Civic Sanskriti: Life on a finite planet

Economic growth, especially in the last 50 years, has certainly led to increasing carbon emissions, and the prospect of dangerous climate change
A person looks at a screen and electronic ticker board show outside the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) building in Mumbai, India, (Bloomberg)
A person looks at a screen and electronic ticker board show outside the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) building in Mumbai, India, (Bloomberg)
Published on Apr 06, 2021 04:44 PM IST
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BySanskriti Menon

We are entering the 50th year since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which was the first global conference to make the environment a major issue. It was also in 1972, that a group of young researchers at MIT, USA, presented their report called “Limits to Growth”, with the key message that unlimited economic growth on a finite planet is impossible.

Over the last few decades, questions have been asked in relation to that message, and especially with greater understanding of climate change and globalisation: who is growing - is it transnational corporations? What does “growth” mean – is it the well-being of people, or do we mean GDP growth, even counting pollution clean-up as growth? What is the impact of economic growth on people and the environment – does it lead to a better life for all, or profits for some and poverty for many?

Economic growth, especially in the last 50 years, has certainly led to increasing carbon emissions, and the prospect of dangerous climate change. We only have about a decade to get our act right.

While India seems on track with renewable energy targets, the new discussion is: can India set itself more ambitious targets of carbon emission reduction?

While the average carbon footprint per person in India is not high, globally, we still have the third largest collective footprint as a country. Growth in food, education, healthcare, infrastructure, has led to many gains over the past few decades. But, now we need to check our growing carbon footprint.

The Climate Collective Pune (https://www.climatecollectivepune.org/) formed by a few like-minded individuals in 2018 has been deliberating upon the idea of carbon neutrality.

Suggestions submitted to the environment minister include: very large increases in distributed solar power, including rooftop systems for domestic use; improving energy management and doing away with diesel gen-sets; complete (or maximal) shift to electric vehicles; and extensive ecological restoration and greening to sequester carbon.

The Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC), developed by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, has provisions for how to make buildings more energy efficient. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have already adopted it.

MEDA and the Urban Development Department have key roles to play.

Since electric cars and bikes are still cars and bikes, occupying road space and using energy currently still generated from dirty coal, we do need to change the way we travel. Reducing private motorised modes will improve road safety, make more efficient use of road infrastructure, and make active travel realistic and safer for those who do choose to walk and cycle.

Last week, Climate Collective Pune launched Eco Fusion, an e-magazine to reach out to Punekars with ideas for becoming more environmentally responsible and climate resilient. In his article, Dr Chirag Dhara, a scientist with IITM, Pune, suggests that we must go beyond renewables and electric vehicles.

We need a close look at growth and consumption such as private vehicles, fashion, junk food, fuelled by planned obsolescence and advertising leading to “manufacturing of desires”! These cause extravagant use of fossil fuels, minerals, fresh water which are in limited supply. Chirag suggests that we must engage with the idea of “de-growth”, and aim for a conscious change from profligate consumption.

Ashish Kothari, a founder member of Kalpavriksh, suggests we should go further than de-growth, which is an idea emerging in the developed world. We need to listen to “ecological democracy” voices emerging in the grassroots movements in India.

The key ideas of ecological democracy pertain to living within ecological limits, as well as with equity. There is no single right answer, but communities may evolve their own local solutions in a convivial way, fostering social justice using direct democracy methods. This itself can make life more meaningful.

Alternatives Forum, or Vikalp Sangam (https://vikalpsangam.org/) has been documenting many such inspirational grassroots movements from across India.

What is ecological democracy in the urban context, and in the urban-rural-regional context? Could urban movements engage more consciously with and benefit from the ideas of ecological democracy? Is it possible to start at a neighbourhood - or city-scale in Pune?

The pandemic has increased economic recession and large-scale distress among urban poor and informal economies. How can we “decarbonise” as well as make life better, especially for the poor?

These are among the most important conversations we must have.

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Monday, November 29, 2021