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R K Pachauri

R K Pachauri, Former Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2002-2015

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The Significance of World Environment Day

The Living Planet Report (LPR), brought out by WWF annually, reminds us of the damage that we are carrying out to the earth’s ecosystems.

World Environment Day will be celebrated this year on June 5, 2017, as has been the case since 1972 when global citizens organized several thousand events involving clean-up of their neighborhoods, actions against poaching and crimes towards wildlife as well as replanting of forests and preventing deforestation. The theme of World Environment Day 2017 has been chosen as “Connecting People to Nature”, while urging people to go outdoors and to connect with nature, so that they appreciate the beauty and value of the bounty that nature has provided us with. Over 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and a large body of citizens have no understanding of and familiarity with nature as it existed in its pristine glory. The result, therefore, is that in a world, which is obsessed with greater and greater consumption, there is no understanding of how our actions and patterns of consumption progressively degrade and damage the environment. Human beings appear oblivious of the ecological footprint of our way of life.

Going outdoors to nature and understanding the effects of our actions on clean water, clean air, green cover and healthy soil could possibly create a collective resolve to mount efforts by which the quality of these natural resources can be improved, particularly in a country like India.

The Living Planet Report (LPR), brought out by WWF annually, reminds us of the damage that we are carrying out to the earth’s ecosystems. For instance, the 2016 LPR reveals that the global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012. It also warned us that we may be witnessing a two-thirds decline in half a century from 1970 to 2020, unless we act now to reform our food and energy system and meet global commitments for addressing climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development. The WWF assesses that in the aggregate, by 2012 human society had reached a level of exploitation of nature such that we would have required 1.6 Earths in terms of bio-capacity to provide the natural resources and services humanity consumed in that year. Exceeding the Earth’s bio-capacity to such an extent is possible only in the short term. For instance, only for a brief period can we cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than the oceans can replace or emit more carbon into the atmosphere than the forests and oceans can absorb. The consequences of what is termed as “overshoot” through human activities are already clear in the form of habitat and species loss and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaching record levels. Before industrialization CO2 in the atmosphere was at a level of 280 parts per million (ppm), but now it is excess of 400 ppm, leading to unacceptable levels of climate change, constituting perhaps the most serious challenge that human society has created for itself and for all living species.

The developed world has been largely successful in improving the state of the local environment by cleaning up air, water and soil, but it has done very little in reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and thereby discharging its historical responsibility in reducing the risks associated with the impacts of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fifth Assessment Report has projected the widespread impacts of climate change, which would range from reduced yields of key agricultural crops, adverse impacts on human health and risks to life and property from an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events. The IPCC assessed that it is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise. Further, climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.

The Paris agreement on climate change has laid down the goal of limiting average temperature increase to 2 degrees C by the end of the century relative to pre-industrial levels. But the voluntary commitments made by various governments as part of this agreement add up in the aggregate to emission levels which are far above the pathway of GHG concentrations required to ensure adherence to the 2 degree limit. Governments are unlikely to raise their levels of ambition and to commit to higher reduction of GHG emissions unless there is a demand from citizens in each country to take such action. Since the impacts of climate change will leave no part of the globe untouched and since we are all potential victims of climate change impacts, there is today an unprecedented need for action by citizens to deal effectively with the challenge of climate change through a range of actions that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and harness renewable energy technologies on a large scale, while improving the efficiency of energy use. World Environment Day 2017 should, therefore, become a turning point not only in connecting with nature in a physical sense, but applying our minds to protecting the global commons and reducing the risks from climate change. The youth of the world must take the lead in safeguarding their own future and adopting lifestyles that deviate adequately from the consumerist and wasteful patterns followed prominently in the developed world and mindlessly emulated by developing countries as well. June 5, 2017 must become such a landmark for youth leading us to a sustainable future of human society.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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