India’s Independence Day this year comes at the cusp of its prestigious and crucial G-20 presidency. Our real test against time to drive sustainability and make concrete efforts to conserve our biodiversity starts as the working group meetings conclude.
Only 17 countries across the world can truly call themselves megadiverse when it comes to biodiversity. India through its long standing commitment to the protection of species and our ecosystems becomes one of these megadiverse countries.
With three of the world’s 34 “global biodiversity hotspots” - our country accounts for 9 percent of global biodiversity, including some of the world’s richest flora and fauna with about 91,000 species of animals and 45,500 species of plants, making our nation diverse and unique.
However, as we are now the most populous country in the world, the impact of climate change can be seen in the vulnerability we experience today – unbreathable air, declining water availability, sweltering heat waves and wet bulb temperatures are testing human survival. These threats make it crucial to refocus on conservation efforts.
This is needed as climate change and biodiversity are intrinsically linked in the sense that biodiversity is our “natural defence” against climate change.
India and the 'Era of Global Boiling'
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in its reports has flagged alarming threats that the world faces today. The era of global warming has ended and “the era of global boiling has arrived”, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said after scientists confirmed July was on track to be the world’s hottest month on record.
With global warming of 1.5°C (2.7°F)- even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible risks for society.
Increased heat waves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts. These have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, leading us to rethink our understanding of the link between biodiversity and independence.
It is now widely accepted that preservation and restoration of biodiversity is perhaps the most cost-effective and the least risky way to mitigate the impacts of threats such as climate change and diminishing food and nutritional security, declining economy, rising zoonotic diseases, and lack of capacity to address these issues especially in the post-COVID world.
In light of these threats, the science is clear: We must act now to halt catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss. What we do between now and 2030 will determine whether we slow warming to 1.5 degrees celsius.
Our focus, therefore, needs to be on the use of the power of nature and the strength of policy and markets to reduce emissions and support renewable energy. Biodiversity conservation is crucial to India’s self-reliance.
The Power of Collective Climate Action
Sustainability inherently exists in nature, and it is our duty to enable it through collective climate action. We are running out of time to combat the challenges ahead of us. Collective climate and policy action, grounded in collaboration can save us from climate change.
To support this vision of wildlife conservation and biodiversity and nature based solutions that focus on enhanced cooperation and community involvement are required.
This should be complemented by a “do no harm” approach that includes activities considered to have either a neutral or positive effect on biodiversity and is aligned with the “nature positive” principle endorsed by many public, private sector, and civil society leaders.
Change is not the mandate nor in the capacity of any singular entity; change requires collective power and influence to lead to progress. The scale of the transformation requires the active engagement of the private sector. It must support the mitigation and adaptation efforts coming from the political and policy echelons.
Innovative approaches to understanding the value of our biodiversity further spur us in that direction. Ecosystem services valuation is one such tool; it seeks to put an economic value on natural resources, to allow policy to be evaluated by monetising the benefits of the environment, broadly equivalent to the economic costs/benefits used to inform policy-making.
The Way Forward
Our progress on the path to net-zero emissions rests on the premise of how effectively we are able to capture and highlight existing examples.
In this regard, India has undertaken a large number of ambitious projects which have shown results on the ground. For example, efforts to restore lakes in Chennai surrounded on all sides by residential developments, and degraded over time due to excessive silt accumulation.
Through community efforts and innovative solutions, it is possible to clean and restore our natural ecosystems. Change is possible when local communities participate and collaborate.
Indigenous knowledge and local leadership are foundational to biodiversity conservation. In India, the states with substantial Adivasi and tribal populations also happen to be states with rich biodiversity such as Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
It’s important, therefore, to use traditional knowledge and combined it with innovative ideas that increase their livelihood security by linking the forest produce to market. Assisting forest-dwellers in addressing deforestation and land degradation through community-driven, science-based interventions are also more likely to be sustainable in the long run.
Similarly, to accelerate the march towards Net-Zero, India needs utility scale Renewable energy (RE) projects that require large swathes of land. However, RE requires 10 to 15 times more land to produce one unit of energy compared to fossil fuels.
This is where India can use degraded wasteland with low biodiversity and livelihood value as well as converted lands across the country to potentially generate close to four times the RE target (500 GW) committed by India during COP26.
It is estimated that close to 1,60,000 hectares of closed coal mine and thermal power plant land will be available. Even if, 30 percent of this land can be repurposed for renewable energy, it has potential to install between 25 to 30 GW of solar energy by 2030.
India is on a path of global growth -- India has undertaken a large number of ambitious infrastructure projects. According to recent data, 60 percent of projects are yet to be built, indicating a significant opportunity to re-plan our cities and urban ecosystems and develop master plans to mitigate the effects of increased burden on our ecosystems with an ever increasing population.
India, under the leadership of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has set a target of becoming 'energy independent.’ The opportunity is now in our hands to become partners in this transformation and build a sustainable and self-reliant India by 2047.
(The author is Managing Director at The Nature Conservancy, an organisation working on biodiversity conservation and restoration. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)