The earth has been rejoicing ever since Covid-19 compelled the world to stay indoors.
The internet can’t stop talking about nilgais wandering on empty Noida roads, or dolphins swimming on the shores of Marine drive – these instances only reaffirm our belief that nature is reclaiming itself. The skies are clearer than ever before, the smog has vanished, and it’s easier to spot stars in an urban night sky.
But while the air may be getting cleaner, the lockdowns are not exactly good news for climate change research, which is witnessing setbacks in the form of funding cuts, cancelled climate conferences and reduced political will to tackle climate change.
Further, experts warn that the change in AQIs (Air Quality Index ) is at best temporary and therefore may not be reason enough to rejoice. The MIT Technology Review has said that it would be a “mistake” to assume that the pandemic could “meaningfully reduce” the dangers of climate change.
Analysing the current situation
The world has cut down on travel, whether it’s by air, train or on roads, thereby improving the air quality. Global cities around the world – Delhi, Sao Paulo and New York to name a few, have witnessed 25% to 60% reduction in fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5 during the lockdown.
The complete lockdowns of nations has also brought down global electricity demand, by as much as 20%. And according to experts, the need for electricity will go down even further, by another 5% – this is considered the biggest drop, since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
India’s energy demands have fallen by up to 30% during the first week of lockdown that began on March 25.
However, while the environmental impact of Covid seems largely positive, the aftermath of the pandemic could swing either way.
There is a high risk that after the immediate crisis dies down, long-term aspirations could be shadowed by short-term easy fixes, which might not augur well for the environment, such as pushing back on environmental standards, using fossil heavy fuels and focusing aggressively on manufacturing.
Govindasamy Bala, Professor, Center for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences – Indian Institute of Science, told The Blue Circle, “I doubt if climate change would be dealt with seriously post COVID-19. Economic growth and profits have become more important than human health or the health of our planet. In the absence of moral and scientific leadership, humanity will have to face the serious consequences of climate change in the long term just as we are now facing the consequences of a pandemic.”
That said, there is also a possibility that the aftermath could alter the way we live in the long run. With the way things panned out during the pandemic, people might become more mindful and compassionate of people and the environment around them, and use this opportunity to reboot the way they live.
According to the Ipsos Earth Day 2020 Global Survey, 81 percent of urban Indians are worried about climate change, and place it at par with the coronavirus pandemic. 71 percent of the respondents also believe that there will be greater environmental activism post-Covid.
The pandemic has united the world, for once, something that wasn’t seen in the world prior to Covid. It is likely that the world might choose global solidarity, and if that happens, the momentum for strong climate action can certainly be built.
In times of crisis, we have also come together to appreciate the way frontline workers have pulled out all stops to prevent the spread of infection. The world is staying indoors and practising social distancing, helping the elderly with chores, or volunteering in health facilities and food banks. Unlike other times, people are united towards a common cause.
Even businesses are adopting a more compassionate approach – most have redirected their production lines to make medical and hygiene products while some are offering online platforms for free. Governments, too, are looking to provide relief to those who have contracted the virus.
All this shows that a large-scale response to a global crisis is possible. We need to harness this wave of compassion and proactivity to protect vulnerable people in all contexts, including those most exposed to climate impacts.
The world has all the tools to tackle climate change, all we need is a political will to turn the world around.
Need for Government action
On April 30, 20 leaders from some of the leading think tanks, renewable energy companies, industry groups wrote to Prime Minister Modi recommending the solarisation of over 39,000 un-electrified health sub-centres that serve a staggering 230 million people in rural India. In remote rural hospitals, where electricity supply is erratic, solar power could be used to run ventilators and other medical equipment.
Rooftop solar panels can also be used in cities and industrial clusters to avoid air pollution. While the capital costs of solar power adoption are high, the government’s recovery package for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises could be a gamechanger to enable low-cost energy efficiency upgrades.
Experts also believe that moving from fossil fuels to clean energy would require the government to transfer some of the massive subsidies currently given to fossil fuels, to renewable energy.
In the last few years, government subsidies for renewable power generation have grown, from Rs 3,224 crore in 2014 to Rs 9,930 crore in 2019. However, the subsidies allocated to carbon-emitting fossil fuels are seven times more.
“The best strategy to tackle climate change remains the same: reduce Carbon dioxide emissions and move our energy systems gradually towards renewable,” said Govindasamy.
As Patricia Espinosa, United Nations climate body chief rightly said, “This is an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages and shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient.”
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