The hits and misses of 2018: Govt tackling major environmental problems but there is much to worry about

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Published: January 2, 2019 1:39:49 AM

The year laid down the governance blueprint for tackling some major environmental problems. But there was as much news to cheer as to worry about.

After “hectic” negotiations, the environment ministry extended the deadline by five years.

The year 2018 was a mixed one for environmental issues. On the one hand, some major policies and programmes were announced. On the other hand, the state of the environment—especially air and water pollution—showed no signs of improvement. Here is my take on the top five hits and misses of 2018.

FIVE HITS

Bold statement on plastics: On World Environment Day, the Indian government pledged an “unprecedented” policy to ban all single-use plastics by 2022. The experience in Maharashtra shows that this policy can significantly reduce waste problems. Maharashtra banned all single-use plastics from June 2018. Six months down the line, urban bodies in the state have reported reduction in plastic waste by up to 40%.
Cleanliness is visible: There are rare times in the history of a nation when an issue captures the imagination of its people. This is such a time in India with regard to cleanliness. Indian cities are visibly clean and the credit for this must go to the Swachh Bharat Mission (SWM). In its four years of existence, SWM has made an impact on people’s consciousness and “[t]here is a perceptible positive change in the mindset of the people towards Swachhata”.
But it is now time to move beyond cleanliness to sustainable waste management, which would mean institutionalising segregation, recycling and reuse.

Renewables on tipping point: The year 2018 will be remembered as the tipping point for renewable energy. First, the share of renewables in total installed power capacity reached 20%. Second, in April-October 2018, the share of electricity produced from solar and wind combined touched the 10% threshold level. Third, for the first time the country added—during financial year 2018—twice as much renewable energy capacity as all conventional power (thermal and large hydropower) put together. The stage is now set for a much more ambitious target to decarbonise the electricity sector.

Cleaner fuels and vehicles: Two key developments of 2018 will enable the transition towards cleaner vehicles. The first was the launch of the National E-Mobility Programme, under which the government’s existing fleet of petrol and diesel vehicles is being replaced by electric vehicles. The programme aims to increase the share of electric vehicles to 30% of all vehicles by 2030. Second, the pace of introduction of Bharat Stage VI (BSVI) fuel and vehicle standards was quickened. BSVI fuel was introduced in Delhi well in advance of the 2020 deadline, and the Supreme Court has not given the automobile industry any extra time to sell unsold older BSIV vehicles after BSVI standards takes effect on April 1, 2020.

Plan devised to clean air: Concern over air pollution reached a crescendo in 2018. In April, the environment ministry released a concept note on the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). At the end of the year, the government has given a shape to the NCAP with an interim target to reduce air pollution by 20-30% by 2024—102 cities have been asked to submit city action plans. An institutional framework to implement and monitor NCAP has also been decided. Will all these add-up and make the air breathable? We should wait and watch how this programme unfolds in 2019.

FIVE MISSES

Forest policy missed the wood for the trees: The big picture of India’s forests is this: First, the health of forests has declined significantly. Second, our dependence on imported wood has increased manifold. Third, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), more and more forests are being handed over to the community for sustainable management. And, last, India has pledged to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5–3.0 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030 in forests. Against this background, the government unveiled the draft National Forest Policy, 2018 (NFP-2018). But NFP-2018 failed to join the dots.

NFP-2018 has two main objectives: to bring back the private sector in forests—the existing policy has debarred it—and to reassert control of the Forest Department by undermining the FRA. Both these objectives will hit the livelihood of farmers and forest dwellers and will also not improve the health of our forests.

Failed attempt to manage toxins: India’s pesticide regulation is in tatters—pesticides are sold over-the-counter and are misused and overused. Every year, thousands of people die due to accidental intake of highly toxic Class I pesticides, which are banned in several countries. There is a dire need to replace the 50-year-old Insecticides Act of 1968. But the draft Pesticides Management Bill, 2017, failed to reflect the requirements of the 21st century. The biggest problem is that the ministry of agriculture, the regulator of pesticides, also happens to be the promoter of pesticides. Until this conflict of interest is resolved, the management of pesticides will remain in limbo.

Bullied by power plants: The coal-based power sector is the biggest source of industrial pollution. So, in December 2015, the environment ministry notified stringent standards, and gave power plants two years to meet these standards. But when the deadline to meet the new standards took effect in December 2017, power plants simply refused to comply. What’s more, the ministry of power chose to become the mouthpiece of the industry, and supported their demand for additional time. After “hectic” negotiations, the environment ministry extended the deadline by five years. This is the biggest letdown in the history of pollution regulation of the country.

Namami Gange will not meet its target: The ambitious Namami Gange Programme is floundering. A recent Central Pollution Control Board report shows that the Ganga was either clean or slightly polluted at only four out of the 41 locations during the pre-monsoon phase and at only one out of the 39 locations in post-monsoon period. Namami Gange has a target of building 130 sewerage treatment plants and constructing 5,000 km of sewerage network. So far, only 20% of the money has been spent. The government has also notified standards for minimum environmental flows (e-flows) in October 2018. But there is a question mark on whether these e-flows are sufficient to improve the water quality. Overall, the target of cleaning “80% of river Ganga by March 2019 and the whole river by March 2020” will not be met.

Ignoring climate change at our own peril: The IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5OC has made it clear that the world has about 15 years to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Yet, the rulebook agreed on at the UN Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland, further dilutes the weak Paris Agreement. Countries are now on their own to mitigate, adapt as well as pay for the costs of climate impacts. India is already paying these costs, with the country suffering major climate disasters like the Kerala floods this year. But climate change adaptation is still not a top agenda for the government. The National Adaptation Fund remains inconsequential, with an annual budget of about `100 crore. Considering that only a miracle can keep the global temperature increase within 1.5OC, adaptation must become a top agenda for the country in 2019 and beyond.

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