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Guest Column

Published on: Nov. 16, 2022, 10:28 a.m.
Bend the curve on nature loss
  • The total carbon sequestration potential of India’s mangroves is estimated to be 702.42 million tonnes of CO2

By Nyrika Holkar. The author is executive director, Godrej & Boyce

A few western philosophers during the Enlightenment era in the 17-18th century proposed a highly influential theory of nature that views the natural environment as a means to an economic end — a resource to be used and controlled to benefit human endeavour. This worldview has shaped generations of global development models and continues to underpin current notions of ‘progress and development’ in many parts of the world. 

It has influenced how we value nature’s ecosystem services, and it has also influenced policy making and corporate agendas putting human economic needs ahead of the need to preserve and nurture natural ecosystems, not realising that, without nature, humans cannot actually exist.

As a result of this centuries-old unequal relationship, humans now exist in a precarious state with nature. For instance, take the example of fishing communities in the Arabian Sea region, accustomed to earning a sustainable livelihood for ages, are now facing a threat of livelihood loss due to a sharp increase in incidents and intensity of cyclones. There has been a 52 per cent increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea over the the last two decades.

This has meant rougher seas which, in turn, reduce the time available for fishing, thereby hurting revenues and profit. Nature’s sturdy supply chains are also being disrupted simultaneously as rising temperatures force some fish species into deeper seas and new habitats, making sustainable fishing a tougher challenge.

Alongside the loss of traditional knowledge, the fishing communities are also unable to use traditional practices. Rising sea levels and greater soil erosion has meant that there is not much beach left to dry fish on. The fish rots, leading to wastage and further economic loss. 

In 2022, India and much of the globe have faced more disruptive weather phenomena — heatwaves, floods, with unprecedented rainfall in some areas and droughts in others. Traditional cropping seasons have been disrupted, affecting sowing and harvesting patterns.

Extreme climate events have already led to deaths, huge economic losses and exacerbated health problems which, in the longer term, will severely impact our food and water security. 

These ‘slow onset events’, driven by climate change (rising sea-levels, soil erosion and melting glaciers), are resulting in an acute loss of bio-diversity as well as loss of livelihoods. If India is to achieve its commitments under the Paris Agreement to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2070, we must drastically change this paradigm and learn to coexist harmoniously with nature, rather than try to control it to further our economic progress. Reversing nature loss requires us to ‘bend the curve’ by rebooting many aspects of business and policy as well our lifestyles. 

The problem of nature loss is more than immediate. The big banner success of ‘Project Tiger,’ for example, is a widely celebrated successful conservation story, which has generated tremendous awareness about tigers and their habitats.

However, this success hides a more disturbing trend. Research indicates at least 97 mammals, 94 bird species and 482 plant species in India are threatened with extinction. Most of these species will go extinct without us ever appreciating the true price future generations will pay for this. 

  • With our natural habitats unable to repair and replenish in the face of growing economic activity, moving production to more sustainable methods is a key factor in bending the curve on nature-based losses

With our natural habitats unable to repair and replenish in the face of growing economic activity, moving production to more sustainable methods is a key factor in bending the curve on nature-based losses. The answers are evident -- we need to recycle and reuse more and do more with fewer natural resources.

Tribal communities possess centuries of accumulated indigenous knowledge that needs to be brought into mainstream planning goals. To do this, there is an urgent need to preserve, formalise and institutionalise this precious knowledge so that it can be used widely. In turn, this will stem bio-diversity loss, support livelihoods, and ultimately reduce our vulnerability to climate change. 

Crucially, the position of women, children and underserved communities must be optimised in sustainability strategies. A recent UN Report states that women are disproportionately impacted by the unfulfillment of most, if not all, of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

This is primarily because their perspective is ignored or not considered when preparing mitigation plans for climate disasters. Social sustainability and diversity must be factored into the calibration of climate goals. 

Governments also have a vital role to play in incentivising the switchover to a circular economy, using tax incentives like those used for the adoption of Electric Vehicles, with industry and government working in lockstep. Recycled concrete, which can stop the degradation of limestone quarries and decimate hillsides, for instance, can be used in building our infrastructure.

While India’s per capita cement consumption is still less than 50 per cent of China’s, do we need to tread the same path knowing the consequences on climate, or can we drive viable recycled alternatives that are being thrown up through innovation and technology? 

More urgently, the corporate sector needs to remove its green-tinted CSR goggles. There are numerous projects where the incorrect implementation of nature-based solutions has caused more harm than benefit. One glaring example of ‘Green CSR’ gone rogue are the massive tree planting exercises where organisations often miss the wood for the trees. In other words, these planting programs have a relatively low survival rate (60 per cent on average fail to survive) and rarely bring any returns to the community or provide any long-lasting protection. 

There are alternative approaches that can bring disproportionate benefits in the short-to-medium term. For example, India is blessed to have significant blue carbon systems thanks to mangroves on its large coastline. These ‘blue carbon’ systems not only sequester carbon three to five times greater than that of terrestrial forests, but they also then store this carbon, often for millennia, within their submerged soils.

Mangroves are one of only three marine ecosystems – alongside saltmarsh and seagrass – recognised by the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) that can make measurable contributions to help a country reduce its emissions. Furthermore, this storage value is only one of a slew of benefits that mangroves provide.

Others include acting as natural storm barriers, filtering water, mitigating the effects of soil erosion, and acting as a refuge and nursery for a wealth of fish, mammal, and bird species.

  • The position of women, children and underserved communities must be optimised in sustainability strategies

According to TERI, India’s coastline of over 7,500 km has a mangrove cover of about 6,749 sq km which is about 89 per cent of the total coastline in India. TERI says the total carbon sequestration potential of India’s mangroves is estimated to be 702.42 million tonnes of CO2, with a potential to increase to 748.17 million tonnes of CO2 in 2030. By protecting mangroves, TERI estimates that an additional 207.91 million tonnes of CO2 can be sequestered by 2030.

The disproportionately positive impact of blue carbon systems in terms of carbon sequestration calls for special initiatives to maintain, nurture and grow mangroves, but there are other benefits as well. On the eastern coast of Mumbai, thanks to the long-term conservation efforts of the government and private trusts, thousands of migrating flamingos have become annual winter visitors attracted by an integrated natural mangrove ecosystem that offers food, protection and shelter for the aviators; it also has become a spectacular natural attraction that seasonally boosts the local community through tourism.

Importantly, the bio-diversity in catchment areas provides a sustainable livelihood to artisanal fisheries. This, in turn, promotes the conservation of traditional knowledge among indigenous communities passed down through the generations. 

Our world today is dominated by landscapes of farming and urban infrastructure with very little space given to nature. It’s time to bend the curve on nature and coexist with nature rather than trying to control and overpower it. It is time to restore our life support system gravely threatened by diversity loss and extreme changes in climate.

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