The gains for the environment from the lockdown make a strong case for periodic voluntary lockdowns as a sustainability strategy
By Rajesh K Pillania
Ever Since lockdowns were put in place around the world to fight COVID-19, media has been rife with stories on the impact of these lockdowns on sustainability. The COVID-19 experience has thrown up some important learnings for sustainability.
The news has been full of stories on how lockdowns have reduced air and water pollution levels, and even led to reported appearances of wildlife in unusual places. According to carbonbrief.org, India’s CO2 emissions fell by approximately 15% in March and 30% in April. China’s CO2 emissions fell by 25% at the beginning of the year itself since it felt the impact of the virus much before India did. The incidence of good air quality went up by 11.4% compared with the same time last year. CO2 emissions globally are expected to fall by as much as 8% this year as the coronavirus pandemic locks entire countries down, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The drop (largest ever recorded in terms of tonnes of CO2) is almost six times larger than the impact of the 2008 financial crisis.
But not all the environmental consequences of the crisis have been positive. According to UNCTAD, volumes of unrecyclable waste have risen; severe cuts in agricultural and fishery export levels have led to the generation of large quantities of organic waste; maintenance and monitoring of nature reserves and biodiversity-rich places have been temporarily halted, as tourism has fallen.
A study published in Science Direct by researcher Zambrano Monserratea and others shows there are also negative secondary aspects such as the reduction in recycling and the increase in waste, both household and medical, further endangering the contamination of physical spaces (water and land), in addition to air.
The need, therefore, is to bring down negative sustainability outcomes even as periodic voluntary lockdowns are considered for the positive ones. This crisis should be taken as an opportunity to learn better ways to achieving sustainable living and unlearning the ways that lead us away from this. We need economic activity, but need to balance it with sustainability.
We can use innovative ways like nudging, to reduce the duration of usage of private vehicles, one of the major sources of air pollution. By investing more in green public transport to make it convenient to use, we can reduce the usage of private vehicles; however, in light of the pandemic and future outbreaks, public transport also has to be made safe and hygienic.
A 2018 study led by Corinne Moser at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland found that when people were unable to drive and were given free e-bike access, they drove much less when they eventually got their car back. While a study in 2001 led by Satoshi Fujii at Kyoto University in Japan found that when a motorway closed, forcing drivers to use public transit, the same thing happened—when the road reopened, people who had formerly been committed drivers travelled by public transport more frequently.
According to Global Workplace Analytics, only 3.6% of the workforce worked at home half the time or more in 2019—now, it estimates 25-30% working at home on a “multiple-days-a-week” basis by the end of 2021. According to Rob Jackson, chair of The Global Carbon Project, “working from home, even a day or two a week, would cut greenhouse gas emissions, clean the air in our cities and save lives as a result.” We need to reduce work from the office, but we cannot stop it completely as it has its advantages too. We need to find the right balance between work-from-home and work-at-office.
The discussion above leads us to the question: What should be our learning from the Covid-19 experience for sustainability? In the past, the environment’s state has improved during pandemics, but deteriorates sharply after. This once-in-century lockdown, therefore, doesn’t have any long-term impact. The world should perhaps consider a voluntary lockdown for half a month every year, perhaps in the last half of December given, in many countries, it is already a holiday break due to Christmas. The minimum number of days can be decided by identifying the minimum number of days required at a stretch for the maximum possible benefits on sustainability and the minimum economic impact. It is definitely not going to be easy achieving consensus on this—political leaders and industry groups will have to play a major role in this, balanced out by civil society, environment groups, and to some extent, by academics. But, it is an exercise worth trying.
With research inputs from Anupama Kumar
The author is Professor of Strategy, MDI, Gurgaon. Views are personal