Prof. (Dr.) Sairam Bhat, Professor of Law & Coordinator of CEERA, NLSIU

Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC),  formal declaration by WHO refers to “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through international spread of diseases and potentially requires a coordinated international response”. The International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) came into force in 2007 and India being one of the 194 countries bound by IHR 2005, shall be prepared for containment surveillance, early detection, isolation, case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread and sharing of full data with WHO. The effects of climate change and the intensification of conflicts are now increasing the frequency and severity of emergencies connected with health consequences. Whilst, the correlation of high-impact epidemics and the footprint of conflict is well established, it is critical to explore the impact of climate change and its part in preparedness in pandemic management. Prevention and preparedness in a country like India is a huge task considering the nature of pandemic and density of Population.

United Nation Environmental Program (UNEP) which played a pivotal humanitarian role in the current pandemic situation cautioned the world that COVID-19 is in fact not a period of resilience or renewal time for the environment, and most certainly not a silver lining for the climate change, despite the favorable effect it has created in reference to carbon footprints globally, albeit raising the concerns that the mitigation is a mere temporary process. During the pandemonium, the agencies around the world, international polity and governments re-emphasized the necessity of linking “Nature, health and climate change”. With over 600 major wildfires; heavy rains, major flooding and glaciers bursts, the emphasis was imperative.

Despite lockdown and setbacks from COVID-19, the GHG concentration in the atmosphere continued to rise because of the long-term atmospheric presence of CO2. Global warming has caused major loss of natural habitats which has in turn increased the possibilities of zoonotic diseases that are spread by animals that are displaced from their natural habitats. India is considered as one of the top geographical hotspots for zoonotic diseases.

The UN report [Feburary2021] on Making Peace with Nature unequivocally declared that Climate Change is now a “Planetary Emergency”. The report states that the challenges of Climate change can be mitigated under the framework of UN Multilateral Agreements. In all, the Climate action regime’s response to public health has not been optimized and has largely left its emphasis mainly on the mitigation and adaptation process.

The Paris Agreement is a landmark Treaty on Climate Change and every country’s climate actions in the near future will determine whether the world will achieve the long term goals of the Paris Agreement. The objective is to combat the rising peak of GHG emissions and take rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available resources. The UN Secretary General in his address in the Climate Ambition Summit 2020, urged all countries to declare a ‘climate emergency’ especially during a pandemic as declaring an emergency is a clear statement of the Government’s intent to address the crisis and would require the countries to step up their actions on GHG emissions. With the pandemic playing a catalytic role or that of a a risk multiplier in the existing climate change crisis, thereby causing servitude towards vulnerability in terms of economic viability, social disruptions, livelihood, and societal unrest across the world. Public Health for a long time remained as a part of the environment, protecting the human being rather than achieving a healthy quality of life. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in 2018 highlights how climate change contributes to ‘heat-related cardiopulmonary illness, infectious disease and mental-health issues’ and how societal factors such as poverty, discrimination, access to health care increase the risk for the under-developed countries. Given this multidimensional approach, public health policy needs to be framed as an inclusive policy taking into its contours various facets and factors, contributory or otherwise.

The need for a renewed structure of Global environmental governance is domineering and essential towards resilience. A healthy planet and a healthy economy are complementary to one another thus; policies need to be realigned towards the achievement of climate change preparedness.

The IPCC report on “1.5°C Goal” to keep the rise in temperature to within 2.5 °C is possible provided the global levels of GHG emissions are reduced to half of 2010 levels by the year 2030 and to net Zero by 2050. Besides New Zealand enacting the Zero Carbon Act to achieve its goals, the EU Climate Law seeks to not only declare climate and environmental emergency but aims towards achieve climate neutrality by 2050. India has brought in many initiatives including an increase in renewable energy targets, National Solar Mission, Green Energy Corridor etc. Towards achieving the reduced carbon emissions, India has brought in “Zero effect and Zero Defect”, a policy that aims to enhance Energy and resource efficiency. Similarly, FAME India is a Government of India initiative aiming at manufacture of Hybrid electric vehicles for a transition to clean energy. The grant of fossil fuel subsidies have been reduced and the cess on coal has been increased considerably, towards an incentive for transition. To achieve the net zero emissions, a two-way approach is preferred. Firstly, through green recovery, for instance an increased forest area allows for the absorption of carbon through natural sinks. Secondly, technological innovation and interventions are a key contributing factor that allow for a transition to cleaner energy resource. An attempt for the creation of a Green switch and Green stimulus in all the major contributing sectors may result in the restructuring of the global economy and also global ecology.

Industry, agriculture and urbanization form the major contributor of climate change factors, corrective climate justice inclusion policies in Industry and agriculture would have a positive ripple effect on Urbanization where energy consumption patterns are at higher levels. The current wave of urban focused growth and development, rural to urban demographic transition are a cause and effect of an overwhelmingly evident climate change impact. Efficient agrifood system reduces the risk of Zoonotic diseases and more importantly preservation of sensitive climate hotspots is possible. Species form the delicate balance in food chain system where reliable climate projection along with harnessing technology to maintain the balance can help combat pandemic risk.

A significant part of the workforce in India relies on climate dependent activity such as Agriculture and agri food industry, while the most vulnerable section of the workforce being the migrant workers who remain affected; both economically and environmentally. Agrifood industry must ensure their processes protect land, oceans and atmosphere. The reformation of the agrifood industry would have a significant effect in mitigation of threats to the environment and improvisation of public health standards and reduction of viral disease outbreaks. Unscientific agricultural practices have been one of the major contributors of global warming, besides the increased meat production. Research establishes that per capita meat production requires more land than agriculture resulting in increased global warming, than any other agricultural activity. Since Climate emergency and unsustainable food system practices are closely linked, changing temperatures and extreme weather conditions, changes in physical and biological systems have resulted in the threatened world food security. New risks for safety of human health have increased due to climate change. Pests and fungi can thrive more under warm conditions and a wet climate increases carbon dioxide levels. The University of Cambridge and University of Hawaii study [February, TOI,8th Feb 2021] reveal that climate change accounted for an increase of around 40 bat species in the region subsequently a rise of about 100 local bat-borne coronaviruses.

However the pertinent query is whether the aforesaid emphasis on the need to interlinking public health with Climate Change sufficient? Not adequately though.

When UN secretary General António Guterres, in the Climate Ambition Summit urged all countries to declare a climate emergency, his caution was not unwarranted considering the effect of the pandemic on the environment. Many countries struggle to allocate resources for climate adaptations and the pandemic has increased public health expenditure. He used the term “dramatic emergency” due to situations like pouring in finances to recover from the COVID crisis and recession in which a 50% more stimulus package is to the carbon intensive sectors rather than low carbon emitting sectors. Finance packages are giving importance to economic recovery post COVID, wherein the obvious caution is related to the neglect of climate finance to achieve the 2030 carbon emission target. Pandemics create huge stress on public and private institutional finance as there is sudden decline in economic growth and liquidity.

The UN Adaptation Report 2020 has stated that there has been a substantial rise in climate change litigation worldwide. Courts have become new frontiers and crusaders for the battle against climate change. Litigation activism across has compelled various governments and businesses to respect and accelerate commitments on climate change. Litigation would necessarily compel national and local authorities to disclose climate related risks to the stakeholders on a pragmatic approach. Some of the benefits of climate change litigation would be include the reiteration of Fundamental Rights to healthy environment, including Public health; greater disclosure and compliance from companies and Government in making climate related risks transparent. Climate change and Health emergencies manifest as humanitarian crisis results in certain irreversible changes; which further strengthens international solidarity in climate change adaptation policies.

Environmental judicial activism in India has paved a long history and much to the credit of Judiciary, the vast array of environmental jurisprudence has been developed through decisions of various courts. The journey from environmental protection to climate change litigation has created a repository of climate justice jurisprudence ensuring accountability from the Government and all other stakeholders. Invoking the Public Trust doctrines in environmental matters, the Judiciary has time and again emphasized that natural resources are for the entire mankind and efforts must be taken to preserve them. The Draft National Mineral Policy of 2019, also mandates the adaptation of Public trust doctrine. With the Paris Agreement embarking a different perspective to environmental jurisprudence, Courts have a framework to fall back onto for basic guidelines along with country specific constitutional obligations.

Inseparable Nature of Climate change and Public Health

 COVID 19 has redefined the basic health care facility management and its availability and along the line has re-established interconnectedness between Climate change and Public Health. India has over the years been prone to natural climate extremes, but then there has been a natural policy shift from “Natural calamities as an Act of God” to “Anthropogenic centric Climate Change”. Assessing the public health implications of pandemic requires mapping between climate change and financial regenerative capacity, as COVID 19 pandemic has caused major environmental and economic disruptions. It has altered global waste management system, which is an inclusive factor in the global health care system.

Would it be imperative for India to declare a climate emergency during a pandemic so that economic recovery and climate justice actions are complementary to each other? Whether there is a need to step up the progress such that the economic stimulus package also includes the Green Stimulus package? Should the budget on COVID-19 also include Green Recovery?

In this regard, it may be observed that declaration of climate emergency the Indian environmental legislations, judicial decisions and constitutional provisions provide for sufficient safeguards and mechanism for the same. With a living Article 21 of the Constitution of India providing for an ever-inclusive interpretation, climate justice actions require more political will than anything else. The Constitution of India has different categories of declaration of emergency. Declaring a climate health emergency for a specific period under a New Climate protection law or a Constitutional amendment giving it a constitutional status is for the policy makers to decide and for the judiciary to review. However, learning the experience of Governance in India during the current pandemics, wherein the Government invoked the Epidemic Act and the Disaster Management Act to try can take control of the public health arising from Covid-19 at the national level, it is imperative that at least for the future, the Constitution and legal framework in India does provide for such an eventuality. The Epidemic Act and the Disaster Management Act are neither legislatively adequate not administrative sufficient to address the challenges to deal with a public health emergency. Merely amending the above two legislations will not suffice. While on the other hand since India’s Climate NDC are substantially comprehensive in its targets and achievements, one can argue that the Governments should aim to be in compliant mode to achieve healthcare and climate justice together.

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