[Joanna Dawson & Saurav Malhotra]
The first quarter of 2020 ushered in an economic crisis second only to the Great Depression. This is no ordinary crisis, but an ecological crisis of deforestation and wildlife-human virus transmission that has spiralled out of control into an economic crisis.
In the middle of this pandemic-driven crisis, we are seeing a surge in coal power plant shutdowns in Europe and the United States. With lower variable costs, renewable energy has a competitive edge over coal and is expected to become cheaper overall by 2023. Around the world, funds are divesting their holdings in fossil fuels or reviewing their assets through an ecological lens and coal has been the first to end up on the chopping block. Major investors such as HSBC, Standard Chartered, BlackRock and JP Morgan no longer invest in coal. Big energy producers like Shell and BP are even diversifying their businesses to produce renewable energy.
India has made huge strides towards its vision of being a leader in renewable energy. Recognizing this as a sunrise industry, the country has installed over 86GW of renewable energy, with a target of 175GW by 2022 and 450GW by 2030. Its launch of the International Solar Alliance is further proof of the country’s commitment to playing an active leadership role in renewable energy on the global stage today.
This is a socially, ecologically & economically practical move. In 2019, 50 percent of India’s coal energy production was more expensive to operate than renewables. Adding renewable energy capacity in India is currently cheaper than adding new coal capacity and by 2022, on average, will be completely cheaper than coal. According to the International Labour Organization, renewables will be the primary driver of job growth globally. And as foreign investment moves into renewable energy, this transition will only make India more attractive to investors.
The MoEFCC’s move to greenlight the Dehing Patkai mining project is at odds with this forward-looking approach. It is a step backwards for the country and suggests poor inter-departmental alignment on India’s aspirations as a global leader in renewables.
The move also raises questions about the MoEFCC’s own internal coherence. India’s draft National Forest Policy 2018 explicitly declares 33 percent of the country must be forest area for eco-security. These goals are echoed in the Forest Survey of 2017 and 2019. Are we reneging on our own forest agreements and goals? If India has to meet its forest goals and agreements, it must double its rate of forest expansion – not tear down old growth forests like Dehing Patkai.
Old growth forests like Dehing Patkai are immeasurably valuable as carbon sinks. 111sqkm of Dehing Patkai’s forest will sequester approximately over 67,000 tonnes of carbon annually. Its biodiversity value is immeasurable. Together with the forest’s ecosystems services, these constitute its natural capital, a value which could amount to nearly INR 8 billion (INR 800 crores), at a conservative estimate. This invisible economic value must be assessed and incorporated in all decision-making. A cost-benefit analysis must be conducted: 30 hectares of coal, or the natural capital value Dehing Patkai produces by putting oxygen in the air, carbon & nitrogen in the soil, and the riverine systems it enhances through the Dehing river.
Instead, we must leverage this natural capital to strengthen community-led conservation and create nature-based jobs for communities in and around Dehing Patkai – the Ahoms, Singpho, Tai Phake, Khamyang and many others. Dehing Patkai is an ideal place for pioneering Rural Futures, by creating a community-run global nature study classroom, with 5 zones for low-impact, community-owned mindful tourism. This could create over 500 immediate jobs in mindful tourism and hundreds more in allied value chain sectors for the communities of the region. Low-impact mindful tourism, limited to no more than 5000 visitors a year could also add needed revenue to restore and manage Dehing Patkai’s rich natural wealth of over 690 unique flora & fauna species.
The writing is on the wall – financially, economically and ecologically. Coal India must learn from Shell and BP and diversify its portfolio to include renewable energy. Coal India’s subsidiary, Northeastern Coal Fields, must partner with the communities in and around Dehing Patkai to restore the forest. This move will create nearly 2000 jobs for the local communities around the sanctuary and through added agroforestry on the fringes, would provide sustainable employment for the future. A plan must be drawn up immediately, to assess the destroyed forest area and restore it. The Balipara Foundation would be happy to collaborate on with all inclusive parties on doing this study, leveraging our experience on creating recommendations on progressive mining, as well as offering action recommendations based on our Rural Futures framework.
The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity as much as it is a challenge. A NaturenomicsTM economy, where land, energy, waste, water, air and carbon (LEWWAC) are secured and economy and ecology are interdependent is the only possible, profitable future.
The lush, virgin rainforest of Dehing Patkai is not the Amazon of India – rather, let us call the Amazon the Dehing Patkai of Brazil. Today on International Biodiversity Day, let us commit to saving this heart, soul and lungs of Assam, no loopholes and no exceptions. (PR from Balipara Foundation)