The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching consequences on lives, livelihoods, communities, and economies. The arrival of vaccinations and a better understanding of appropriate treatment strategies has brought forth a new ray of hope. However, there is still a relative degree of uncertainty on the way forward. This is especially true for efforts to revive economies, which are trying to respond to this unprecedented crisis with equally unparalleled recovery measures to bring the world back on track. It is vital that this recovery does not come at the cost of the environment as we are at a critical tipping point with respect to reversing climate change and cannot allow any setbacks to current progress.
At ReNew Power, we understand the importance of this issue and decided to host a tweet chat on #RoadToRecovery.
I would like to share few key takeaways from our discussion:
1. The emission reduction is only temporary.
In December 2020, the Global Carbon Project confirmed that CO2 emissions fell by 7% in 2020 largely due to reductions in transport and fugitive emissions. This was temporary as emission reductions caused by economic downturns tend to be short-lived. Typically, this is followed by a spurt of growth due to pent-up demand and economic stimulus packages. China has already reverted to 2019 levels in terms of its carbon activity. As we recover from the pandemic it is important that we do not replace one calamity with another – a green recovery is no longer optional.
2. An opportunity for change
All the panelists agreed that the pandemic could be an inflection point and a real opportunity for meaningful change. Even before COVID-19 there was a growing discussion across the world about investing in renewables as well as other clean and green technologies. This was not just because it would help save the environment but also because it could boost economic growth and generate jobs. Green technology and renewables are increasingly seen as viable and attractive business opportunities. As the interest in renewables grows, the narrative on climate change has slowly shifted away from global climate talks to actions focused on growth and increased viability of renewable and clean technologies.
There is good reason to be optimistic – US President Biden’s recovery plan bets on clean energy and the European Union is implementing a new green deal. Even before the pandemic, studies showed that countries like the USA, UK, France, Spain and Italy were able to reduce emissions while growing their GDP. The Indian government, for its part, is realising the importance of clean energy to achieve its strategic goals like Make in India and Aatmanirbhar Bharat and is increasingly encouraging investments in green technologies. Globally, investor confidence in renewables has never been higher. The time is ripe to capitalize on this green momentum and accelerate a self-sustained recovery through a greater focus on sustainability, resilience, inclusiveness, and creation of a healthier planet.
3. Strike while the iron is hot: the role of governments and industry
Recovery from COVID-19 presents an ideal opportunity to turbocharge the drive towards a cleaner, more sustainable planet. This unique point in history is unlikely to recur and hence it is vital that the opportunity be seized. Transitioning towards a low-carbon economy in a short span of time will require high priority, multi-pronged, and multi-sectoral effort with collaboration between government and industry. UNEP has listed three critical areas to reduce the emissions gap: a recovery from COVID-19, willingness from countries to set ambitious targets, and advances in clean technologies.
Economic stimulus packages by the government will play a critical role in securing a green recovery. The Indian government has already set an ambitious target of achieving 450 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030. A host of other measures, such as tax incentives, subsidies, and expedited regulatory processes have already begun at the central and state levels and many more will be required moving forward. Dialogue between government and industry stakeholders will be critical in ensuring that regulatory systems are effective, efficient, and conducive to growth.
The government will also need to play the role of facilitator, whether diplomatically with foreign governments or between industry and academia. Both these types of collaborations will, over time, improve the capacity of domestic industries in India.
Improving domestic capacity will be critical for India as the private industry will play a vital role in ensuring a green recovery. The Indian corporate sector is already showing tremendous initiative in advancing clean technologies – major corporates are pledging to meet net-zero targets while disruptive start-ups advancing clean technologies are becoming more common.
4. Healthcare: learning from mistakes
COVID-19 has afforded us an opportunity for a green recovery to create a better world. This is especially true for healthcare in the country. The pandemic threw a spotlight on the urgent need to improve healthcare infrastructure. As with any other reforms, there is a need to prioritise improvements with green alternatives. The healthcare sector contributes 4.4% of global emissions and bio-waste from the sector creates problems with safety and disposal. The latter problem significantly worsened during the pandemic with the use of single-use plastics in PPE equipment. Investing in research in biodegradable alternatives for disposable equipment will help deal with the problem of bio-waste in the future and could lead to an overall reduction in the use of harmful single-use plastics.
It is also important to recognise that the coronavirus is still not fully understood. It may yet remain as an occasional flu and its lasting effects are still being investigated. Recovering patients could also be vulnerable to air pollution, adding to an already long list of increasingly popular ailments exacerbated by climate change. It is high time we look for drastic measures to deal with environmental problems like air pollution and bio waste. These issues have lasting social, economic, and environmental consequences if not tackled effectively and will require a holistic approach targeting the generation, processing, and disposal of these pollutants as well as mitigating their side effects.
A reason for hope
We are at a pivotal point in history. The narrative around climate change is often dominated by pessimism, but we now stand at a moment of immense hope. The unprecedented disruption of COVID-19 has created a unique opportunity to implement the monumental global undertaking required to ward humanity away from climate change and make this decade – the decade of action. This will require collaboration, between government and industry and between different countries. With greater prioritisation of sustainability among governments, corporates, individuals, and other stakeholders at large in the post-pandemic era, a sustainable recovery seems increasingly plausible. Ensuring equity and inclusiveness of the green recovery is essential as well. Perhaps it is time that debates of the ‘new normal’ should move beyond video conferencing and work from home to include a greener society and more sustainable business practices.