COVID-19: To Pause and Look Back To See The Future
Vaishali Sharma and Shubhashis Dey, May 6, 2020
The COVID-19 outbreak has deracinated life across the globe to expose the structural weaknesses of our system, such as income inequalities, weak healthcare systems, inadequate education, and the lack of global co-ordination. Throughout history, we have faced many deadly pandemics. Yet, after centuries of development, we stand at the crossroads witnessing human fatalities along with impacts on the global economy and the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Given this backdrop, we need to analyse the long-term effects of anthropogenic activities on the SDG targets and possible future shocks to streamline our efforts towards other undeniable challenges that face the world.
India, an agriculturally dominant economy, with low dependence on exports might cushion the economic and developmental slowdown. While financial support is essential to boost the affected sectors, we must redesign business models to make our systems more resilient. This presents a massive opportunity for the government to pre-empt such disasters and introduce flexible and adaptable systems.
The lockdown in India has further slowed down the already struggling transportation sector. However, post COVID-19, one expects that the transportation sector will witness three significant trends. First, there would be a considerable shift away from public transportation towards personal vehicles, owing to increased concern towards personal health and hygiene. Further, the possibility of job or salary cuts would weigh on the capacity to buy personal 4-wheelers, while creating a mass-market of 2-wheelers. Therefore, low energy public mobility options can take a back seat, which would make the goal of tackling air pollution, reducing congestion, and lowering carbon emissions more onerous.
To curb this detrimental switch, we must adopt strategies of countries like China to revive the confidence of citizens to access public transportation, by deploying sizeable manpower for sanitisation of metros/buses and rapid monitoring at stations. Simultaneously, as people begin to go back to work, the need to maintain physical distance would cause a shift in preferred mode of commuting. People would cycle or walk to work, creating demand for sustainable, zero-carbon systems ranging from cycle lanes, wider pavements, non-motorised priority streets, etc. Traffic volumes will eventually go back up, but we must intervene here to decide how much of it to let back in and in what form, to make urban air safer to breathe. This hopefully would push for a paradigm shift towards compact, energy efficient and walkable neighbourhoods, suitably adapting the concepts of ‘15 minute Paris’ and ‘Superblocks Barcelona’; an area where India has been long struggling.
Thirdly, the sensitisation of citizens on the drastic consequences of climate change may be seen as an attractive opportunity for electric vehicles (EVs). The adverse spill over effects of globalisation would encourage India towards indigenisation of manufactured parts, investing R&D for alternative battery/storage systems and diversification of sourcing countries. Given the predictable shift towards two-wheelers, the EV two-wheeler sector is expected to swiftly recover in the coming year, through availability of cheap financing options for the consumers.
The pandemic clearly depicts the critical need to provide ‘healthy housing’ as a basic necessity; both for the air-conditioned houses that foster infectious diseases, and the overcrowded shanties of the urban poor with inadequate ventilation. Additionally, climate change and heatwaves would worsen this situation. For improved liveability, and thermal comfort, post-pandemic interventions could witness greater intersectoral housing policies in collaboration with public health interventions. There will be increased attention to the overall hygiene of neighbourhoods’ through access to decentralised and efficient municipal services. While the PMAY has primarily focused on speedy construction of affordable housing, there will now be a heightened focus on ‘habitat’ performance to ensure quality. The current standards of minimum carpet area would require stringent reviewing, considering household capacity, alongside standardisation for estimating housing shortage, which must include health, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality as a criterion to define congestion. It is expected that the pandemic jolts the bureaucracy to shun poor political governance around housing and push for institutional transformations.
As India’s unemployment rate shot up 14.8% to reach 23.5% in April 2020 due to the lockdown, (according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy), the government is focused on creating jobs. While the situation calls for immediate and rapid remediation, it also sets the platform to develop new labour markets to maximise the long-term benefits. Industries having incurred huge losses during this period, should reckon optimising and localising their operations by investing in financing energy efficient technologies, employing local manpower and resources. Industries must build resilience against future pandemics, through improved economic competitiveness and reduced cost of compensation for emissions by adopting low carbon levers. Dr. Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) highlights how including energy efficiency in targeted investments and stimulus programs can create jobs immediately and bring long-term benefits for consumers, businesses and the environment.
Similarly, India’s clean energy sector aims to increase its renewable energy capacity to 450GW by 2030. The slow progress due to policy deadlocks, questions on grid stability coupled with disruptions in the supply chain, adversely impacts our renewable ambitions. The ‘9pm9minute’ proved that our grid is capable of handling large demand fluctuations. The ‘9pm9minute’ and import embargo can be an effective coping strategy, for higher renewable integration and leverage ‘Make in India’ campaign. In this regard, the decentralised renewable energy (DRE) sector fits in the in the nexus between ‘energy for all’ and ‘healthcare for all’, ensuring electrification of rural health clinics, household electricity and solar refrigeration for food and vaccines while creating jobs for rural poor.
The crisis implores us to consider adaptable business models that paves the path towards more resilient and smarter interventions, synonymous with sustainability. Though the COVID 19 pandemic is a temporary setback to our ongoing commitment towards a cleaner planet, our long-term commitment to sustainability must remain in place. As the world responds to this pandemic and seeks to restore prosperity, we must focus on addressing these underlying factors and deepen our efforts during this crucial decade to build back healthier.
Vaishali Sharma is Assistant Program Manager – Energy Efficiency, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation
Shubhashis Dey, Associate Director – Energy Efficiency, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation