‘One World, One Sun, One Grid’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled this vision for the development of a transnational solar grid in his Independence Day Speech on 15th August. He spoke about India’s leading position among nations in the field of renewable energy, about how India is showing the world that it is possible to pursue development in harmony with nature through measures such as promotion of clean fuels; LPG for cooking, ethanol-blended motor fuels, CNG and e-mobility.
This is a reminder of the grim battle against Climate Change while the world is engaged with a severe public health challenge. There is a feeling in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the world-wide lockdowns induced by it, that there has been a soothing effect on the environment due to vastly reduced greenhouse gas emissions. While there are various estimates of the reduction in emissions, the beneficial outcomes could be overstated. One research even termed the effects of the lockdowns on global warming as ‘negligible’. However even if these modest reductions are worth pursuing, the highly discomforting fact is that these reductions have come about at a huge cost. Over 770 thousand lives have been lost, millions are fighting infection in hospitals and quarantine centres, factories around the world have ground to a halt, schools and colleges are shut, informal businesses like street vending have had to shut and livelihoods of millions have been snatched even if temporarily.
Another impact has been on the finances of governments including local governments. These have been badly affected; on the one hand, due to the massive, unbudgeted expenses on fighting the pandemic; and on the other due to vastly reduced taxation incomes given the shrinking economic activity. This could severely impair governments’ abilities to implement social welfare programmes and infrastructure creation for future economic growth, among others.
Therefore any modest gains on global warming front have come at big economic and social costs. And in any case, when the lockdowns are lifted, emissions will be back. So one thing is quite clear. This is not the route to cutting emissions and fighting climate change.
Factories must run, cars must ply, planes must fly, schools, colleges, and offices must work, and yet there needs to be an even bigger reduction in emissions if we are to effectively fight climate change and save the planet. We must find more and more environmentally benign ways to run our factories, fuel our aircraft, and drive our cars. The idea is not to do less but to do more with less. Long term strategic decarbonisation of entire economies must be the underlying theme of the fight against global warming. One way could be a massive and permanent shift away from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Such measures must be combined with significant behavioural shifts in the ways we go about our daily lives. This could be a more lasting and effective path towards sustainable climate action.