Clearer rivers[i], cleaner air, more birds and wildlife around us, reduced emissions of global warming gases, rock bottom demand of fossil fuels, quieter surroundings, view of Himalayan mountains from Jalandhar and other places, more flamingoes in Mumbai, reduced road accidents, to name a few. Can we call them collateral Benefits of Covid-19 induced lockdown? It’s true that with the kind of unprecedented sickness, misery and impacts that Covid-19 has brought, with all the attendant Hardships to the poor, the death and the sickness of thousands, it’s difficult to talk about any benefits of this episode. But on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day 2020 on April 22, a lot of people are talking about healing of the earth. (The above photo is a screenshot from official Earth Day 2020 website.)
And there is little doubt that this indirect fall out of man made Covid-19 crisis, this healing of the earth was long overdue. It has in fact brought people closer to the nature. Naturally, question arises, how can we sustain these collateral benefits of this crisis? It will of course demand a lot of doing by each of the earth resident to make it possible to sustain these benefits.
The Changes Harini Nagendra wrote in The Hindu of April 12, 2020 in her article “In our wildest dreams”[ii] says: “Unless this period of social distancing leads to a fundamental requestioning of our ways of living and working, consumption and leisure, unless we can engineer a fundamental cultural shift, tales of the world healing itself will remain just that — dreamy tales.”
It was great to see editorial in The Times of India on April 21, 2020, making right conclusions on Clean Flowing River during lockdown: “But that doesn’t mean we have to pollute our rivers again. Several countries have been implementing industrial wastewater treatment strictly for half a century now and India needs to join their ranks at the soonest. It needs to protect rivers from untreated domestic sewage as well… It has shown that reviving the hydrology of our rivers is not just necessary but doable.”
Business Standard, in fact wrote an editorial “The Climate ‘dividend’”[iii] highlighting why we need to see how we can ensure that the unexpected upsides of the lockdown can become regular features through prudent investments and policies post lockdown.
A report in Mint similarly emphasised: There are also the social costs of using fossil fuels, with the increase in premature mortality, air and water pollution and the stress on a burdened healthcare system.[iv]
Climate solutions are pandemic solutions? Interestingly, the theme of Earth Day 2020 is “action on climate change”, since, the Earth Day website[v] says: “Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.”
True, but as Aaron Bernstein[vi], a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital who heads the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health delivers a powerful message in this regard: “And this is truly mind-blowing to me: A 1 microgram per meter-cubed increase in particulate matter raised the chances of death from COVID by 15%. This is a very small change in air quality, leading to a substantial increase in risk of people dying… We have lots of evidence that deforestation drives disease (ebola, malaria, etc) emergence. Deforestation is also a major driver of climate change. Preventing deforestation is going to help both the climate and infectious disease risk… climate actions benefit our health right now — especially in ways that get at some of the biggest health problems we face… These are critical parts of addressing obesity. And, of course, the more we use public transit and active (walking, biking) transit, the lower our carbon emissions will be.”
He concludes, “It’s entirely possible that the improved air pollution that resulted from China slowing its economy may save as many — if not more — lives than the virus took away. That’s how profound this effect is… I think it just underscores that we need to refocus our attention on doing what we can to keep these diseases at bay. And that in large part means we have to combat climate change, and we have to combat the root causes of biodiversity loss, the destruction of life on earth.”
His powerful, underlining message is clear: “So, climate solutions are pandemic solutions.”
On similar lines, a new study in Nature (April 2020)[vii] casts a disturbing light on the prospects of abrupt ecosystem collapse. The report analyzes the probabilities of collapsing ecosystems en masse, and not simply the loss of individual species.
Where is the hope? The next logical question will be, is our Environment Ministry doing anything to sustain these amazing benefits of lockdown? It’s important since it is the most important institute of India that is supposed to be working for the cause of Environment. Unfortunately, the ministry is actually busy pushing mindless infrastructure projects even during this lock down. So for example, on April 7, 2020, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar chaired a meeting of National Board of Wild Life to clear a lot of destructive and controversial projects. The ministry has also put out for public comments draft amendments to the EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) notification that will essentially further dilute the current, lax regulations. When Ease of doing business becomes top agenda of the ministry that is supposed to work for the cause of environment, where is the hope for the earth?
Interestingly, however, Shashi Tharoor[viii], Congress member of Parliament called the clean air in Delhi during the lockdown “something akin to a miracle… the AQI levels in the city have dropped to scarcely believable levels… below 30 on most days” and pleaded, “we should seize the opportunity to try and find a way to drive the economy forward without once again driving our air pollution levels through the roof.” One hopes his party will push an agenda that is commensurate with this plea.
European politicians, CEOs, lawmakers and activists called on April 14, 2020 for green investment to restart growth after the coronavirus pandemic, saying fighting climate change and promoting biodiversity would rebuild stronger economies. “The transition to a climate-neutral economy, the protection of biodiversity and the transformation of agri-food systems have the potential to rapidly deliver jobs, growth and to contribute to building more resilient societies.” [ix] In a joint communiqué on 15 April, G20 finance ministers also committed to an environmentally sustainable economic recovery. It’s clear then that the pandemic has given us a chance. It is now the time to find the political will to achieve this.
It is possible to sustain these collateral benefits, while poor also benefit and not suffer Like in case of most crisis, though the origin of both Covid 19 and climate crisis are among the rich nations and rich among India, the sufferers are mostly the poorest, the farmers, the migrant labourers, the rural India in general. So when we work to sustain the collateral benefits of lockdown, we also need to ensure that this is not at their cost. And this is very much possible. For example, to sustain cleaner rivers, what we need is effective and accountable functioning of pollution control mechanism to ensure that no industrial & urban effluents enter the rivers without full treatment and without achieving the bathing water standards. Similarly, greater emphasis on public transport and electric vehicles while banning polluting vehicles will ensure cleaner air. Just to illustrate that it is possible to achieve these objectives, while taking care that poor do not suffer, rather benefit.
Finding answers to these questions will possibly be the biggest tribute to earth on this Earth Day 2020. The first step would be to achieve a consensus that it is good idea to work to sustain the collateral benefits of Covid 19 lockdown. We have lot of work to do to achieve even that first step.
[v] https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-2020/: “Earth Day was a unified response to an environment in crisis — oil spills, smog, rivers so polluted they literally caught fire. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — 10% of the U.S. population at the time — took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet. The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement, and is now recognized as the planet’s largest civic event… The first Earth Day in 1970 launched a wave of action, including the passage of landmark environmental laws in the United States. The Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts were created in response to the first Earth Day in 1970, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many countries soon adopted similar laws.”
[vii] https://countercurrents.org/2020/04/abrupt-ecosystem-collapse (Source: Trisos, C.H. et al, The Projected Timing of Abrupt Ecological Disruption From Climate Change, Nature, April 8, 2020)