[Commentary] India can build back better from COVID-19

  • The World Environment Day 2020 celebrations amid the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder to the world under recovery, to build back better and avoid unsustainable exploitation of nature.
  • The efforts to recover the economy should avoid focus on fossil fuel subsidies and instead focus on climate-friendly stimulus and recovery methods, writes Atul Bagai, the head of the UN Environment Programme India Office, in this commentary.
  • Though it can be challenging to think beyond immediate recovery, the fact remains that the climate change crisis and the issue of environmental degradation need to be urgently addressed.
  • The high-polluting investments cannot continue for decades as that will increase the threats of extreme weather, worsening droughts, floods or typhoons.

A streak of rosetted fur amongst the cliffs. A ruffle of sandy feathers in the long grass. A dorsal fin cutting through the glassy surface of the Ganga. These all used to be common sights in India. Today, they are extremely rare.

The animals in these natural displays – the snow leopard, the great Indian bustard (GIB) and the Gangetic river dolphin – are now threatened with extinction. To catch a glimpse of one is no longer a matter of luck, but of calculated tracking and pursuit.

But imperilled creatures are merely avatars of a much vaster natural machinery, one that is equally in decline. About one million species are threatened with extinction.

There are many reasons for this. Illegal wildlife trade and poaching have decimated certain wildlife like the leopard, bustard and dolphin. But their decline is also due to a severe reduction in habitat not least due to urban sprawl. Pollution, especially in waterways and the air, has devastated species across the board. And unsustainable resource use has shattered once-healthy ecosystems. Lurking in the background of all these hazards to nature is the menace of climate change.

There are many reasons, but there is one common cause. It’s us.

The problem is that when we lose nature, we lose much more than the spectacle of spotting endemic or migratory species in India. Biodiverse, well-balanced ecosystems are fundamental to human existence.

When we lose nature, we lose pollination by animals like bats and bees, and pest control from insect predators. That means we have less food.

When we lose nature, we lose water and air purification from trees, grasslands and other natural filters. That means the water we drink and the air we breathe is less healthy.

When we lose nature, we lose barriers to erosion and natural disaster, and carbon sequestration from forests, peatlands and mangroves. That means we are setting ourselves up for a crisis.

Half of global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature

Almost half of the global GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – US $44 trillion – is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services. More than 70 percent of those living in poverty depend at least in part on natural resources to earn their livelihoods. 

And we also know that where native biodiversity remains high, zoonotic disease outbreaks like, potentially, COVID-19, are less frequent.

For the sake of our existence, and that of coming generations, we need to act now. That’s why this World Environment Day, the United Nations has declared that it is Time For Nature.

With all of the troubles that COVID-19 has brought upon the world, one might assume that the environment cannot be a high priority as we recover. But that would be misguided. COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to build back better and protect ourselves better.

Read more: [Commentary] In a pandemic, a chance to make India’s recovery and growth equitable

COVID-19 recovery efforts should avoid fossil fuel subsidies

Trillions of dollars around the world, and billions here in India are being deployed to support the COVID-19 recovery. 

These public funds should not go back into fossil fuel subsidies or other pollutive endeavours. These funds ought to contribute to a greener, cleaner and healthier India.

This is not a unique sentiment. A new poll conducted by Ipsos in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme for World Environment Day shows that Indians are overwhelmingly in favour of this approach.

A full 89 percent of respondents to the poll in India agree that the government should make protection of the environment a priority when planning the recovery from the pandemic. This was amongst the highest support in the world, according to the late-May poll, which surveyed 15,951 adults from 16 major economies across all regions.

What the public is supporting here is something that is equally backed by 230 economists surveyed in 53 countries.

Coal being transported. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.
Coal being transported. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

A climate-friendly stimulus is a way forward

Their survey responses indicate that green, climate-friendly stimulus and recovery measures would be the ideal options for an economic rebound. These green recovery packages offer both short- and long-term advantages that other types of pubic investment do not.

This popular support and expert endorsement offer governments a significant license to institute green and climate-friendly policies, and there is plenty on the menu.

Green stimulus packages can fund better, more environmentally friendly public transit systems. More public transit capacity will help reduce air pollution. The construction industry can be supported to retrofit buildings to be more climate-friendly, providing immediate, decent work and long-term climate benefits.

Significant public investments can be made in renewable energy capacity and network development. Incentive schemes for the promotion of new champion sectors like solar PV manufacturing can be leveraged to generate green jobs. 

And the credit packages and investment measures announced for the micro, small and medium enterprise sector can be used for the creation of local green enterprises. The public purse can also benefit by putting a higher price on carbon emissions. 

The recovery is also a moment for subsidy reform toward the agricultural and fossil fuel sectors. It is high time we assess whether public financial support for the agriculture sector is delivering good value for money and identify opportunities to repurpose ineffective or inefficient subsidies. These subsidies might be directed towards scaling up nature-based farming practices, for example, thus ensuring food security and resilience of rural communities. 

In the midst of a crisis, it can be challenging to think beyond immediate recovery. But the fact remains that even when we eventually move out of the COVID-19 crisis, the climate change crisis and the crisis of environmental degradation still must be urgently addressed. We cannot lock ourselves into high-polluting investments for decades that will increase the threats of extreme weather, worsening droughts, floods or typhoons. These threats will hold back, and reverse, our ability to survive and thrive in the years to come.  

India can come out of this crisis stronger and in better shape to improve the country’s natural health.

That’s something that Indians want just as much in a green recovery. The World Environment Day poll also tallied whether people thought they had a responsibility to ensure their generation does not destroy the planet for the next. 88% agreed. 

That’s why it’s time for nature. For our generation’s well-being, and the next.

Read more: [Commentary] It is not COVID-19 alone, but also the environment and the economy


The author is the head of the UN Environment Programme India Office.


Banner image: Paddy harvesting in Assam. Photo by Michael Foley/Flickr.

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