The Coronavirus pandemic has shown that fiscal growth sans environmental safeguards is prosperity without insurance. India must build on this learning
The devastating impact of COVID-19 last year caused the world economies to shrink by three per cent, the steepest slowdown since the Great Depression of the 1930s. These grim economic conditions, trying as they were, also provided a rare opportunity to reset the equation between economic growth and environmental conservation — paving the way for a more nature-inclusive economic growth.
As the world tried to stagger to its feet, nations pledged trillions of dollars in COVID relief in the process, creating a once-in-a-generation chance to make planet-friendly investments —and save the Earth from a looming environmental catastrophe. But one year down the line, economic recovery seems to have more or less started but “green” recovery is nowhere in sight.
As per the Global Recovery Observatory (GRO) report that has been compiled in association with the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), only a meagre 2.5 per cent of the total COVID-19 recovery spending is on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting natural capital. The report further discovered that green spending is concentrated in wealthier countries, thus threatening to reinforce dangerous pre-pandemic inequities.
This is a pity and a lost chance because COVID-19 recovery funding was a massive opportunity to accelerate action on the three crises facing humanity: Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
The GRO report points out that despite the severity of the air pollution, which causes up to nine million deaths annually, only 16 per cent of the total recovery spending is deemed to potentially reduce air pollution.
While on the front of preserving natural capital or the global stock of natural resources and reversing ecosystem degradation, only three per cent of recovery spending is deemed to have an impact on this sphere. Looking at the findings of the report it becomes clear that the world is still unwilling to learn lessons from the pandemic and refuses the opportunity to invest in green capital in order to safeguard the environment.
As the world prepares to revert to the old template of putting the economy first and the environment second, India must steer clear and chart a more ecologically responsible economic recovery strategy that is based on investing in the environment.
It is a popular opinion that economic growth runs contrary to ecological preservation, but the pandemic period has shown that sole economic growth in the absence of ecological safeguards is prosperity without insurance. India must build on this learning by shifting the focus away from the scarcity of raw materials towards the deterioration of natural regulatory functions such as the climate system, water cycle and biodiversity. This is critical because we can find substitutes for scarce natural resources, but we cannot replace a natural regulatory system, which is incredibly complex and forms an integral part of the nation’s environmental green capital.
As a part of conserving the natural regulatory system, India must also develop a method to assign value to the costs of damage to these regulatory functions of nature incurred in the course of achieving economic growth. This change in perspective justifies innovations like the carbon tax, which addresses not the scarcity of carbon but the inability of the atmosphere to absorb large amounts of carbon without upsetting the climate system.
This approach to natural resources will not only benefit both businesses and the environment, but will also help quantify the loss to the environment in monetary terms on account of economic progress.
India’s environmental investment initiative must start with its urban spaces. Rapid urbanisation, coupled with incoherent policies and inadequate urban infrastructure have made our cities among the most vulnerable to climate change and a deteriorating environment.
The outbreak has already shown how global shocks can further unearth the evils of decades of mismanagement of cities. Ironically, but not surprisingly, urban residents of slums and squatter settlements bear the maximum brunt and this, in turn, exacerbates existing socio-spatial gaps in our cities. Investment into green infrastructure as a development priority can remedy India’s urban sprawls and help create liveable, environmentally sustainable and efficient cities for all citizens.
India must set a global example whereby investments in the well-being of the environment should occupy the top spot. This will ensure an economically and ecologically secure future of the nation.
The writer is an environmental journalist. The views expressed are personal.