From Assam floods, Uttarakhand Forest fires, to several severe cyclones like Amphan, Tauktae and Yaas, India has been ravaged by multiple natural disasters, as it struggled to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in the last year. However, like everything else, environmental concerns and natural disasters had also taken a backseat, as the mounting death toll, and overflowing hospitals took over the news and social media.

While there was a minor moment of euphoria as we all began working from home, and the pollution level dropped, things quickly went back to the status quo when the lockdowns reopened. In an interview with News18.com, Sunita Narain, the Director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said that during the past year, we have failed to learn ‘any lessons about how to keep our air clean and our climate emission-free.’ Here are a few excerpts from the interview.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected the fight against climate change?

To begin with, the fight against the virus has deflected attention from some very critical issues of our survival – and climate change is one of them. Public and policy attention has remained focused on fighting the enemy at hand – but climate change is a real risk that will not wait for anyone: it has been wreaking havoc, as could be seen during the recent cyclones.

The pandemic triggered lockdowns and an economic slowdown, which have led to brief periods of reduction in emissions. However, the gain has been lost as swiftly as soon as economies reopened – we did not learn any lessons about how to keep our air clean and our climate emission-free.

One of the biggest climate injustices is the fact that the poor and the marginalized often face the worst impact of climate change, despite using far fewer environment degrading resources. The repeated cyclones that hit both coasts of India the past year are obviously a sign of that. How can disaster management methods cater better to the poor?

The IPCC points out that 50 million people are at risk of hunger due to changing climate. Millions are affected by extreme weather, and there is an increased toll on countries that already have a high burden of poverty and infectious diseases. Obviously, our disaster management plans must prioritise the poor and the vulnerable.

We have to establish more efficient systems and models of predicting weather, climate and disasters – one of the key learnings from the ongoing pandemic has been the inability of nations to anticipate such disasters and their impacts. Community-based responses and protection strategies could also be a part of an overall strategy.

Methane in the atmosphere reached record levels last year, according to the data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What kind of adverse effects can this have on the environment? What steps should be taken to mitigate the rise of methane in the atmosphere?

Urgent action is required to bring methane back to a pathway more in line with the Paris goals. Implementation of technical advances made in the reduction of emissions of anthropogenic sources such as the fossil fuel industries and landfills needs to be implemented. In India, according to the Solid Waste Rules of 2016, landfills need to be upgraded to control GHG emissions, especially methane. Though the law and technical know-how exists, implementation is weak.

According to the UNFCCC, measures to reduce methane include a shift to renewable energy, residential and commercial energy efficiency, and a reduction in food loss and waste, which can reduce methane emissions by a further 15 per cent by 2030.

Attention also needs to be given to measures to reduce emissions from “intractable” (harder to mitigate) anthropogenic sources such as agriculture and biomass burning. These have traditionally received less attention and are also becoming more feasible, including removal from elevated-methane ambient air near to sources. Finally, developed economies such as the USA who are currently following the Obama era switch to natural gas (a great source of methane emissions) from the more polluting fossil fuels, need to switch to renewable energy.

Most of the international climate change agreements/treaties signed by different countries are not legally binding. How can countries be made more accountable to reduce their emission rates?

There are two sides of the spectrum: on one side are developed countries that are historical emitters of GHG and have greatly benefited from the industrial revolution. At the other end lie the developing and poor countries that have not contributed to the atmospheric GHG budget historically; these remain poor and unable to afford the technologies needed to counter climate change.

Both types of countries have signed up to reducing their GHG emissions at the Paris Agreement. However, their capacities with regard to money, ability and opportunity is not equal. Therefore, the burden of reducing GHG emissions needs to fall more on historical emitters who have the resources and the capacity to do so.

To ensure accountability of rich countries, it is essential that they stand up to their financial commitments — contribute to and replenish the Green Climate Fund, and support technology transfer to the poorer nations. Nations must realise that climate change is affecting everyone and each country: while cyclones ravage one region of the world, wildfires rage in other parts. Nations must understand the enormous cost that they are incurring as a result. They must accept that climate change is a clear and present danger, and has to be met collectively.

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