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SDG Goals and Economy (Government)

Can we halve the global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net zero before 2050, as the 2021 UN IPCC Report says? Emissions were down during the pandemic. However, can the targets be met?


Everything comes at a price. If a country achieves economic growth, that too has a price. Environmental conservation vs Economic growth must be understood. Unfortunately, we have to contend with ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, problem, where every individual has an incentive to consume a resource, at the expense of every other individual, with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. Whereas environmental sustainability is concerned with environmental protection and maintenance for future generations, the economic sustainability is concerned with the present, the immediate or the short term.


Economic growth means an increase in real output or Real GDP where GDP is the total market value of all the finished goods and services. Therefore, if we produce more and consume more, we impose costs on the environment. We consume more non-renewable resources, cause higher levels of pollution, add to global warming and cause potential loss of environmental habitats.


More than three decades back, the United Nations had published ‘Our Common Future’ also known as the Brundtland report in recognition of the sustainable environment work done by Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian Prime Minister He had said, “Sustainable development is what meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As a civilised society, we need to recognise that there are generations that live after we go and that they too must have in abundance the bounties of nature.


There is a trade-off between economic growth and available environmental resources. As a Nation, we must be able to estimate the possible quantities of various products that we produce, if they depended on the same finite resource for their manufacture. There is a certain opportunity cost to this. Besides it may affect long-term sustainability of the environment. Are we not aware that several of our policies have resulted in a decline of natural resources such as forest cover? Trees were cut down to meet the demand for wood or to set up power plants. Even the sources of oil, coal and gas have declined.


We routinely over-fish, most times for food and sometimes greed. Overfishing has shrunk many fisheries around the world. Fish catches have also declined due to warming oceans and greenhouse gas emissions.


Pollution imposes external costs too. Increased consumption of fossil fuels, burning paddy residual and burning trash are some factors that cause pollution. Winter exacerbates it resulting in smog. Increased CO2 emissions or the carbon footprint is equally bad. An enlarged footprint contributes to global warming and volatile weather. An acceptable value is about 2 tons per person per year. Pollution, be it in air, land or water, causes damage to nature, affects health, results in global warming, volatile weather and soil erosion.


Plastics waste, its production and its disposal are the other critical factors in high pollution levels and enlarged carbon footprint. Almost 8.5 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste was generated from 193 countries in 2021, with 26 thousand going into the oceans representing 1.5% of the riverine plastic discharge. It constituted hospital waste, test kits, PPE Surgical, PPE N95 and Packaging. In India, almost 35 lakh tons of plastic waste was generated in 2020 and 31 lakh tons the previous year. Our plastic waste generation more than doubled in the last five years with an average annual increase of 22%. It is also true that up to a certain point, economic growth worsens the environment, but improves after, as use of technology rises. Of course, there is a Prevention and Control of Pollution Act, India 1981 amended in 1987. How effective is this, when State governments themselves are involved is debatable issue.


What must we do if we want to leave a better world for future generations? Large scale shift to renewable and semi renewable resources such as wind or solar power. The current target of 150 GW of total renewable energy capacity must be re-revised to 1000 GW by the end of this decade from the current target of 450 GW.


One important research suggests that renewable energy will be cheaper than burning coal very soon. Semi renewable resources are farmlands. We must practice crop rotation and organic farming to prevent deterioration in the fertility of the soil. Use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides that cause permanent soil erosion and damage must go. If trees are cut down, the nutrients in the soil get washed away making the soil less fertile. In some areas, farmlands have turned deserts.


For ecological sustainability with economic stability, India must seriously look at levying a carbon tax as a social cost to account for external costs. Technology must be harnessed for greater efficiency, lower costs and less environmental damage. It is possible to replace the petrol and diesel running cars with cars running on electricity from renewable sources. Probably it is time to rather than targeting GDP, we target living standards and environmental indicators in our story of economic growth.


Even as we eulogise the electric vehicles as good alternatives, replacing the existing petrol and diesel vehicles, we must also critically examine if they are really environment friendly. In fact, there are reports that they are worse, the reason being the manufacturing process of the batteries and the method of charging them. Did you know that manufacturing an electric car needs twice the amount of energy required to manufacture a regular car and that mining and processing of lithium, cobalt, manganese and indispensable raw materials required in the battery manufacturing process, are also massive energy guzzlers? Actually, electric vehicles leave a much larger carbon footprint. Are they then, the ideal solution as environmentally sustainable alternatives? While electric vehicles do not emit poisonous greenhouse gases and nitric oxide, they run on electricity that is generated by combusting dirty fossil fuels.


As a long-term perspective, our universities must research cheaper zero-emission fuel cell technology which ensures continuous flow of electricity and can be highly durable. Though electricity is generated by making oxygen and hydrogen chemically react which is not expensive, their storage can pose some problems. The tradeoff however, can be vexing.

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