By Dhurjati Mukherjee
The launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration advocates it’s time that every country, including India, draw up a plan to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems. This is all the more necessary given the recently released 6th Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning of grave future consequences as there is only 50:50 chances that the safe limit of 1.50 C will not be crossed.
The fact that apart from the well-publicised emissions, the ecosystem is being destroyed in various other ways, specially the abase of the soil, exacerbated by overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides resulting in severe difficulties for the poor and the impoverished farming communities sections is a reality in most countries, including India. Obviously keeping in view the need for enhanced production and productivity increase, these steps are being taken.
The ideology that humans are born to master and to enjoy nature has been clearly challenged and outrightly rejected. Human race has to co-exist within the ecosystem that includes every micro and microscopic plants, animals and organisms, as everything in the earth’s ecosystem is independent and important for existence of life itself.
Thus, ecosystem restoration is undoubtedly the need of the day and various targets feature prominently in global and national policy frameworks aimed at limiting ongoing biodiversity loss and climate change. One may refer here to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2011-20, which was established under a key UN biodiversity treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, which pointed to the ambition of restoring “at least 15% of degraded ecosystems” as also increasing the coverage of protected areas to include “at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas”.
The IPCC report has rightly warmed that destruction of ecosystems will raise sea levels, melt glaciers and polar ice caps, disrupt weather and ecosystems and increase the frequency of extreme weather events worldwide. The sea level rise in Asia is increasing faster than the global average, the report stated. The report comes amid consternation over extreme weather events of 30 years of warnings of the IPCC. Experts believe that sustained reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could limit climate change but it could take 20 to 30 years to see global temperatures stabilise.
Coming to the Indian situation, it may be pertinent to refer to a recent report on drought 2021 released by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), which stated that the Deccan plateau, comprising 43% of India’s landmass, is seeing the highest frequency of droughts in India. It estimated the “impact of severe droughts on India’s GDP to be about 2-5% per annum”, despite decreasing contribution of agriculture in the country’s expanding economy. The study titled ‘Global Assessment Report (GAR) on Drought 2021’ has looked into water stress across the globe and resulting migration and desertification.
“The Deccan region sees the highest frequency of over 6% of severe droughts in all of India”, the report pointed out adding the cascading impact continues over the next several years. For instance, the report referred to recent major droughts in Tamil Nadu, which caused 20% reduction in the primary sector, 5% drop in industry and 3% reduction in the service sector. In fact, “drought is on the verge of becoming the next pandemic and there is no vaccine to cure it, directly affecting 1.5 billion people so far this century, and this number will grow dramatically unless the world gets better at managing this risk”, observed Mami Mizutori, head of UNDRR. Most of the world will be living with water stress in the next few years, the report warned, cautioning policy makers to be better prepared as industrialisation and urbanisation would only lead to ‘demand outstripping supply’.
The impact of urbanisation as also mechanisation of agriculture with usage of chemicals and fertilizers, having increased at a very rapid pace, it is quite natural that land degradation has become rampant. Moreover, with forest cover remaining stagnant, at least in India, and most other countries, the damage to the ecosystem is a world-wide phenomenon. Thus, the situation is quite challenging and calls for dedicated efforts.
It is thus quite appropriate that the present decade has been assigned the work of restoration of the ecosystem. But the plan of action has not been clearly defined as also the resources that would be needed, specially by the developing countries, to carry out this work effectively.
Meanwhile, reports indicate by 2030, the world’s forest cover will increase by roughly the area of India but experts are of the opinion that the wrong types of trees are being planted. In an article in Yale Environment 360: “45% of promised new forests will be monoculture plantations of fast-growing trees like acacia and eucalyptus…Such forests would often decrease biodiversity rather than increase it, and would only hold a small fraction of the carbon that could be captured by giving space for natural forests”.
However, it needs to be pointed that “if degraded tropical forests were allowed to regrow, they could capture up to 3 billion tonnes of carbon annually for as much as 60 years, potentially providing a bridge to a fossil fuel-free world”. This would indirectly help the process of averting land degradation and reviving barren land.
Restoring the natural capital of the Earth’s ecosystem is the biggest challenge of the decade. There is need for balancing biodiversity conservation with that of climate change mitigation. Forests are usually the biomes with the highest potential to sequester carbon. But in most countries, including India, the tropical forest area is dwindling due to the logic advanced by capitalists and government policy makers for development purposes. However, non-forest biomes such as natural grasslands and scrublands can contain ecosystems in urgent need of restoration to prevent the extinction of species found in those ecosystems.
The restoration commitments that governments and corporations have for 2030 look impressive like restoring 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes, protecting and growing one trillion trees, expanding mangroves by 20% and sustainably managing 30 million square kms of ocean. But the question arises is that in an era of fast industrialisation and mechanisation, how much of this will be accomplished? As far as India is concerned, there is little hope as the balance between development and environmental degradation is not being kept.
Experts have noted that restoration can become effective if decision makers from local governments, civil society organisations and small businesses get access to lessons that past restoration projects have shown. Sadly, in countries like India, the top heavy administration may affect grass-root work, but strong public incentives and government policies are needed that provide technical expertise for the ecosystem services.
Finally, it needs to be emphasised that restoration is critical not only because it is home to countless plant and animals but because the services provided are worth an estimated $125 trillion every year to world economy. There is also a crucial need to link the definition of progress and development with respect to ecological and environmental sustainability in future decisions. Remember, what the UN recently stated: development is socially and environmentally sustainable when it facilitates the growth of various marginal communities and cultures and when growth is fairly distributed in terms of quality of life, healthcare and education. — INFA