Opinion

With the global economy hit by Covid, climate issues may be put on the backburner

Parvathi Preethan/Nambi Appadurai/Shubham Gupta | Updated on April 30, 2020 Published on April 30, 2020

In India as well as globally, the speed and scale of public finance for Covid-19 has already surpassed what climate change has been able to mobilise after decades of negotiations and 25 COPs

As the Covid-19 virus continues to disrupt the global economy and claim lives across multiple borders, majority of the people under varying states of lockdown ponder about what this means for the future, and for life in this new decade of the 21st century.

Covid-19 has cut across class and cities, borders and barriers, and thrown many a government and their healthcare systems under the bus. It has also thrown into light the glaring disparity between the adaptive capacity of different sections of the populations; like most disasters the brunt of this one too, falls more severely on the poor. This is especially visible in India, with a sizeable chunk of its 1.3 billion — the migrant labourers — left stranded, homeless and helpless after the lockdown imposed by the national government.

While India struggles to contain the spread and “flatten the curve”, the lessons from corona raise thought-provoking questions on what this means for another pressing global challenge of our times — climate change. Some unintended by products of the mass lockdown have been an improvement in Air Quality Indices (AQI) across major cities in India. Sadly, most people are unable to venture out to enjoy the benefits of healthier air. Even sadder still, is that it took a pandemic for us to reach here.

Elusive climate aid

2020 is expected to be a pivotal year for climate change negotiations. Countries are to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and commit to more action-based efforts during the Conference of Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow later this year. However, with the global economy predicted to go in recession, it seems likely that climate will again be put on the backburner — for now.

Developing countries have been unsuccessfully fighting for adequate finance and resources to combat climate change. This uncertainty is going to further increase in the post-corona era as most affected countries (especially developed ones like the US and Europe) will pivot inwards and focus on reviving their own economies.

This shows why climate change and corona, though devastating and global in their reach, present different kinds of policy problems. The effects of corona are immediate, urgent and more tangible, forcing governments to act, whereas the effects of climate change are staggered, masked and vary even within countries. This often lulls policymakers into a false sense of luxury, they will address the “more immediate threats” now, and climate change can wait — when we can afford to act, when we get external help, when we have the adequate amount of scientific proof, etc.

Concerted efforts are already under way to provide relief to the economy. The Indian government has already announced a relief package of $22.26 billion. In India as well as globally, the speed and scale of public finance for Covid-19 has already surpassed what climate change has been able to mobilise after decades of negotiations and 25 COPs.

Multilateral agencies have also been fast to respond. The World Bank has already lent $1 billion to India, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) $2.2 billion. In comparison, the total pledged funding to the Green Climate Fund, which was set up to aid all developing countries in their efforts to combat climate change, is just $10.32 billion since its inception in 2010.

The response to Covid-19 demonstrates that both governments and multilateral financial institutions have capacities to deliver finance at speed and scale, but only if there is a will, commitment and urgency to do so.

Lessons for climate resilience

This yet again highlights the importance of main-streaming resilience and converging climate agendas with overall developmental efforts. Funding is likely to focus on strengthening social security systems post the pandemic. Given the fact that most of India’s workforce are in agriculture and the informal economy, there is a huge need to strengthen the existing safety net measures and building targeted and innovative responsive policies.

For instance, MNREGA, arguably the world’s biggest social programme, can be used in a targeted manner. Workers can be employed under MNREGA for creating assets such as watersheds, farm ponds and sanitation infrastructure. Additionally, fine tuning the existing Public Distribution System (PDS), essentially by universalising it and making it more portable across locations, can benefit the migrant population and the urban poor by giving them easy access to food.

Such efforts act as buffers both against natural disasters like droughts and build resilience. At the same time, they also provide a stimulus for regeneration of natural assets and also as collaterals in times of crisis, especially for the rural population.

The lessons we learn from the pandemic are not just limited to strengthening safety nets and supply chains. It also raises more questions at a more broader level. There are emerging patterns indicating shifts in behaviour, both at the individual level and across society in general. Early signs of the power of social capital are visible, in the many billions maintaining social distancing, and in the remarkable solidarity and purpose of union shown within and across national boundaries to limit the spread of the virus.

The ability of knowledge-based workforces to embrace working from home option has limited (at least marginally), the economic disruption caused by a total shutdown. Covid-19 also shows the importance of investing in science. This is especially true for India, where eased policies should incentivise more R&D and more innovation, be it for health, disaster or climate efforts.

These emerging lessons and insights have enormous significance and relevance to climate resilience. As individuals, people often report feeling hopeless and insignificant to effect change on the scale that is needed for something as big as climate change. But individual behavioural change effected by billions makes a decisive difference. The intricacies that are driving the behavioural outcomes of the Covid experience could be examined and applied for the climate change context. Society could lead the transition to a more resilient future.

The post-corona era

When the world, and India, reach a post-corona scenario, there are both challenges and some opportunities, for climate change. What would be the new norm? Would globalisation take a pause, with less carefree tourists and more closed borders? Would we see Indians wearing masks in public spaces as they go about their daily chores? Would we be wary of overcrowding our public transport systems and pubs? Would we have restricted travel and more online meetings and Zoom calls? And most importantly, would we quickly reverse any environmental co-benefits we may have seen during this period, and go back to business as usual?

One can only hope that we don’t. 2020 will be remembered as the year of Covid-19 for sure. But we still stand a chance of making it as a year of learning lessons, and the year of climate action.

The writers are part of Climate Resilience Practice, World Resources Institute India

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Published on April 30, 2020
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