Opinion

Building a better future after Covid-19

Damandeep Singh | Updated on June 04, 2020 Published on June 04, 2020

Economic recovery must be paired with climate action to increase India’s resilience to future shocks

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of our economic system. The virus is impacting citizens, companies, cities, and the economy, with the poorest and most vulnerable communities hardest hit.

Short-term emergency efforts must deal with the immediate impacts, protecting the health and safety of India’s people, supporting workers, and ensuring vital goods and services remain available. As the immediate crisis response transitions to longer-term economic recovery measures, the focus must be on continuing to safeguard health and safety and building a stronger, more resilient economy. It is at this juncture that we take decisive steps to address health, the economy, and the climate together, recognising how deeply connected they are.

The science clearly states that climate change is a present threat to human lives, health, and the economy, with India set to be one of the worst-hit regions in the world. Already, with the recent Cyclone Amphan, locust swarms and a heatwave taking us over 45 degree Celsius, we are feeling the impacts. Taking action to keep it in check is imperative both for human health and the economy. We cannot go back to business-as-usual and lock in air pollution, spending patterns and infrastructure that will inflict further harm on the very people, communities, and economies that the economic stimulus packages seek to support.

Decisions taken today will set the strategic direction for years to come — so we must increase the preparedness of the economy against future crises. Backing high-carbon pathways will risk stranded assets and more economic disruption. Economic recovery must be paired with climate action to increase India’s economic resilience to future shocks.

India is well placed to embed de-carbonisation into its growth strategy, using spending and policy measures to accelerate and unlock barriers to the growth of renewable energy, electric vehicles, and sustainable housing.

Positive signs are visible. Wipro, Dalmia Cement, Tech Mahindra and Polygenta Technologies joined over 150 global companies urging governments around the world to align their Covid-19 economic aid and recovery efforts with the latest climate science to prioritise a faster and fairer transition from a grey to a green economy.

Besides these, two of India’s biggest carbon emitting companies, the state-run oil upstream producer ONGC and thermal power generator NTPC have joined forces to produce renewable energy.

In a surprising move, billionaire Gautam Adani, too stressed the opportunity the pandemic presents for transition to a low-carbon future. Writing on a social medial platform, he noted the precipitous decline in solar costs. “While the immediate economic impact may slow us down, we are presented with an opportunity to pause, rethink, and design a new and faster transition to a low-carbon future,” he said.

System transformation

Cleaner energy continues to become cheaper and increasingly accessible for all. India can power its economy with it to generate new jobs and financial benefits. IRENA’s latest renewable energy outlook showed that savings from transforming the energy system will outweigh costs, and jobs in renewables could quadruple to 42 million globally by 2050 with net gains on jobs in every region of the world.

According to some estimations, India’s renewable energy workforce grew five-fold in five years to 2019. India already has some of the largest solar power plants in the world. Greater investment into renewables, batteries and grid reliability solutions will generate sustainable growth opportunities.

We can accelerate uptake of electric mobility solutions by increasing funding for electric public transport and electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure and supporting fiscal incentives for electric vehicle purchases. With tumbling battery costs and lower running costs, demand for EVs is already rising in India. This shift could create twice as many jobs as the number lost from the demise of petrol and diesel cars.

According to a NITI Aayog report, adopting EVs in India could save about 64 per cent of projected energy demand for road transport, $60 billion in diesel and petrol costs and 37 per cent of projected carbon emissions, by 2030. With a well-managed transition for the workforce, this would be a win-win for the economy and health. Establishing electric mobility solutions now will build an effective and smart infrastructure for the future.

A rise in e-mobility has the potential to transform the electricity grid. Clean energy innovation and creating a sustainable mobility ecosystem go hand in hand — each increasing uptake of the other.

We can create sustainable cities and improve the availability and quality of homes. With India facing rapid urbanisation by 2030, providing decent, sustainable housing is a growing imperative. De-carbonising heavy industry to meet the demand for building materials like steel and cement is essential for cutting emissions and improving air quality. Innovation is well under way in both sectors. Using economic recovery spending and policies to increase investment in R&D and boosting demand for low-carbon materials through public procurement will help accelerate the de-carbonisation of heavy industry, creating jobs in the near term, while ensuring India’s materials industries are competitive in a zero-carbon future.

Business and government can collaborate to lay the foundations to build back better. Government policies can help business rebuild from this devastating crisis in a way that delivers a healthy future for everyone.

As India looks for global investments to fund its economic recovery, it would do well to listen to groups like the Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change which include behemoths like BlackRock. They stress that: “Governments should avoid the prioritisation of risky, short-term emissions-intensive projects.” They say recovery money is best spent on creating jobs and sustainable infrastructure that help meet the goal of net zero carbon emissions across all sectors.

India has the potential to take the global lead as a thriving net-zero carbon economy. By phasing out coal, further incentivising EVs, investing in renewables and R&D for heavy industry, India can position itself as an attractive location for multinational investment. This will enhance competitiveness, create jobs and sustainable growth, improve energy security, and dramatically enhance people's quality of life. To secure these benefits, India must incorporate climate action into its Covid recovery plans and chart a course out of the crisis towards a better future.

The writer is Director, CDP India

Published on June 04, 2020
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