Imagining a different, better future
Our collective attention is on addressing the immediate threat of the coronavirus (Covid–19) pandemic. This is as it should be — the pandemic is accelerating and the global death toll on March 25 was over 18,000 with more than 2,000 new deaths reported a day. India is at a critical moment, with accelerating infection rates and deaths. This week, India imposed a lockdown, banned long-distance travel, and enhanced testing. Central and state governments are developing financial packages to provide safety nets. Whether these measures have come in time is a matter of debate. There is a serious concern that India — like Italy, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom — is closing the barn door to the sight of distant horses’ hooves. We will only know the real situation in the coming days, as testing ramps up.
With anxiety all around, is there anything hopeful that we can learn from the Covid-19 response? While we have to focus now on the pandemic, the time will come when we have to turn our attention back to other, seemingly intractable problems, such as air quality and the climate crisis, which this column focuses on. And here, we could learn some things from the response to the current pandemic.
The key insight is this. The response to problems such as the climate crisis and air pollution is incremental because personal psychology and political systems in normal times only tolerate modest change; in crises, disruptive changes become necessary. Can we learn from and build on the Covid-19-induced responses to lock-in some disruptive changes and even manage transformational change before a crisis hits us?
To begin with, Covid-19 has shown that individuals can change behaviours at an unimagined scale and speed. For example, work from home (WFH) has become a reality for millions who are trying to maintain productivity and manage teamwork. Yet, there are also long-term gains from effective WFH. As a policy tool, it can simultaneously help to address urban congestion, air pollution and even reduce fuel imports. Even though only a subset of workers — professionals and those not in direct service provision — can adopt a WFH policy, they tend to be affluent, with a high environmental footprint, who usually use private vehicles.
If, for example, a substantial portion (say half) of this class shifted to two days a week of WFH, it could lead to an average reduction of 20% of private vehicle commuter trips, with not inconsiderable associated air pollution reductions. For many, WFH also brings personal gains — a change in context, saved commuting time, and potential for flexibility. Once forced to experiment, corporations may become converts, not least because of space and rental cost savings. The coronavirus pandemic may have brought about in weeks a shift in professional culture that would otherwise occur glacially.
How can the Covid-19-generated understanding of the link between individual behaviour and positive social outcomes be harnessed for other purposes, such as the climate crisis? Scenarios show that changing energy demand through behavioural shifts helps limit climate change at a lower cost than traditional efforts focused on supply shifts, such as moving to renewable energy. Simple actions include changing thermostat settings, shifting to walking and public transport, and reducing meat consumption. Going further, we could limit travel by meeting more of our leisure needs locally and through creative livestreams. In The Conversation, Simone Abram writes that perhaps Covid-19 can eventually show us that happiness is not only tied to unlimited growth, consumption and travel.
Of course, if the coronavirus challenge has taught us anything, it is that there are limits to individual behaviour, and that there is an essential role for the State in helping us coordinate social solutions. Governments can help reinforce behavioural changes by incentivising WFH by increasing commuting charges and providing companies incentives for allowing work flexibility. Beyond work, they could encourage enjoying leisure closer to home by taxing airline fuels.
In thinking about the role of the State in this crisis, it is important to distinguish between new behaviours occasioned by social distancing, and changes caused by declines in economic activity. For example, pollution has reportedly fallen drastically in Italy and China, and the “janata curfew” (people’s curfew) saw low pollution across the country. This is an unacceptable bargain because pollution declines have almost certainly been caused substantially by decreased economic activity, causing hardship to millions. In this context, the first priority has to be supporting the poor and the vulnerable. Yet, experiencing a much quieter, cleaner environment can spark the imagination.
Down the road, when we consider ways of jump-starting the economy, there may be opportunities to explore “red” and “green” financial packages that simultaneously create jobs and address India’s environmental crises. For example, investments in green buildings and climate resilience in the water sector could both be labour-generating and provide environmental benefits. Although these are early days, we should keep these ideas ready.
There is no doubt that India has to focus now on addressing the current health and economic crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to imagine and hastily implement disruptive changes. Yet, in doing so, it has shown us the potential for rapid behavioural change. Perhaps, one small positive we can take away from this dire situation is that we have the potential to imagine different individual and collective futures. And by imagining new futures now, and starting to implement them, we might be able to do a better job staving off other deadly challenges, including air pollution and the climate crisis.