The turn of the decade expectedly brings no respite for societies that have been at war with the environment for centuries. Instances of bushfires, storms, floods and other extreme weather patterns continue to wreak havoc. The last 10 years were the warmest in all of human history. We know that earlier predictions about climate tipping points—the moment in time where a climate cataclysm is likely—were optimistic. As it turns out, we are fast running out of time. This is a global trend which implicates everyone and requires collective action.
The most damaging indictment of our failure is the images of entire cities gasping for breath as fuel emissions, construction dust, commercial businesses and farm waste residue create toxic ambient conditions that are severely undermining the right to breathe. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution is the leading cause of nearly 7 million premature deaths every year. Even worse—air pollution is an intergenerational killer. 90 percent of all children around the world breathe polluted air and 600,000 die before they turn 15 every year. A recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment in Rajasthan found that one infant mortality takes place every three minutes due to Lower Respiratory Tract infection caused by air pollution. These are staggering statistics that must serve as a wakeup call for government’s businesses and communities. Apathy is not a policy option.
The 2020s must be the decade when the international community finally delivers on the promises of sustainable growth of which right to clean air must be an integral objective. This is easier said than done. It is not certain that we will make the right decisions. Climate change and air pollution are “wicked” public policy challenges. There are multiple interrelated casual factors—from the planets own environmental systems to anthropogenic causes—that are driving our societies and ecology to a crisis. These challenges require leadership resolve and innovative responses.
It is time to acknowledge that complex systems require structural solutions that focus on multiple actors, institutions and processes. There is no silver bullet that can clear this smog that chokes. Ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution over two centuries ago, human societies have consciously accepted the trade-off between growth and the environment. We need new models that can create millions of jobs, drive the economy and eradicate poverty without necessarily sacrificing our environment. Single-minded focus on macroeconomic indicators cannot continue to define our political-economic consensus.
It is time to invest in leadership that cuts across ideologies and identities. This might be a difficult task in today’s polarized and parochial times—but common enemies have always catalyzed new partnerships and alliances. The battle against climate change and air pollution might just be the cause that societies can rally around. The answer ultimately lies in political will and incentive. The commitment to clean air must become an electoral issue—our politicians and leaders must be compelled to fight for votes on a platform that supports the right to breathe.
At the Raisina Dialogue this year, incubating a global green new deal is a crucial priority for ORF and its partners. Securing the right to breathe will be the theme of one of our opening dinners—and it will bring together lawmakers, business leaders and civil society practitioners to debate and discuss how best to achieve this. Over the following two days, the Raisina Dialogue will debate how the development agenda can be de-securitized and reclaimed by local communities; how the international community can support progress towards achieving universal health coverage (UHC); how global governance can respond humanely to climate change induced migration; and how states can leverage the 4IR to rediscover linkages between the economy and environment.
We hope that these conversations strengthen the green transformations that our world so desperately needs. We have already taken the initial steps: At the Raisina Dialogue, ORF will launch a study led by Jayant Sinha, MP which draws on success stories from Germany, UK and California to provide a compelling case for why green transitions make for good economics and politics. It is time to strengthen this process. From e-mobility to renewable energy sources, a new green design should be at the core of our urban agenda. It is time also to operationalize climate smart agriculture rather than relegate it to a buzzword. There is an inherent collateral co-benefit in doing all of this: A political and economic agenda that prioritizes the right to breathe will inevitably catalyse the systemic change urgently needed to mitigate the clear present danger posed by global warming.