Feature Article

Environmental protection: Are we failing ourselves?

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Dr R. H. Patil, Department of Agricultural Meteorology, UAS, Dharwad

World Environment Day celebrated on June 5 and is one of the important annual events organized by the United Nations (UN) every year and observed globally to remind and create awareness among the public about the significance of nature and the environment for our healthy life and sustainable development, and not the only plant but implement measures to protect it for the betterment of the generations to come.

However, unfortunately, over the years in the public mind, Environmental Day has come to be remembered as the day on which Government, Public offices, schools and colleges plant few tree saplings as a symbolic gesture for a photo opportunity and at times lectures are arranged to talk about it, but the grave severity of environmental problems are lost in our fast-paced economy and energy-driven lifestyle. No tangible changes are observed on the ground or at snail’s pace and environmental problems are turning to the worst by the day.


Celebration or observing this day, of course, has a history to it. The UN in 1972, on the first day of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, recognized June 5 as the World Environment Day, and in the year 1974, for the first time the World Environment Day was observed in the USA with a theme ‘Only One Earth’, and since then various host countries have taken lead and celebrated it under different themes representing various global issues.

 To name a few; ozone layer (1977), toxic chemicals in water and food (1981), trees for peace (1986), environment first (1988), global warming (1989), sustainable development lifestyles (1992), poverty and environment (1993), saving our seas (1998), millennium-time to act (2000), water (2003), green cities (2005), deserts and desertification (2006), melting ice (2007), green economy (2012), think, eat, save (2013), sea-level rise (2014), hunger (2015), I’m with nature (2017), plastic pollution (2018), air pollution (2019) and biodiversity (2020).

The UN has dedicated the three-decade of the current century (2021-2030) to ecosystem restoration. Now World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have also joined hands with the UN to collaborate on a mission to prevent and reverse the degradation of ecosystems and bring it back on the path of sustainable use and development. The theme for 2021 is ‘Reimagine, Recreate, and Restore’. Pakistan is the global host for the day to highlight the importance of ecosystem restoration this year.

While the themes are chosen each year since 1974 were not only the problems then but are continuing to be of serious concern to the environment and our sustainable development without showing any sign of relief or improvement. This begs the question of we are failing ourselves as the most advanced and civilized living species to protect our only home and its environment for our peaceful and healthy survival along with other living species. 

 Why do we celebrate this day?

Nature and the environment we live in are faced with several severe problems, and most of them are worsening with time taking us towards environmental disasters. The disasters, at the local, regional and global scale, have already started occurring frequently and with their increased intensity they are causing much more damage to our surrounding environment, our lives, economy and ultimately the sustainability of life on the Earth.

To name a few, uncontrolled deforestation, expanding deserts, air-water-soil pollution, plastic and toxic chemical contamination of water bodies, increased burning of fossil fuels for energy, vehicular emissions, unabated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, chemical-intensive agriculture, among a host of other issues, are leading to recurring droughts, floods, extreme summer heatwaves, sea-level rise, loss of biodiversity, increased poverty, hunger and malnourishment as well as a sudden outbreak of diseases like the current one COVID-19 threatening the very survival of life on Earth.

Today globally we are investing billions of US $ annually to develop a technology to reach other planets and to explore the possibility of living there, but doing very little to keep our only home the Earth safe for all of us and our future generations.

It is therefore in the interest of all of us to understand the severity of current issues, realize the scale and severity of consequences, as well as come up with measures to reduce the negative impacts on the environment. Talking about problems, one can easily make a long list which is of global scale in nature and hence require not only global attention but global combined efforts.

The population is the key driver:

The ever-growing population is the biggest problem directly affecting the environment and responsible for its degradation. The global population has exploded from a mere 1 billion in 1800 (1 billion = 100 crores) to 7.9 billion in 2020, a jump of close to 7 billion in just over 200 years! What is worrisome to note is that in just 100 years between 1900 and 2000 the global population rose from 2 billion to 5.9 billion! By 2050 the world population is expected to reach 9.5 billion and if the current rate of reproduction @ 1.1% continues anywhere between 12 and 15 billion people will inhabit this Earth with limited resources. As we are currently struggling hard and digging deep into our pockets to access our fast exhausting resources like coal, petroleum products, natural gas, precious minerals and freshwater, it is but natural to ask if we will leave any resources on this Earth to our next generation. Certainly not! For 9.5 billion people by 2050, we need almost three planets of Earth’s size to support us with natural resources needed to sustain our current energy-driven lifestyle! Unfortunately, we have only one home on Earth.

China and India with 1.45 and 1.35 billion populations, respectively, make up 35% of the global population! Apart from these two, our neighbouring countries in Asia like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia have too many people to feed themselves and live sustainably. Similarly, during the next 50 years, Africa is projected to see maximum population growth especially in countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, DR Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda.

Currently Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is growing at 2.7 % a year, twice as fast as South Asia (1.2%) and Latin America (0.9%), which means the African continent is adding the population of France or Thailand every two years! Globally we are adding some 83 million people each year, which is equal to the population of Germany. More people means more consumption of exhaustible resources and production of amenities to fulfil our lifestyle. This is just unsustainable! Because of this we are not only facing an acute shortage of resources such as water, food and fuel to sustain, particularly in developing countries of Asia and Africa, but consumption of these exhaustible fossil fuel-based resources leading to other complex problems as briefed below.

Global warming – a result of our lifestyle:

Our fossil fuel-driven modern lifestyle is globally emitting some 50 billion tons of CO2 equivalent GHGs each year, which is 40% more than 35 billion tons during the 1990s, and is expected to rise with every passing year. Today the CO2 gas concentrations in the atmosphere have reached 419 ppm, which is the record high ever recorded and is increasing @ 2.5 ppm each year. For millennia this gas had never crossed 300 ppm and in the 1950s it was around 320 ppm, later in 1960s it started to rise @ 0.6 ppm each year, but since 2000 its rise is very high showing our ever-greater dependence on exhaustible fossil fuels.

Increased GHGs cause a rise in Earth’s atmospheric temperature resulting in global warming, which has severe consequences on all walks of life on Earth as it affects the natural cycle of climate and weather. For instance, global warming is causing changes to the global hydrological cycle resulting in variation in rainfall patterns, more flash floods, droughts, heatwaves, warmer winters, extreme summers, land degradation, all directly affecting agriculture, food production and water availability. Today, despite so much advancement in agriculture and food production, globally close to 700 million people i.e., ~8.9 % of the global population goes to bed without food. What is even more worrisome is since 2014 there is a gradual increase in malnourished people, on average; some 10 million people are added each year!

Global pandemic COVID-19 has further affected this equation and as per FAO estimates 100 million more people from 35 poor counties are now without food. We are failing to achieve any of the sustainable development goals (SDG) set for ourselves decades ago! This may lead us further into more socio-economic conflicts between the countries affecting millions more.

 In such challenging times and the face of global warming, it would be a herculean task to increase food production to feed not only an ever-increasing population but contains a malnourished and hungry population. Global warming is also causing the rise in sea levels, melting of polar ice caps, expanding deserts into farmlands, acidification of ocean waters affecting marine species, increased forest fires, loss of biodiversity, public health issues. Apart from these global issues, we have several local and regional issues like soil pollution, river and groundnut pollution, a decline in groundwater status, wastage of farm produce and food, management of city solid and liquid waste all adding to the current problems.  

Unless we contain the rise in temperature and address environmental issues including local/regional problems mentioned above it would be difficult to achieve any of the SDG goals we have set for ourselves and our future generations. A few of the environmental problems we need to address on priority are:

Pollution – a resultant of our lifestyle:

Pollution is the biggest killer of all on the earth. Pollution of the air, water and soil caused by toxic gases and chemicals, and discharge of plastics, heavy metals and nitrates/phosphates coming from different industries, factories and farmlands, combustion of fossil fuels, and industrial waste are all resulting in polluting our whole environment, thus affecting the life on Earth including vegetation, water bodies, marine life, wildlife and of course human beings. More than 90% of the global population today is living in places where the air pollution levels exceed WHO limits. Globally 5 million people die each year due to air pollution caused health issues and in India alone, more than 1.5 million people die each year due to polluted air-related health issues. Air pollution alone contributes to 9% of global deaths each year and deaths are largely in low-to-middle income and highly populated countries like India and China.  Unfortunately, India is home to 15 of the 20 most polluted cities across the globe.

Close to 800 million people do not have access to even the basic drinking water service which includes some 150 million with access only to surface water. Globally 2 billion people, i.e., 25% of the total population, use drinking water contaminated with faeces! Contaminated water transmits diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Some 485,000 people each year die due to diarrhoea alone. WHO estimates that by 2025, in another four years from now, almost half of the global population would be living in water-stressed areas.

Besides air and water pollution, plastic pollution has become another menace and a pressing environmental issue. The popularity and use of plastic became so fast and huge that today plastic products have enslaved us to use it in every walk of our life, thus overwhelmed our ability to manage it. It is the worst in Asian and African countries where municipal garbage collection, separation and disposal either doesn’t exist or highly unscientific and inefficient, thus most of it is left in the open which reaches our drainage system, farmlands, water bodies like ponds, lakes, rivers and ultimately oceans. Almost half of all plastics ever manufactured on Earth have come in the last 15 years with an exponential increase in plastic production from just over 2.3 million ton in 1950 to 450 million ton in 2015, which is expected to double by 2050. Today plastics contain additives making them stronger, flexible and durable extending the life of products, such plastics when thrown out litter after use it may last to at least 400 years to break down. The public must reduce the use of plastic and then practice reuse and recycle method to reduce littering our environment with plastic. Plastic litter is affecting the health and killing all kinds of animals, especially stray animals like cattle, dogs, pigs, and marine animals as more and more plastic is reaching oceans and stays there for 100s of years!

Deforestation and Desertification:

One of the biggest damage done to our environment in the 20th century was the huge loss of forest cover and with it loss of wildlife and biodiversity. One billion hectare of the forest was lost in the last just 120 years because of exponential population growth and at this rate, we may lose one more billion hectares of forest during the next 50 years! As per the World Counts report, on average, 28 m ha of forest area is cut each year. During 20 years of this century globally lost forest area more than the size of India. At this rate, we may lose all of our rainforests in another 100 years! This will only drive global warming further and affect all lives on Earth to cause misery and would fasten loss of biodiversity towards 6th mass extinction. 

In India, as per the National Forest Policy minimum of 33% of the total geographical area must be under tree canopy cover, but India has only 21.67% that too including 9.26% open forest. Further, there is a huge disparity in % forest cover in the region. Except for the NE region and Western Ghat region, no other state has 33% of its total land under forest cover. This is a huge challenge in the face of climate change and its expected impacts on the Indian monsoon, its spatial and temporal distribution in coming years. Deforestation is also degrading our lands, agricultural fields due to widespread soil erosion, thus farm productivity is declining despite the increase in investments and resources.

Desertification in nature is a slow and natural process over the millennial-scale, but deforestation and global warming have sped up the pace of desertification to 30-35 times the natural rate. Global warming,  expansion of settlements, mining and industries, and expansion of agricultural lands, ranching, tourism in eco-sensitive regions causing widespread land degradation, thus significantly increasing the risk of floods and crop failures/vegetation losses.

Trees per person count in India stands at around 20 as against the global average of 422. Countries in the North and South American continent, south-central African countries, Russia, Australia and Europe have trees > 1000s per person. It is time that we plant location-specific trees species aggressively and in large numbers on our farmland, wasteland, marginal lands, roadsides, rail tracks, gardens, parks, on either side of river and waterway course, around lakes etc. Reforestation of thin and open forest must be done and fenced on a war footing and open grazing of such lands must be banned for the trees to grow fast.    

Food wastage in the face of shortage:

Every year almost one-third of all the food produced globally i.e., 1.3 billion tonnes of food equivalent to around 1 trillion US $ (1 trillion = 100,000 crores) ends up as waste due to rotting in the homes of consumers and retailers or spoilt during transportation and harvesting. The food grain or product harvested comes with a huge carbon footprint via seeds, energy-based inputs like fertilizers, pesticides and machinery used on the farm. In addition, farmers empty their pockets to purchase these inputs. The food produced after the investment of both money and fossil fuel-based energy is merely wasted. While on one side we are struggling to increase the food production to meet our growing population, but on the other side, we are wasting it for one of the other avoidable reasons. Our efforts must be focused immediately to reduce this avoidable loss at all levels.

Apart from these major issues, our consumption of solar and wind energy must increase exponentially while reducing the dependence on fossil fuels. The import of petroleum products has not only become an economic burden to energy-hungry India but is undercutting our economic growth and development. India is abundant with solar energy almost round the year.

India must invest hugely in alternative green/renewable energy on a priority basis. Solar power installation on all domestic homes, school and college buildings, University campuses, factory buildings and industrial premises and pump-sets on farmlands must be made compulsory both for existing and to-be-built structures.  Govt. programs must encourage farmers to go for climate-friendly practices like planting trees on the farm, installation of solar power units, organic input production units to reduce our dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Only an environment-friendly renewable energy-based technology and lifestyles can take us far and make our planet Earth livable to our next generation.



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