World Environment Day 2020: Economic recovery must address human and environmental health
India will be scarred by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The impact on human life, health and well-being is already immense, while the cost to economies, businesses and livelihoods will be felt for years to come. Amid the devastation, our shared responsibility to put the lives and health of people first has come sharply into focus. With this renewed recognition, we must look to protect communities and to make them more resilient as we recover from the coronavirus. We must build back in a way that protects us from growing systemic risks, whether from future pandemics, or other risks like air pollution and climate change.
The pandemic has shown us how quickly we can adapt - as businesses we can change the products and services to meet our customers’ different needs. While we are still in this state of flux, we need to carefully consider how we want to emerge from it and rebuild in a way that sets us on a pathway to greater resilience.
On this World Environment Day, it is time to address the fact that India is home to 15 of the most polluted cities in the world. Studies indicate that nearly 700 million people in India are exposed to unhealthy air. Since the pandemic struck, science has revealed that on top of the clear links between air pollution and premature death that we already knew about, it has also been found to increase risk among people infected with the COVID-19 virus. We want and need a healthy economy of course, but we also want healthy people and a healthy environment or we won’t have an economy at all.
Aside from the benefits to health of reducing air pollution, if we cut pollution, we will also reduce the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change, which currently presents the biggest risk to our economies, our health and our lives, if left unchecked. We are already seeing its impacts including Cyclone Amphan, locust swarms and unprecedented temperatures of over 45 degrees celsius. The health warnings related to climate change are also stark. According to research by the World Health Organization, the effects of climate change - including heat stress and malnutrition - will contribute to an increase of about 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.
When we cut air pollution and greenhouse gases, we improve health, we create a more pleasant living environment and we reduce the multiple risks associated with climate change. It’s a win-win-win. In India, we face a disproportionate level of risk from climate change including the devastation rising sea levels would cause given India’s large coastline and dependence on the sea for millions of livelihoods. Meanwhile our heatwaves are already causing disruption which are set to become more common even just with current levels of climate change. It would, therefore, be a monumental waste of money as well as a threat to human and environmental health for anyone to invest at this point in old, polluting technology like coal mining or petrol and diesel cars. For example, in the energy sector, renewables are clearly the best option both for environmental health but also for the economy - they will enable us to be self-sufficient when it comes to power.
Rebuilding our economy in a way that lets go of carbon-intensive processes and approaches and embraces the industries of the future, like renewables, is both good for our environment and health and the smartest way to boost growth. Top economists from the University of Oxford in the UK have found in a new study that massive programs of green public investment would be the most cost-effective way to revive virus-hit economies. In addition, early signs suggest that the renewables industry and companies with higher ESG performance are proving to be more resilient amid the coronavirus crisis.
And globally, businesses are calling for a zero-carbon recovery. Tech Mahindra along with other Indian companies Dalmia Cement, Wipro joined over 150 global corporations urging governments to align their COVID-19 economic aid and recovery efforts with climate science, to reach net-zero emissions well before 2050. These companies have a collective market capitalization of over $2.4 trillion. Our company, along with many others see that the best decisions are grounded in science.
Business sees that we are at a critical juncture. We can choose to reboot the economy in a way that leads us towards a point of no return - unchecked climate change - or we can choose a pathway that leads us to a thriving, healthy economy. Supporting, incentivizing and investing in carbon-neutral industries, processes, innovations and approaches of the future is surely the only way to go.
Some of these have already been revealed during the pandemic. We have seen how much can be achieved by telecommuting - so let’s invest in that industry. We will of course need transport once lockdown has finished, but let’s accelerate the transition that has already just started in India towards clean transportation and electric mobility.
Alongside clean transport, we can rapidly scale up the energy solutions that cut air pollution and are much better for our climate - like solar and wind power. Let’s also accelerate the progress of power storage and hydrogen-based energy towards economic feasibility. We can emerge from this with a clear direction towards decarbonizing heavy industry, building on the progress already made in India’s steel and cement industries. Let’s invest in R&D and collaborate to innovate and push India into a leadership position in these sectors while enjoying improved air quality.
Resilience is crucial as we rebuild our economy. We need to ensure that we don’t set ourselves up for future, potentially worse climate-related shocks. An economic recovery not aligned with the objectives to clean up the air and cut greenhouse gases will exacerbate the human and economic risks associated with climate change rather than reduce them. Public and private sector decisions made in the coming months must include plans that create good jobs, cut emissions, improve health through reducing air pollution and increase the resilience of India’s people and its economy for the long-term. Let’s build back better.
Anirban Ghosh is Chief Sustainability Officer, Mahindra Group