The gathering storm of chemical clouds

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The gathering storm of chemical clouds

Thursday, 14 March 2019 | Kota Sriraj

The gathering storm of chemical clouds

Developing economies are logging the highest consumption in spite of the fact that these countries are already suffering from poor monitoring and regulations. India must revisit policies to avoid poisoning of our natural resources

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), that got under way on March 11 in Nairobi, put the spotlight on the chemical production industry of the world and how it is set to severely undermine global environmental conditions. On the first day, the UNEA delivered a wake-up call to the world that the globally agreed target of minimising adverse impacts of chemicals and waste by 2020 is all set to be missed thanks to the rapid growth of the sector making it the world’s second largest manufacturing one. This does not bear good news for countries across the world and more so for fast-growing economies like India.

According to the Global Chemicals Outlook report, chemical production across the world will double by 2030. This clearly means that the countries must find ways in which this spiralling volume is controlled before the very same chemicals seep into our precious ecology and start impacting our food cycle and endanger our flora and fauna. Currently, the world has the capacity to produce 2.3 billion tonne chemicals and according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, already 1.6 million lives have been lost in 2016 due to diseases related to chemicals. With dangerous consequences such as these, it is high time that growing economies, particularly India, focus on replacing the chemicals with more eco-friendly alternatives.

The efforts in the direction of reining in the chemicals in our lives was initiated strongly in 2015 when the world collectively adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — seventeen of these goals relate to chemicals and waste management. In fact, SDG Target 12.4 specifically mandates that “by 2020, achieve environmentally-sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.” But given our intrinsic dependence on these chemicals and the almost lax regulations governing their production, usage and disposal, one cannot help but observe that the impact on our environment is going to be grave indeed.

To understand the very gravity of the issue, one must refer to the assessment by UNEP and the International Council of Chemical Associations in 2018, which showed that there were 40,000-60,000 chemicals being commercially used globally. And 6,000 of them account for 99 per cent of the total volume. Despite a global agreement reached at high-level UN conferences and significant action already taken, environmental scientists continue to express concern over the lack of progress towards the sound management of chemicals and waste. The laxity in the matter is evident by the abundant growth in the sector uninhibited by a meaningful control mechanism and framework.

To make matters worse as of 2018, more than 120 countries did not implement the globally harmonised system of classification and labelling of chemicals.

Against this background, the stark threats of chemical production and their use are too real and serious to be ignored. Moreover, statistics show that developing economies are logging the highest consumption of these chemicals in spite of the fact that these countries are already suffering from poor monitoring and regulations. How this can be allowed is too difficult to fathom.

The fact that chemical production and consumption are shifting to emerging economies, in particular China, is alarming to say the least. The Asia-Pacific region is projected to account for more than two-thirds of global sales by 2030. Cross-border e-commerce pertaining to the chemical industry is growing at 25 per cent annually. This is expected to fuel the growth which will be highest in Asia, with China estimated to account for almost 50 per cent of global chemical sales by 2030. These developments are taking place in total disregard for the international efforts to control the chemical industry.

India in particular has unique environmental conditions, which are already very much burdened by the expanding population and high air pollution levels. Given this, India cannot afford a chemical pollution fiasco and must set up stringent regulations that can control prevalence. The government must revisit the laws governing the production and disposal of chemicals in India. Focus must also be laid on how the by products of chemical production are handled without compromising the environment. India must also check the content of heavy metals in the various categories of chemicals as these eventually find their way into nature, especially ground water tables, and directly impact human health.

The chemical industry needs to turn over a new leaf and thanks to advancements in science and technology, developed countries across the world are now leaving harmful substances out of manufacturing. This is encouraging responsible production and accountable consumption. For this to take place in India the government must educate people about the ill effects of chemicals and highlight the role of naturefriendly alternatives. This alone can have a huge impact on saving the environment from a disastrous onslaught.

(The author is an environmental journalist)

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