Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment
Keeping our planet safe for future
The population of vertebrate species on Earth in the wild saw a dramatic fall of about 30% between 1970 and 2006, with the worst effects being in the tropics and in freshwater ecosystems. Destruction of species’ habitats by pollutants and land-use change are obliterating flora and fauna at unprecedented rates. The ecological footprint of humanity — the natural habitats, such as water and land, transformed or destroyed as a result of human activity — far exceeds the biological capacity of the earth.
In an attempt to understand the natural world, its relationships with human societies and limits, in 2009, Johan Rockström and others from the Stockholm Environment Institute described elements of the biophysical world that link us together. Often regarded as a “safe operating space for humanity”, these planetary boundaries include loss of biodiversity, land-use change, changes to nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosols loading, ozone depletion, chemical production, freshwater use and, of course, climate change.
In the course of 12,000 or so years after the last ice age, the Holocene epoch has offered a stable climate, a period of grace for humanity to grow and to flourish, with settlements, agriculture and, more recently, economic and population expansion. This epoch has since given way to the Anthropocene, the exact beginnings of which are debated, but which has led to over-reliance on fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, pollution in water, soils and air, loss of species and so on, which are devastating for many life forms and connected ecosystems throughout the planet.
Many of these conditions respond in a non-linear manner to changes. This means, for instance, that ecosystems that are stressed by their exposure to pollutants may not recover once the pollutants are removed. Or, some systems may collapse precipitously under conditions referred to as thresholds.
What does crossing ecological threshold mean?
When ecological thresholds or tipping points are crossed, significant large-scale changes may occur, such as breakdown of glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctica, the dieback of rainforests in the Amazon, or failure of the Indian monsoons.
Since these boundaries interact with one another and cause changes across scales, crossing a threshold in one domain can speed up or undermine processes in another subsystem. For instance, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increase ocean acidification, land-use change often increases GHG emissions, and increasing nitrogen and phosphorus deplete species biodiversity and freshwater resources and increase warming from climate change.
Boundaries and limits:
We are already at critical levels of concern for climate change, fresh water, species biodiversity and changes to nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, which are reaching tipping points. For example, GHG emissions have led to average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations being about 410 ppm. This is well above the 350 ppm level considered a ‘safe’ limit, and the earth is already about a degree Celsius warmer than average pre-industrial temperatures.
“Carrying capacity” and “limits to growth”:
One may regard planetary boundaries as support systems for life on Earth or view them as expressing “carrying capacity” and defining “limits to growth”. The thesis was published nearly half a century ago by the Club of Rome as a book in 1972. It described the situation we would find ourselves in with exponential population and economic growth. Tthe “limits to growth” argument provided a lens through which to view the changing world of the 21st century. It also offered the idea of thinking about a system as a whole — systems thinking — not just as separate parts and feedback mechanisms as valuable processes in considering long-term change.
The idea of sustainability:
The idea of sustainability has been embedded in the human imagination for a very long time and is expressed through our ideas of nature, society, economy, environment and future generations. It became formally a part of international agreements and discourse when it was recognised at the Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. This system view and the recognition of interlinkages among the social, environmental, and economic pillars of sustainability, and between biophysical planetary boundaries and social conditions, are essential to have a chance of keeping the world safe for future generations.
In thinking about the planetary limits, researchers and policymakers should reflect on multiple systems and the linkages among them. Step-by-step or transformative changes must be considered to keep the planet safe for the future.
Connecting the dots:
The ecological footprint of humanity far exceeds the biological capacity of the earth. Discuss. Also define the terms ecological footprint and biological capacity of earth. What changes are required to keep our planet safe for the future.
TOPIC: General Studies 3:
Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization of resources, growth, development and employment.
Meeting the target of power for all by 2022 requires innovative solutions
Two years ago, in his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to provide electricity to the 18,500 villages, which did not have electricity then, in 1,000 days. This Independence Day he highlighted that more than 14,000 have been electrified since then. While 99.5 per cent of our villages are deemed electrified, a fifth of the country’s population still awaits an electricity connection and many more suffer due to poor power supply. Hence, the government has moved beyond village electrification to 24×7 power for all by 2022.
The central government has set out this ambitious goal by focusing on household electrification and reliable power supply. As per the Ministry of Power statistics, 43 million Indian households are yet to be electrified. India will take nearly 20 years to electrify the existing unelectrified households if it continues with the current rate of household electrification, about 2 lakh households per month. In order to achieve the target by 2022, we need to increase the rate of household electrification by at least four times. However, even if we manage to achieve the feat, providing 24×7 electricity will remain a problem.
In 2015, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in collaboration with Columbia University conducted the largest energy access survey of its kind in India, ACCESS, covering 714 villages in six major rural electrification deprived states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal.
The study showed that an electricity connection does not guarantee electricity access. Fifty per cent of the electrified rural households across these six states did not receive even 12 hours of supply in a day. The situation was much worse in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, with three-quarters of electrified households receiving less than 12 hours of supply in a day.
Similarly, during evening hours, particularly important for basic lighting needs, half of the electrified households received less than three hours of supply. A third of electrified households in these states still rely on kerosene as their primary source of lighting.
Reliability and voltage instability are also major challenges.
A majority of above mentioned challenges pertain to the operations and performance of state electricity distribution companies.
Challenges in infrastructure planning, deployment, as well as maintenance lead to unreliable and poor supply at the local level. Thirty per cent of the rural electrified households in the six states did not have electricity supply for 24 hours on more than four days a month. This indicates a frequent breakdown of the infrastructure as well as delays in repairing them. Only about half the electrified households in the six states had a metered connection, with the situation much worse in UP that had only 15 per cent metered connections.
Unmetered connections with flat fees provide no incentive for households to be judicious about energy consumption, discouraging distribution companies to supply reliable power. DISCOMs in these states often struggle with limited or non-performing staff to effectively operate and maintain services in rural areas. A fourth of the metered households either received either a fixed bill or no bill at all, indicating that DISCOMs did not have the capacity to read meters and generate bills regularly. Electricity theft and payment defaults pose further challenges for the DISCOMs.
We need innovative solutions to address the electricity access challenges posed by rural India.
Village-level entrepreneurs could be contracted to operate and maintain the local distribution while generating bills and collecting revenues from the customers.
Banking on community relationships, these entrepreneurs could improve compliance on payments as well as curb stealing of power.
Recruiting and training local youth could help address maintenance issues. This will also help in creating more skilled jobs and entrepreneurs in rural areas.
Pre-paid and smart metering systems are other ways to encourage payments. Such solutions need to be piloted and tested.
As the government races to meet the 2022 target, it must also focus on designing robust and innovative tools to measure and monitor the progress on a multi-dimensional level, rather than just counting the number of connections. A new India should also embrace a new electricity system, built on the smart technologies and decentralised approaches offering resilience, flexibility, and above all, inclusiveness.
Connecting the dots:
The Power for all by 2022 target would require robust and innovative tools to measure and monitor the progress on a multi-dimensional level, rather than just counting the number of connections. Discuss.
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