for commercial applications and a shift in less land-intensive dietary choices (consuming more plant-based foods) could greatly help alleviate global poverty and the incessant pressure on our lands.
For the Indian context, bridging practices to prevent land-use degradation and slashing the inefficiency of water use will be key to preventing the enormous loss in GDP loss that we are staring at today. It should be a stark reminder that according to an analysis by TERI, India could suffer an economic loss of 2.5 per cent of GDP due to land-degradation alone.
Changes on massive scales, which will include an overhauling our approach to forest management, also require delving into the contentious issues of land tenure and the property rights of marginalised communities directly affected by large-scale environmental restoration programmes. Historically, indigenous people and forest dwellers have been left out of the decision-making process for these kinds of initiatives, even though their understanding of forests can be critical to devising truly sustainable policies.
Unfortunately even at this moment, the draft amendments to India’s Forest (Rights) Act are seen to alienate forest dwelling communities from their habitats, and has been a thorny political issue. Without their buy-in and on-the-ground expertise, even the most well-intentioned land restoration programmes could fail. We can’t afford that any longer.
(This is the second and last article in a series on the IPCC report)Aarti Khosla is Director, Climate Trends. Views are personal.Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro and gain access to curated markets data, trading recommendations, equity analysis, investment ideas, insights from market gurus and much more. Get Moneycontrol PRO for 1 year at price of 3 months at 289. Use code FREEDOM.