Sustaining a green future

Oliver Ballhatchet | Updated on June 06, 2021

UK-India ties are crucial for creating green innovation

With a deadly Covid-19 wave rampaging across India, protecting our nature cannot be set aside as a priority for later. We must take action now, not least because of the evidence that pandemics are more likely precisely because of the destruction of natural animal habitats, bringing human and animal populations closer together. As UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said at the UN General Assembly last September, “about 60 per cent of the pathogens circulating in the human population originated in animals and leapt from one species to the other in a ‘zoonotic’ transmission”.

Through the pain, the pandemic has helped us glimpse a brighter future. We have gained a heightened appreciation for our environment. We have seen how quickly the skies can clear and the nature returns to its full glory when the brakes are put on unsustainable overdevelopment. We have demonstrated our collective capacity to solve massive global challenges, developing Coronavirus vaccines at rapid pace. But we have also seen our human inclination to think short term, by failing to develop sustainable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at the same speed.

So we all now face a choice; whether to return to the status quo, or attempt, individually and collectively, to build back better, greener, putting nature at the heart of our decisions; planning for tomorrow as well as today. In my two years of living in Chennai, I have been impressed by India’s commitment to the environment. From individuals like 14-year-old Vinisha Umashankar, who has won global recognition for inventing a solar powered ironing cart, to large scale programmes like the protection of the Pulicat Lake, straddling the Andhra Pradesh-Tamil Nadu border, home to 160 fish species and 110 varieties of terrestrial and aquatic birds, mammals and reptiles.

The solution to protecting the environment lies in data and technology. We need to know the quantum and utility of what we are protecting; the problems we are trying to fix. To fix them, we need innovation. The UK’s National Capital and Ecosystem Assessment is one such step to capture the data. In India, the Chennai-based National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management is mapping India’s coast and wetlands, ensuring that planning decisions small (housing) and large (offshore wind) take environmental impact into full account. The UK and India are partnering under the Commonwealth Litter Programme to take action on plastics entering the oceans, working with India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences and its National Centre for Coastal Research.

On technology, we have seen some exciting innovation emerging thanks to public and private initiatives. One such breakthrough is plastic that is fully biodegradable in the open environment while also being recyclable. This has been pioneered by the UK’s Polymateria, an Imperial College spin-off company and was made possible, in part, through grants from Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation, funded by the UK government. After 18 months of testing in India against a new British standard for biodegradable plastic, a range of Indian companies will also be adopting this ground breaking technology.

Perhaps our biggest challenge is to come together as nations to set agreements that lead us to a better future. India has led the way, establishing the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. The UK has been proud to lead the Global Ocean Alliance since 2019, promoting a target to protect 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030. We then made the same commitment to protect land – the 30 by 30 campaign – as part of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People.

The next big opportunity comes this November, at COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, hosted by the UK in Glasgow. The same land use change and unsustainable overdevelopment, like deforestation, that has wreaked havoc on our environment is arguably contributing to the even greater challenge of climate change. At COP26 we must all strive to achieve net zero emissions so as to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees, continue to adapt to extreme weather and raise the necessary finance to do so.

We are at a crossroads as we seek to recover from this pandemic. I choose to believe that together we can find a path to that cleaner, brighter future.

The writer is British Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai

Published on June 06, 2021

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