“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshipping.” -Hubert Reeves
Nature can be defined as the natural, physical or material universe. It has roots in the Latin word natura meaning “essential qualities, innate disposition”. Nature provides human life with essential resources crucial for living. Over the centuries, extensive damage has been done to the environment. Much of it has been a result of human activity. Time and again scientists have warned the world of dire consequences, if we fail to reverse the tide of climate change. Even though the human race appears to be disconnected with natural surroundings, human life is heavily dependent on nature. Therefore, preservation of the same is key to survival.
At present, the world is grappling with the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic; a result of unusual interaction between human life and the environment. The first cases of this virus were identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Over the last six months, the world has seen severe damage to human life and livelihood. Most countries have responded to this pandemic by imposing a nation-wide lockdown, allowing only essential services adhering to strict social distancing measures. While the number of cases has varied, a common result of such lockdowns has been a cleaner environment. Pictures and videos of clean canals in Italy, lions laying on the roads of Kruger National Park, South Africa and Sambar deer roaming in the streets of Uttarakhand, India have been widely shared across all media channels. Venetian water channels in Italy, have cleared up and small fish can be seen in the waters, resulting from the reduced boat traffic that usually brings the sediment to the top. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites have detected reduced levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) in the air in China. Marshall Burke, an Earth system scientist, suggests that this possibly saved the lives of 53,000 to 77,000 people. While this sounds astonishing, he argues that it is not so, as annually air pollution causes more than 1.2 million deaths in China. Many argue that this is nature’s way of healing itself.
The lockdown imposed on India brought the lives and livelihoods of 1.3 billion people to a near stand-still. While it left several thousand people stranded, and without work, it allowed for temporary respite from the high levels of pollution in the country. Known as one of the most polluted countries in the world, it has shown drastic reductions in the levels of harmful microscopic particulate matter known as PM 2.5, and of nitrogen dioxide, released by power plants and vehicles. As per real time monitored data released by the CBCP, of the 36 monitoring units placed at various points of the Ganga river, the water quality of 27 points was suitable for bathing and propagation of wildlife and fisheries. Earlier the portion of the river, from Uttar Pradesh till the Bay of Bengal, was unfit for use. "1/10th of the pollution in Ganga river comes from industries. As industries are shut due to lockdown, situation has become better. We have seen 40-50% improvement in the Ganga. It is a significant development," reported Dr.PK Mishra, Professor at Chemical Engineering and Technology, IIT-BHU.
The cause to celebrate, however, is short-lived. The impositions of lockdowns are not a permanent solution. Populations have to resume their daily activities in order to keep the economic and social systems afloat. Currently reduced pollution levels are a result of a stranded economy, stemming from severe suffering to human life and not a purposeful attempt to decarbonise our way of living. In order to fight climate change, reduced pollution levels have to be a deliberate and intentional sustained effort. The pandemic presents us with an opportunity to invest in a clean energy future, one that focuses on human welfare, not human or economic suffering.
The dependency on fossil fuels as a primary source of energy has left countries increasingly vulnerable to extensive economic damage by the pandemic, highlighting the fact that governments must engage with renewable sources of energy to protect against such crises in the future, says Dr. Charles Donovan, Executive Director of the Centre for Climate Finance and Investment at Imperial College’s Business School, London. The call for a switch to cleaner sources of energy is not new; activists and climate scientists have been vocalising this argument as a way of protecting the environment for a long time. However, Dr. Charles Donovan argues that clean energy will be attractive to investors and policy makers for solely economic purposes.
Christiana Figueres, former Head of the UN Climate Change Convention that established the Paris Agreement (2015), opines that there exists a link between COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Financial recovery packages released by governments to salvage the suffering global economy could amount to almost $20 trillion in the next year and a half, defining the workings of the global economy for the next decade or more. The pandemic is the golden opportunity, she writes, “to ensure rescue packages don’t merely recover the high carbon economy of yesterday, but help us build a healthier economy that is low on carbon, high in resilience and centred on human wellbeing.”
With major economies formulating economic recovery packages to combat the aftermath of COVID-19, politicians, business leaders, academicians, decision-makers are in favour of using this opportunity to switch to a low-carbon future. Global public support has been shown in favour of aligning economic recovery with environmental concerns and targets. A poll conducted by Ipsos Mori reveals that 71% of the global population consider climate change to be as serious as COVID-19, while 65% believe that it should be a focal point in the framework for recovery. This approach has seen support in advanced economies, as well as in countries like India and Mexico with 81% and 80% of their citizens in favour of prioritising environmental protection in the recovery of the economy.
The International Economic Agency (IEA) held a high-level round table conference in April 2020, attended by government representatives and other leaders from across the world. The purpose behind this meeting was to discern ways in which to create employment opportunities and encourage economic growth and recovery by engaging with technologies of clean energy. In spite of the difficulties from COVID-19 that the world faces today, all representatives expressed a strong resolve to remain committed to engaging with technologies of clean energy when drafting and implementing economic recovery packages. Most participants, including India, the UK, the European Commission, at the conference were those engaged with the IEA’s Clean Energy Transitions Programme, working to hasten the development of clean energy in developing economies. The discussion’s focal point was the advantages of incorporating investments and policies of clean energy in national economic recovery plans.
Similarly, a study conducted by Oxford University in May 2020, explored the benefits of aligning the fight against climate change with national economic recovery frameworks. The team of internationally recognised experts, including Nobel Peace Prize Winner Joseph Stiglitz and renowned climate economist Nicholas Stern, examined the economic and environmental ramifications of adopting a green approach to recovery. They analysed several hundred stimulus policies launched during or after the 2008 Financial Crisis, and conducted a survey among 231 experts across 53 countries. Based on the findings of the survey, and the lessons of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the team found that “green projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spend and lead to increased long-term cost savings, by comparison with traditional fiscal stimulus”.
Influential business leaders, many of whom were present at the IEA event in April 2020, have called on their respective governments to actively invest in clean energy as a component of the framework for recovery. More than 200 UK business firms and investors have called upon the government to prioritise environmental concerns in the recovery package. They advocate that COVID-19 should be regarded as a “spring board to propel a green economy”. A group of business leaders, policy makers and researchers have also lobbied with the European Union Parliament to draw up recovery plans that are in tandem with the EU’s Green Deal Policy; making it the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
Similar sentiments have been echoed by Indian business leaders. Among 150 global business enterprises, four Indian corporations have released a statement, calling on governments to align targets of environmental protection with their post COVID-19 economic recovery plans. Top Executives at Dalmia Cement, Wipro, Polygenta Technologies, Tech Mahindra, along with others from 34 sectors from 33 countries are signatories to this statement. It is the largest-ever advocacy program for the climate led by CEO’s and supported by the United Nations, signed by individuals from 155 companies with a combined market capitalisation of more than 2.4 trillion dollars, representing 5 million employees. The statement reads, “as countries work on economic aid and recovery packages in response to COVID-19, and as they prepare to submit enhanced national climate plans under the Paris Agreement, we are calling on Governments to reimagine a better future grounded in bold climate action.”
An open later has also been issued by more than 40 million health professionals, backed by the World Health Organization, Global Climate and Health Alliance, and air pollution campaign group Every Breath Matters, calling on all governments to draw up recovery packages which invest in safeguarding public health and providing jobs, and highlights how sustainable agriculture, green energy, and clean transport are key to a healthy recovery. "A healthy recovery recognises that human health, economic health and the planet's health are closely connected; the pandemic has demonstrated that economic recovery must be achieved in ways that strengthen our global health resilience," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
Individuals and experts from all walks of life, as can be seen above, have denoted green recovery as the need of the hour. As lockdowns are eased globally, the fear that human activity will return to contributing to high levels of pollution are not unfounded. Figures published by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reveal that pollution over China in May 2020 reached a far higher level in comparison to the same time frame in 2019. To intensify matters further, the IEA recently reported that the next 6 months are crucial to upturn the course of climate change. As frameworks and paths of recovery and recuperation are explored, policy-makers and decision-making bodies must take into cognizance the importance of adopting environmentally friendly policies and plans.
-The author is the Executive-Public Relations, Acid Survivors and Women's Welfare Foundation, Srei Foundation