The lockdown across the country, and the massive drops in activity it meant , has actually delivered one very important message. Individual action for the environment can only have limited impact, larger, institutional impact is the main culprit
In figures that have been widely reported by now, the International Energy Agency estimates an 8 percent drop in global greenhouse gas emissions this year due to the Coronavirus induced lockdowns, as compared to 2019. Before you dismiss the number as underwhelming, consider that this is the biggest drop since World War 2. Yes, the biggest drop in 75 years.
For the hundreds of millions of people who have endured extended lockdowns, the figures are surely a disappointment, even if we aside for a moment the cause behind these. For , if even extreme lockdowns of the sort forced on us by the Coronavirus can achieve only this much, then how will the world ever get on to a path that meets the emission targets it needs to fight climate change? after all, for individuals who have brought their lives to a virtual standstill, and in some cases, reduced their oil consumption for instance by 90 percent , the net impact must come as a surprise.
Clearly, individual action, while good, and needed to develop an appreciation of the task at hand and empathy with steps needed, is not enough by a stretch. The huge stimulus moves by governments across the world to restart after the lockdowns have also missed a big opportunity, in helping make the directional change in areas like energy, transportation and consumption that would have made a difference.
In India, at the height of the lockdown, we have seen wholly avoidable reversals of policy on the environment and pollution side. The recent decision by the environment ministry to allow use of coal without washing, ostensibly to reduce imports, is just one example. Environmental norms are being throw to the winds to help “speed up” recovery and improve ease of doing business. In doing so, they are leaving it to the end consumers to make the difficult choice of picking and where necessary boycotting firms who produce at great cost to the environment.
This is especially true of firms that pollute our rivers for instance. River quality has improved massively due to industrial shutdowns , pointing to how poorly pollution control norms are being followed and enforced.
Massive contributors to carbon emissions, like the housing sector, had a chance to be nudged by linking their stimulus funds towards conditions that would ensure more sustainable practices and greener housing and construction. Even that seems to have been avoided.
As we have repeatedly highlighted, the high fuel taxes, while serving as a good example of taxing carbon to pay for the fight against it, have reached a level where dependence on those taxes is high enough to create a moral hazard. Much like liquor taxes, as we have seen. What are the chances that state governments that depend on taxes from fuel, liquor and in some cases coal cess will take strong steps to reduce consumption of these?
The good news is that categories like renewable energy have continued their march during the lockdowns. Thanks to must run status for renewable plants, and achievements like a bid for Rs 2.90 per kWh received for a 400 MW supply for a solar+ storage tender in Delhi, things have never looked better for the future of renewable power. Even the loudest naysayers have been forced to evaluate their premises, as solar and wind energy make impressive progress in efficiency and in hybrid mode together or with storage.
The long term changes being predicted on work, be it work from home, or less travel, might yet make a key prediction we made hold, namely, that 2018 will prove to be the peak consumption year for oil. But even if that plays out, it will not be for any efforts made by large institutional changes. We await those .