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How Coronavirus Has Contaminated The Global Response to Climate Change

Image for representational purpose only

Image for representational purpose only

As the financial losses caused by COVID 19 all over the world will drain resources, it will also affect the political will – particularly of rich nations who have pledged to provide money to the poor and developing countries – to combat global warming.

The threat of the novel coronavirus is now a full-blown reality for the entire world and India too is currently wrestling with this health crisis, one of the biggest in recent times. Sixty cases have been reported confirmed in the country till now, signalling a testing time for the deftness of our government and public health machinery.

This outbreak has reminded us of two key facts. First, all the countries across the world are inextricably linked to one another, be it an issue of health, finance or climate change. Second, the response to such a crisis also requires a joint coordinated strategy among nations across the globe.

Today, when the world is up against this health emergency, it gives us a rare opportunity to view and assess the other impending crises which can be far more difficult to deal with. One of them is surely the issue of environment and climate change, which is set to throw up tougher challenges in the future spread over a far longer timeline.

Climate change particularly can not only damage economies all over the world, especially of poor and developing countries, but it will also trigger more pandemics like COVID 19. If China had not concealed the truth about this disease, perhaps the world wouldn’t have been engulfed in such a situation. Last month even the United States accepted that it doesn’t have enough coronavirus test kits, even when the number of cases is going up there every day.

Besides killing humans, the virus has damaged the economies of many countries. It has battered China, dented South and South East Asia and shattered the stock markets in the UK and US. America is today facing the worst crisis since the 2008 meltdown and the London share markets lost more than 210 billion pounds till the end of last month.

In India, the already dampened spirits of people because of the Delhi riots and Yes Bank crisis are set to suffer more due to the coronavirus outbreak. The impact can be seen everywhere: from common shops to hotels to airlines to tourist spots, and so on. The markets suffered losses of hundreds of crores just before Holi.

From the climate point of view, the situation is tricky. China’s carbon emissions have fallen sharply as its industry and aviation sector has been taking a beating since December. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions have been falling since January and total carbon emissions went down by 25% in just the last three weeks of February. This reduction is equivalent to the total annual carbon emission of New York state.

Besides denting the economy and industrial production in China, the outbreak has also affected business in its neighbour India. For example, India’s clean energy sector has been hit by the manufacturing trouble China is facing. Supply of components – needed to make solar modules – from China, is heavily impacted and domestic manufacturers in the country won’t be able to deliver orders of solar panels in time. This will surely affect India’s targets of 175 GW clean energy capacity by the end of 2022.

It also shows that even if emissions have lowered worldwide due to the coronavirus effect – and to many it may seem like a blessing in disguise – it has in fact negatively impacted the long-term mission to achieve a low-carbon path. Since the financial losses due to the coronavirus all over the world will drain the resources, it will also affect the political will – particularly of rich nations who have pledged to provide money to the poor and developing world – to combat global warming.

Also, though the common man and policymakers are today worried worldwide about the health crisis and economic loss due to this virus, the same concern isn’t present in the public domain when degrading environmental and climate change inflict such impact.

The data is very clear. On the one hand, air pollution is killing more than 1.2 million people in India annually and many more are falling sick in urban as well as rural areas. On the other hand, the increasing impact of global warming is crippling the GDP of several poor and developing countries. It is also displacing people and taking away their employment. The affected are mostly the people who are poor and living on the margins.

This fact has been highlighted by several scientific reports including the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body of the United Nations. This report has warned that the rising temperatures will cause more frequent disasters like powerful cyclones, prolonged droughts, cloudbursts and unusually heavy rain. It may spread more epidemics, which will take a toll on human lives and economy.

Last year, the prestigious American science journal Proceedings of National Academies of Sciences (PNAS) published a research showing the impact of climate change on rich and poor nations. The study compared the 50 years of annual temperature data (between 1961 and 2010) with the GDP of 165 nations and found that the effects of climate change have decreased the earnings of poor and developing nations by 17 to 31 per cent.

This research by PNAS shows that the GDP of India is 30 per cent lower today than it would have been without the impacts of global warming and climate change. Decreased productivity and losses due to climate-induced disasters are the reasons behind these negative impacts. Several other reports have been making such predictions over the past decade. Most recently, a Mckinsey Global Institute (MGI) report stated that by 2030 the impact of climate change can reduce India’s productivity by 4.5 per cent annually.

Therefore, while combating the coronavirus, it should be kept in mind that a far more insidious threat has been lurking near us for long which will affect us more severely in the coming days: both economically and on the health front. Many experts believe that if the current pace of global warming continues, there may not be any human existence beyond this century. Therefore, if we are struggling to deal with COVID 19 today, how will we deal with a much greater disaster tomorrow?

This also shows the importance of international bodies like the IPCC and World Health Organization (WHO). If today, in the middle of this crisis, we are quoting the figures and facts provided by the WHO, why don’t we take the warnings of the IPCC about climate impacts seriously?

Similarly, why does the Indian government refuse to acknowledge the report of its own Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which was released in December 2018, and told us that air pollution is killing more than 1.2 million people in our country every year and crippling precious human resource. This report has been authenticated by several international studies like State of Global Air (SoGA) and Lancet report.

Unfortunately, today the world is dominated by leaders who mock environmental concerns and take a contrarian position actively. US President Donald trump has declared the climate change threat a “hoax created by developing countries”. He is actively promoting the fossil fuel lobby in his own country.

Trump’s friend Jair Bolsnaro, the President of Brazil – who was also the chief guest during the Republic Day celebrations this year in India – has seen rapid devastation of the Amazon forests under his watch. Similarly, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison have been dilly- dallying on the issues of environment and global warming. This is particularly important because the UK saw its worst floods last month and Australia has remained engulfed in raging forest fires.

This is surely not the time to panic when we deal with the coronavirus. But if we care about human lives and economic loss, it is definitely a moment to come out of the slumber. Not just India, but all the nations across the world, especially the rich economies, should reflect on this fact. Despite the cry of a parochial nationalism across the globe, we can’t deal with such threats living in our cut-off islands.

This is the time to work jointly and more seriously to fight the threat of climate change and environment degradation, which if not addressed urgently and adequately, will invite many health, economical and existential troubles for us in the coming days.

(The author is a freelance journalist who writes mainly on the issues related to environment, climate change and energy. Views expressed are personal.)