Sustainable economic growth can be recalibrated to define a new normal
By A K Verma
Covid-19-curated clear blue skies, rejuvenated rivers, clean and freshwater bodies, wild fauna on city streets or visibility of the Himalayas from distant cities do not excite the common Indian. Nobody wanted to barter life and livelihood with a better environment. However, Covid-19 gives the opportunity to reboot our economic system and align growth with the environment. The lockdown has proved that nature can recover fast, if pollution agents are withdrawn. It has indirectly resulted in environmental sensitisation of the masses. It may leave the future generation desiring sustainability. The looming economic crisis and threat to life have instilled a sense of insecurity, too. This negativity may manifest as a conservative worldview and support sustainable development.
The counterview is that the environmental euphoria is akin to shmashan vairagya. It is the transient ponderings on the ephemeral nature of life that vanishes once you exit the cremation ground. History is replete with disastrous pandemics. The Spanish flu of 1918 infected almost half a billion people, with the highest death toll in India. Nonetheless, the world developed at an unprecedented pace. Even during the pandemic, economic growth was the preference in the US and China. Therefore, post Covid-19, our penchant for economic growth may supersede other considerations. Greed could prevail over green.
A more conciliatory approach favours green optimism consistent with the need of economic activities. Thought leaders are sketching a post-Covid-19 scenario. A new World Order may emerge about natural resource utilisation vis-à-vis carrying capacity of the biosphere. But, poor communities cannot survive slow economic growth.
China, with a comparable population, has 4-5 times bigger a GDP than India’s. The corona crisis has taught India to be self-reliant in strategic areas. Therefore, environmentally balanced, socially inclusive and structurally resilient growth is advocated. Energy and environment can be synergised to meet livelihood needs, but probably not luxurious lifestyles on a sustained basis.
India stands third after China and the US in terms of absolute emission, although its per capita emission of 1.6 tCO2 / person is much lower than the world average of 4.3 tCO2/person. India has reduced its energy intensity from 0.2747 Megajoules/rupee in 2011 to 0.2321 Megajoules/rupee in 2019, aiming for a reduction of 30-35% from the 2005 level. Energy efficiency programmes must continue to ensure energy security at a lesser cost in post-Covid-19 scenario.
Jeff Gibbs, in Planet of the Humans, explains that utilisation of fossil fuel has both enabled our exponential growth and also sealed our future. India had been moving fast to clean its energy-mix, and has already added 87 GW of renewable energy (RE) capacity. Time overrun would make availability of RE late and costly.
But the social cost from coal-fired plants would be still higher. Impacted heavily by the corona crisis, the energy sector requires strategic support. The revival approach must focus on RE. Extensive rooftop solar can reduce the monthly bill of consumers. Presently, battery storage falls short of capacity to support solar and wind power.
So, thermal energy would stay, but energy-mix must tilt towards RE. Gas-based generators, for instance, can be revived. A global consensus on climate change was emerging. But the environment debate must look beyond climate change. Population control and social security should be part of green planning. With the relaxation and lifting of lockdown, environmental stress would increase. Sustainable economic growth can be recalibrated to define a new normal.
The writer is former IFS officer. Views are personal