- While this June marks the 30th anniversary of the Rio Summit, the United Nations is not organising an event to mark it.
- India’s progress on the implementation of the conventions on climate change and biodiversity, both that emerged from the Summit, is intertwined with multiple other strands.
- While the world is hotter and harbours less biodiversity since the two conventions came into effect, there are some promising developments too.
This summer it will be thirty years since the Rio Earth Summit. Unlike the earlier decadal anniversaries, this year the United Nations is not celebrating an event to mark the occasion. The world is preoccupied with a pandemic that is gradually showing hesitant signs of waning, and the Ukraine War that could mark changes in the world order.
India and China were considered developing countries when the Rio Summit, or the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, was organised in 1992. They were not included in the list of countries that needed to have greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the Climate Change Convention. Today the world watches keenly at the emission reduction targets announced by the leaders of these two countries.
At the end of the Rio+10 Summit of 2002, the Johannesburg Declaration talked about the rich and the poor countries, and “global disparities.” This, when combined with globalisation where “the benefits and costs are unevenly distributed,” could pose “a major threat to global prosperity, security and stability.”
In another 10 years, by the time the Rio+20 Summit was organised in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, the world order had changed. The economic crisis of 2008 had thrown a spanner in the growth story of the developed countries. Starting with the sub-prime lending crisis in the U.S., where a reverse swing in the land and housing prices had exposed the banking system that had lent money without adequate collateral, the economic crisis had destroyed the networked economies of the developed world – the U.S. and European countries. Considerably insulated from these developments, the economies of China and India were growing rapidly in that period.
The developed countries were talking about green jobs at the Rio+20 meeting, and the main theme was “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.” There was increasing pressure on China and India to have binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. India had insisted in its national inputs for the summit that the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities should be the approach. This will “allow ample flexibility and policy space for national authorities to make their own choices out of a broad menu of options and define their paths towards sustainable development based on the country’s stage of development, national circumstances and priorities.”
However, with the Paris Agreement of 2015, the concept of equity and common but different responsibilities effectively went out of the door with all countries deciding their own emission reduction pathways based on their nationally determined contributions. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi having enhanced India’s ambitions on non-fossil fuel-based power generation twice since 2015, India is deep into the emissions reductions game.
Two conventions, two routes
Even though both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), usually known as the Climate Change Convention, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came out of the Rio Summit of 1992, they took different trajectories in India. While India had strong and vocal position on the equity issue in the international negotiations, within the country much of the action started late – only when the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, constituted the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change in June 2008. In the same month, the National Action Plan on Climate Change with its eight constituent missions was also launched.
Policy action followed in the subsequent years. By 2010 action was initiated to help states develop their climate change action plans, and in the following years almost all states had their own plans. The erstwhile Planning Commission commissioned an expert group to recommend ways to develop low carbon strategies for inclusive growth, and its report was submitted in 2014.
Despite an initial ambiguity on climate change, the National Democratic Alliance government moved quickly with the announcement of India’s nationally determined contributions on October 2, 2015, which talked about reducing the energy intensity of the economy, while transiting from fossil fuel based to non-fossil fuel based energy and sequestering carbon through the increase of tree and forest cover. With the prime minister enhancing these ambitions and committing to net zero by 2070, an energy transition process is already underway moving to renewable energy.
The CBD had a different trajectory in the country. India was one of the earliest countries to develop a legislation to implement the commitments under the Biodiversity Convention. Almost starting immediately after the Rio Summit, there were a series of discussions in the country to develop this legislation, which led to the Biological Diversity Act of 2002. The National Biodiversity Authority was established in Chennai under the Act, and till date there are 28 state biodiversity boards, eight biodiversity councils and 276,836 biodiversity management committees attached to the panchayat level institutions.
Interestingly, even though institutional arrangements for biodiversity conservation were initiated early on, within the country it was discussions on climate change that gained traction in the media and public space. Biodiversity is still inadequately discussed, and thereby finding value for biodiversity conservation becomes difficult when it comes head-to-head with development projects.
Two more strings to this braid
The years 1991 and 1992 were of great importance in the past three decades. While the Rio Summit of 1992 gave rise to the climate change and biodiversity conventions, in the same year the Government of India also passed the 73rd and the 74th amendments to the Constitution, thereby creating three-tier local self-government mechanisms in the rural and urban areas, and devolving decision-making powers to these bodies.
A year earlier, in 1991, faced with a balance of payment crisis, the national government initiated economic reforms, with emphasis on liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, and structural reforms in the industrial sector. Politically, after the numerically-strong Congress-led national government between 1984 and 1989, there were a string of coalitions, till when the Bharatiya Janata Party started winning strength in the Parliament from 2014. Thus, in the national political scene there was a swing between federal, where even smaller regional parties exerted disproportionate influence on national policy, to the unitary, where a core group within one party took all the major decisions.
All this had its impact on the environment. In the years after the economic reforms were initiated, there was a push towards industrialisation and infrastructure development, and each state, led mostly by a regional party, pushed its projects to beggar their neighbours. Any environmental or social objection to these projects were projected as an attack on federalism. Post 2014, the situation has returned to what it was decades earlier, where decisions are made and implemented at the Centre, without considerations of local concerns.
The economic reforms rewrote the aspirations of the country. The liberalised manufacturing sector and the service sector that went through a renaissance created goods and services for the consumption of the Indian middle class. Environmentally this meant that the old cities were moving into new areas and new urban centres grew in unprecedented scale in the past 30 years, causing habitat fragmentation. Industrial estates and special economic zones ate away fragile environments and common lands. Coastal infrastructure eroded coastlines, while highways and railway lines cut across protected areas.
The socio-economic cost of this growth came out in stark colours during the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. While the first wave traumatised those who had migrated from the hinterlands to the cities in search of employment, the second wave shook even those who had considered themselves insulated.
To make the provisions of the 73rd and the 74th amendments of the Constitution, each state had to enact its own legislation. While some states worked on it with alacrity, others dragged their feet. However, by the end of the 1990s most states had their acts. The devolution provisions were extended to the tribal-dominated areas in 1996 through The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act. The rights of the forest dwelling communities were further protected through the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
Even though the implementation of the panchayats act varied in different states, local communities did use its provisions to refuse permission to projects that they feared would destroy their environment. In 1995, a panchayat in Goa refused to give permission to the nylon 6,6 factory of Thapar DuPont Ltd. The plant then moved to Tamil Nadu. The more famous incident that caught the national attention was of multiple gram sabhas in Odisha rejecting the bauxite mining project in Niyamagiri in 2013.
The presence of the three-tier structures also provided a platform for taking the provisions of the biodiversity and the climate change convention to the grassroots. With more than 275,000 biodiversity management committees at the panchayat level, involvement of local communities in the development of people’s biodiversity registers has promoted awareness on the value of biodiversity around villages and urban centres. States such as Kerala have trained panchayat leaders on climate change, and panchayats such as Meenangadi have started the process of turning carbon neutral.
Nature hits back
However, the biggest hit back on the environment has come from nature. As this is written, northern parts of India are facing a severe heatwave, with temperatures ranging between 45°C and 50°C. While experts have linked these heatwaves to climate change and have been asking for a national heat code, the impact of the hot summers are exacerbated due to the urban heat island effect. Like with other stresses, there is also an element of climate justice, with the poor bearing a greater load of the heatwaves.
But, heatwaves over land is only a part of the story. Over the past four decades the number of marine heatwaves increased over western Indian Ocean at the rate of 1.5 events per decade, and the number increased over the north Bay of Bengal by 0.5 events per decade. These heatwaves can add to the already increasing temperature in the Arabian Sea and thereby increase the number of cyclones originating from this sea, turning even the reliable southwest monsoon into a string of extreme weather events.
The prognosis is also adverse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the Working Group 1 (IPCC-WG1) report states that over the Indian subcontinent and South Asia heatwaves will become more intense and frequent in the 21st Century. Summer and monsoon precipitation will increase and become more intense, and there are possibilities of compound extreme weather events where more than one event could multiply the potential for damage and destruction.
People’s involvement during extreme weather events, and also their awareness has increased in the past few years. Almost abandoned by the higher state government authorities during the Chennai floods of December 2015, the citizens innovated their own communication and short-term forecasting networks. Similar social cohesion was in display during the Kerala floods of August 2018, which is estimated to have caused an economic loss of Rs 310 billion.
Funding for clean technology is changing
It is these realities that make India’s energy transition to non-fossil fuel sources a welcome move, even though there are concerns that need to be addressed to make the move environmentally and socially just. In the global picture, there will be a positive impact when 17% of the world population moves away from fossil fuels.
With corporate majors announcing their plans for the renewable sector, there is foreign and Indian investments expected into the sector. This is good news for the national economy battered by multiple wrong moves and the pandemic. In the 1990s, the trend was on green diplomacy and the clean development mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol. Now the focus is more on green business and investment relationships …
In the 1990s, the trend was on green diplomacy between developed and developing countries such as India and the clean development mechanism (CDM) support under the Kyoto Protocol. Now the focus is more on green business and investment relationships.
India is planning to issue sovereign green bonds worth Rs 240 billion to raise finances for the expansion of renewable energy in the country. In her Budget Speech delivered on February 1, 2022, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that the green bond will be issued to raise funds for green infrastructure, which will be deployed in public sector projects for reducing carbon intensity of the economy.
The 30 years since the Rio Summit was the period of most rapid changes in the world. China and India have become important players for climate change mitigation; the globalised world order is constantly being reworked into nationalistic entities; and climate change and biodiversity loss have started showing their adverse impacts.
As India grows in renewable energy generation, and its economy becomes less carbon intensive, it will become less dependent on fossil fuel imported from other parts of the world through disruption-prone shipping channels.
The Ukraine War has again brought into focus the vulnerability of the world depending on fossil fuels. The war and the resultant sanctions from the Western countries, has taken away a significant portion of petroleum fuels out of the world market. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2021 Russia’s crude oil production contributed 14% of the global supply. It is also the second largest producer of natural gas, after the U.S.
Another benefit with increased renewable energy expansion in countries across the globe, and especially in the Asian region, would be reduction in fossil fuels being transported across the global oceans. The Review of Maritime Transport 2021, prepared by UNCTAD, notes that in 2020 out of the 10, 631 million tons discharged on ships globally 1,863 MT was crude oil, 1,222 MT was other tanker trade and 1165 MT was coal. Geographically, of this 1,060 MT of crude oil and 609 MT of the other tanker trade was discharged in Asia. As regards coal, China imported 20% and India imported 19% of the world trade. In other words, fossils fuels constitute 40% of the global shipping discharge, with most of them moving towards importing countries in Asia.
Reduction in fossil fuel load transported by ships could also mean reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions, marine pollution, air pollution and destruction of marine habitat and biodiversity caused by shipping. According to the IEA, the shipping industry contributes approximately 2% of the global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, with a carbon intensity of 6.86 grams per ton-km of shipping.
Thus, despite the earth becoming warmer, more prone to climate risk and endowed with reduced biological diversity since the time global conventions were developed at the Rio Summit to deal with climate change and biodiversity loss, there could still be hope of some positive action in the coming decades.
Banner image: A painted stork in flight. Despite the institutional arrangement for biodiversity conservation in India, the topic takes a back seat when it comes head-to-head with climate change and development narratives. Photo by Vincent Paul/Wikimedia Commons.