The novel coronavirus has cut across class and cities, borders and barriers, and thrown many a government and their healthcare systems under the bus. It has also exposed the glaring disparity between the adaptive capacity of different sections of the population. 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 laborers, left stranded, homeless and helpless after the lockdown imposed by the national government.
While India works to contain the spread and flatten the curve, lessons from the pandemic raise thought provoking questions on what this means for another pressing global challenge of our times climate change. Some unintended byproducts of the mass lockdown have been an improvement in Air Quality Indices (AQI) across major cities in India, and cleaner water in the Ganga in some places.
Elusive Climate Aid
Though devastating and global in their reach, COVID-19 and climate change present different kinds of policy problems. While the effects of the virus are immediate, urgent and more tangible, forcing instant government action, climate change shocks are staggered, masked and vary even within countries. This often lulls policymakers into a false sense of luxury, thinking they will address the “more immediate threats” now, and that climate change can wait. This difference is clearly visible if we compare the speed and scale of financial flows.
Developing countries have been unsuccessfully fighting for adequate finance and resources to combat climate change. Even after 25 Conference of Parties(COPs), an international agreement (the Paris Agreement) and several other initiatives, climate finance flows have managed to cross only USD half trillion mark and are nowhere close to scale required to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target.
On the other hand, much bigger financial packages have already been announced to provide relief to the economy reeling from COVID-19 effects. The Indian government has already announced a relief package of USD 22.26 billion (around INR 1.7 lakh crore) for the poor. 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 mobilize in decades. Multilateral agencies have also been fast to respond. The World Bank has already lent USD 1 billion to India, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has assured USD 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 USD 10.3 billion since its initial resource mobilization in 2014.
Lessons for climate resilience
This yet again highlights the importance of mainstreaming 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 over 50% 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, MGNREGA, arguably the world’s biggest social program, can be used in a more targeted manner and employ workers in activities that contribute to resilient infrastructure and assets. In addition, fine tuning the existing Public Distribution System (PDS), essentially by universalizing 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 against natural disasters. They also provide a stimulus for regeneration of natural assets and serve 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. COVID-19 has shown the importance of investing in science. This is especially true for India, where eased policies should incentivize more R&D and innovation, be it for health, disaster or climate efforts. There are also emerging patterns indicating shifts in behaviour, both at the individual level and across society in general – for example people getting accustomed to a life with lesser travel. These emerging lessons and insights have enormous significance and relevance to climate resilience. As individuals, people often report feeling hopeless and insignificant to affect 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 – as seen in the solidarity and social distancing maintained by the people during the pandemic.
Preparing for post-COVID-19 times
When the world, and India, reach a post COVID-19 scenario, there are both challenges and opportunities, for climate change. What would be the new normal? Would globalization 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 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. While 2020 will be remembered as the year of COVID-19, we also stand a chance of making it count as a year of learning lessons, and the year of climate action.