The collective efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic in India offer vital lessons that could inform science-based climate action strategies in various states

India's lockdown to contain the coronavirus epidemic emptied roads in cities, leading to a marked decrease in air pollution )Photo by Pixabay)

India’s lockdown to contain the coronavirus epidemic emptied roads in cities, leading to a marked decrease in air pollution (Photo by Pixabay)

The year 2020 is an important milestone to enhance global response to climate change. It is also the year that humanity is facing an unprecedented global crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. Governments are scrambling to protect their people and livelihoods. Organisations are learning new ways of working to keep pace with the change. In a matter of months, the world has transformed.

Authorities in India have taken quick steps to limit the impact of Covid-19. The country went into a lockdown from March 26, which has now been extended to May 31. More than 150,000 people have been infected and over 4,000 have died, going by official figures.

Amid new threats, there is an urgent need to refocus attention to other serious issues of global relevance and the elephant in the room – climate change. In the backdrop of surging climate-related disasters and IPCC’s recent warning of the limited time we have to restrain global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times, the threat of climate change calls for a stronger collective action and a united response to address what lies ahead of us, akin to the ongoing pandemic.

“Like this pandemic, climate change is also going to push on the networks that make up our civilisation. Unlike the pandemic, its effects will be long term, and there won’t be a vaccine that can save us,” Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at University of Rochester, said in a recent analysis. “As with the threat of a pandemic, scientists who study climate change have been warning for decades that we are unprepared for what lies just over the horizon. And, as with the pandemic, we’re ignoring all the warnings. Even some people who believe climate change is coming ignore the warnings and continue to live in areas where fires and floods will increase.”

This year’s annual United Nations climate summit, scheduled for November 2020 in Glasgow, has been postponed to November 2021 due to the epidemic. It was supposed to be a significant moment for the climate discourse after the landmark 2015 Paris agreement since countries were expected to ratchet up their climate ambitions. The economic challenge thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic should not derail ambitious climate action. Instead, it should be looked at as an opportunity to bring economies back on track in a much better way, propelled by clean tech, resilient systems and clean jobs.

This year is linked to the timeline for enhancing nationally determined contributions (NDCs). It means that, despite the postponement of the Glasgow summit, there is still an expectation that countries will bring increased ambition for action in this vital climate decade.

Indian states remain committed

With focus and resources shifting towards tackling Covid-19 in India, we acknowledge that the pace of state-level climate action will be slower than usual. India’s provinces, social organisations and philanthropies have come together to complement efforts made by the national government by responding to the novel threat.

As climate action takes a backseat for a while, states are keen to use this opportunity to reflect upon and view the situation from multiple angles. Apart from highlighting the positive impacts of lowered human and economic activities on the environment and human well-being, some states have also expressed the need to collectively devise strategies informed by science.

While drawing parallels between Covid-19 and climate change, Shwetal Shah, technical advisor, Department of Climate Change at the western state of Gujarat, spoke about key trends that could emerge from the situation. Gujarat is a former member of the States and Regions Alliance, now Under2 Coalition, a global community of state and regional governments committed to ambitious climate action in line with the Paris Agreement.

“There is no doubt that the world is passing through an unprecedented crisis, one of the worst in recent times,” Shah said. “Climate change, which is already a serious threat to mankind, has the potential to get converted into such a global crisis if we do not adopt a sustainable lifestyle and build a resilient economy. The future is going to be very serious even after the end of the pandemic of Covid-19.”

Shah said that learnings obtained from such a crisis need to be applied to the next level of planning and policies. It is possible to reduce transport-related emissions and address air quality issues by simply curtailing unnecessary travel, Shah said. The case for sustainability might gain stronger momentum with greater push for electric vehicles, rooftop solar power and so on till 2030. Disruptive technologies could make faster inroads in the manufacturing and services sector, Shah said.

Some states are leading the fight against Covid-19. Highlighting this and the positive impacts of the lockdown, Mudit Kumar Singh, director general of Chhattisgarh Council of Science and Technology and ex-nodal officer, State Centre for Climate Change in Chhattisgarh, said, “Chhattisgarh is a biodiversity hotspot and a richly forested state. Despite the scattered population density in the state, an efficient and proficient administrative management has been able to contain the spread of Covid-19 cases to a few pockets.” Chhattisgarh is also a member of the Under2 Coalition.

The lockdown has brought perceptible reduction in air pollution, with average air quality index of particulate matter being less than 10 to 15 microgram per cubic metre in the state, Singh said. “The demand for petrol and diesel consumption has reduced by 25%, which has significantly reduced carbon emissions and strengthened the climate resilience of the state.”

Policies informed by science

The need for policies informed by science is of utmost urgency today. Stressing on this and the role of sub-nationals, Lokendra Thakkar, coordinator, State Knowledge Management Centre on Climate Change in Madhya Pradesh, commented, “The coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly a huge challenge before humanity. However, it is also an opportunity to develop deep understanding between coeval crisis such as environmental pollution, biodiversity conservation, human-animal relationship, climate change and sustainable development.”

A key learning, according to Thakkar, is that the strategies and policies to combat Covid-19 have been guided and informed by science. “This is a very strong and positive indication,” he said. “I sincerely hope that the political leadership continues to heed the scientific advice around climate change.”

“Taking the cue from the ongoing pandemic, I consider it an opportune time for us at the sub-national level to integrate vital issues such as air pollution and environmental health prominently in the revised State Action Plan on Climate Change v2.0,” Thakkar said. “We at Madhya Pradesh State Climate Change Knowledge Management Centre are committed to address these concerns.”

The West Bengal government, one of the newest members of the Under2 Coalition, is implementing ambitious policies to tackle climate change. Viewing the pandemic as an opportunity to adopt sustainable ways of development, a senior official at the state’s department of environment said, “Covid-19 has brought about serious disruptions in the way humans have been living, which has given us space to develop new insights into climate change and the ways to combat it.”

“It has also facilitated unprecedented collaboration due to its global dimension, something that will help in combating climate change, which also has global implications. With restricted movements of goods, availability of inputs like pesticides and chemical fertilisers have gone down which has opened up opportunities to go for sustainable agriculture and organic farming,” the official said. “All this will pave the way for more concerted action on climate change.”

To do this, West Bengal is focussing on core background work through activities like developing greenhouse gas emission inventory, extended weather forecasting for water conservation, supporting farmers and exploring ways to rebuild the economy of the state in an environmentally sustainable and climate friendly manner in post Covid-19.

Advancing state climate leadership

There is no denying that in countries, including India, where public health measures are in force, transport-related emissions have significantly reduced leading to improved air quality. However, it is more important to understand that this is temporary relief and it will be business as usual soon after restrictions are removed post Covid-19.

The Under2 Coalition has taken note of this and is improvising ways to better engage with and support states’ climate strategies despite these difficult times. A webinar-based recent conversation with key states in India brought to attention the use of Climate Action Compass, a tool that can enable Indian states to identify key areas of focus and asses their climate performance vis-a-vis their regional and national action plans.

With the pandemic pushing key moments surrounding climate change to at least 2021, it is time that we stop ignoring science, forge political will and combine forces to work towards avoiding a climate catastrophe while adjusting to the new normal.

Rana Pujari is programme officer – South Asia at The Climate Group. The Climate Group is the Secretariat to the Under2 Coalition.

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