Income inequality, climate crisis: What the next decade holds for us

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Published: January 1, 2020 2:00:16 AM

The quartet of drivers would put massive stress on our society. But, these challenges are also an opportunity to make big-ticket governance reforms

As per the IPCC’s assessment, to limit warming at 1.5°C, CO2 emissions have to be reduced by 45% by 2030, and reach net-zero by 2050. (Representational image)As per the IPCC’s assessment, to limit warming at 1.5°C, CO2 emissions have to be reduced by 45% by 2030, and reach net-zero by 2050. (Representational image)

The third decade of this century could be make-or-break for us. I say this because this decade would bring some massive challenges, but also equally significant opportunities to do things differently and sustainably. Four key drivers would influence the decade of 2020-2030.

Demographic changes: We are going to witness some huge demographic milestones in the next ten years. Our population is going to touch 1.5 billion, and we would become the most populous country in the world. We would also have about a billion people in the age group of 15-64 years. No country in human history has had so many people in the working-age group as India would have in 2030. To top all this, we would, by far, have the largest number of millennials in the world—about 750 million. Half of them would be in the age group of 15-30 years. So, by 2030, we would have not only the largest population but also the largest number of young, educated people looking for well-paid jobs.

Income inequality: In the current economic structure, the decade is likely to witness an increase in income inequality. India is already one of the most unequal countries in the world—1% of the population holds more than 70% of the wealth. In a business-as-usual scenario, this chasm in wealth between the rich and the poor would widen further, carrying the immense potential for tensions and conflicts in our society.

Climate crisis: The decade is critical for the climate crisis. We will not only start to witness its worst impacts, this is also our last chance to keep the rise in temperature within safer limits. As per the IPCC’s assessment, to limit warming at 1.5°C, CO2 emissions have to be reduced by 45% by 2030, and reach net-zero by 2050. This means maximum efforts are needed before 2030. If we fail to act decisively in this decade, the task of keeping temperature increase under even 20C would be impossible.

Hi-tech revolution: The decade promises a hi-tech revolution in every sector. Many of the cutting-edge technologies in food, energy, transport, health, and information and communication technologies (ICTs) would become a reality. Technologies that have been in the realm of science fiction would be available to the general public—be it plant-based meat, driver-less cars, electric mobility, artificial intelligence, or 24×7 renewable energy. This revolution has to be harnessed to solve some of our most intractable problems.

This quartet of drivers would put massive stress on our society. The existing governance system, economic and social structure, and technological milieu would not be able to deal with these significant challenges. But, these challenges also are an opportunity to make big-ticket governance reforms, and technological changes. The question is, whether we would be able to grab these opportunities and chart a new course of action, or if we would keep chasing the problems as we seem to be doing today. My answer is that we have no option but to change as the four drivers mentioned above would force our hands. Let me illustrate this for a few key sectors.

Energy: We currently depend on coal, imported oil and gas, and biomass to meet most of our energy needs. These are highly polluting sources of energy and also contribute to global warming. We continue to use them because they are “cheap” and readily available 24×7. But, we are at a cusp in renewable energy technologies. Renewable energy, along with storage technologies reaching grid-parity and even outpricing conventional sources of energy, is on the anvil in this decade. Besides, modern technologies, like 5G and Internet of Things (IoT), would truly bring energy under our control. The favourable economics of 24×7 renewable energy would mean that we would be in a position to use electricity to meet most of our energy requirements—from cooking to lighting our houses and shops, to running our factories and transport systems. Instead of multiple infrastructures to meet our energy needs—petrol pumps, gas pipelines, electric wires, and coal freights—we can start shifting to one infrastructure: electricity. Such a shift would have massive energy security, and pollution and climate change benefits. Also, our industry could become a leader in energy storage technologies and ICTs.

The risk of not making this shift includes volatile energy prices, energy insecurity, pollution, and global warming. Most importantly, our industry would lose the opportunity to grow and create high-quality jobs. The choice is clear: India would need to embrace the vision of clean energy transformation to reduce pollution and remain competitive.

Urbanisation: We would have more than 600 million people living in at least 9,000 cities and towns by 2030. Around 70 of these cities would have a million-plus population. Presently, our cities are becoming unliveable and failing to provide essential services to all. This is mainly because of the weaknesses in municipal governance. The current system of municipal management is incapable of making our cities liveable, smart, and green. But, if we want our cities to be engines of growth and provide jobs to the millions of millennials that would be entering the job market every year, we have no other option but to reform municipal governance. We would have to devolve powers and provide more resources to city governments, and use modern technologies to make them professional, transparent, and accountable. Though there would be resistance from the central and state governments to this, the governments would be forced to give in as the current system would be unable to handle the urban chaos.

Climate change: Even if, by some miracle, we can keep global warming to below 20C (we are on track for a temperature rise of over 30C), we still have to deal with adverse impacts of the climate crisis. The world is already witnessing extreme weather events like floods, droughts, heat and cold waves, sea-level rise, and melting of snow caps. We will, therefore, have to start adapting to these changes. Adapting to the changing climate would require building resilience in every part of the economy, be it urban infrastructure, agriculture, or water system. Without these, the loss and damage, including loss of lives, would be too high to bear. Here also, we have no other option but to mainstream climate change in all aspects of our national life. Similarly, we would be forced to make major significant structural changes in sectors such as agriculture, forestry, and healthcare.

The coming decade would present us with stark choices. But, the writing is on the wall—we need to embrace change and safeguard the nation for generations to come.

The author is CEO, iFOREST
Twitter: @Bh_Chandra
Views are personal

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