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Environmental Erosion during COVID-19: What the World Needs to Learn?

by Ishani Palandurkar - 5 June, 2020, 12:00 809 Views 0 Comment

No, COVID-19 did not better the environment. The clean air and water are not the outcomes of the 2020 global pandemic but are collateral benefits that will soon diminish as soon as it is business as usual. In fact, the shift it will bring to the environment might be more damaging.

A global pandemic that has not only claimed approximately 400,000 lives, has also left economies and societies handicapped. Loss to the Indian economy is estimated to be of Rs. 30.3 lakh crores that is 50 percent more of the recovery package announced by the government and is 13.5 percent of the total GSDP. In a report by Arthur D Little, ‘India: Surmounting the economic challenges of COVID-19’ it is predicted that up to 135 million of jobs can be lost and 120 million people can be moved to poverty that will reduce both consumer spending and savings costing up to USD 1 trillion.   

With economic issues this grave, environmental conservation and development take has taken a back seat. But if no mindful action is taken now, all the progress made by the countries in the past 50 years will gradually reverse. Not to forget that COVID-19 itself is a result of increasing human-animal interaction and environmental issues such as air pollution and increased particulate matter will only worsen the pandemic.

Keeping Environmental Policies at the Steer

COP26 and many regional and international environmental dialogues have been postponed owing to the disease transmission. Most of the work being done by academicians, civil societies and other organizations working in this domain are also hampered thus slowing or completely halting the environmental development.

The way economic packages are being designed to compensate for the economic loss suffered by people and organizations, environmental packages or policies are to be designed as well so that the work of conservation, climate adaptation and mitigation, integrating technology for better surveillance, etc. keeps going. COVID-19 can in fact be used as an opportunity to bring focus on the relevance of localized supply chain, policies and infrastructure that can support green jobs, bringing technology-based entrepreneurship and interventions that support local livelihoods and are sustainable.  

Petersberg Climate Dialogue and many other online dialogues have emphasised integrating the environment in the recovery packages of COVID-19 especially for communities that are reliant on natural resources.

Revolutionising Transportation

A major set back of COVID-19 is fear of transmission in the public transportation. As the lockdown eases, the public transportation might as well become hotspots since the surging population of India has caused almost all public transport services to work on overcapacity. Overcrowded buses, trains and metro will not be preferred by many citizens and dependence on private vehicles will keep increasing. The demand for a product which was easily replaceable by public transport will grow and so will the use of fuel.

Transportation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and it was only recently that Delhi and many other states had introduced plans for e-vehicles / e-buses to combat climate change but the current situation can reverse this trend and bring us back to petroleum. While authorities such as Delhi Transportation Corporation suggested to function at half seating capacity with the ticketless transaction, it can become extremely challenging and frustrating for commuters.

We desperately need innovative technologies and policies that can revolutionise buses and metros without making them hotspots, explore alternative fuel or policy to limit the carbon footprint and even analyse the need for transportation of citizens.

Reducing Consumption and Waste  

Many states in the United States have revoked their ban on single use plastic (SUP) and despite the partial ban in India more and more use of SUPs is in use for personal hygiene reasons. Personal protective equipments such as masks are made compulsory in India while in public places. The offices are to stock themselves with sanitizers, disinfectants, masks and other hygiene products to make it safe to begin work. The transmission rate of the disease has forced the world to adopt extensive safety measures which may not be expensive but they have a huge environmental cost.

  • Disposable surgical masks that are being extensively used are nonrecyclable and nonbiodegradable. In a hospital or healthcare center, they are disposed through a proper procedure with the biomedical waste agencies but when the general public uses them, they are more prone to mishandling. In fact, Oceans Asia an NGO that works in ocean conservation found several used masks that had washed up on the shores of beaches in Hong Kong.   
  • Increased use of sanitizers, home deliveries, packaging, etc. have given an opportunity to SUP manufacturers to come back in business. This will tremendously add to the overall waste especially when society will be more heavily dependent on e-commerce delivery services.

This reversal trend of SUPs and creating more waste through packaging and increased demands will severely affect the environment both on land and sea. A set of prudent policies, rules and regulations need to be in place that regulate this increased demand, usage and disposal.

There already exists advisory by the World Health Organization and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare that encourage the use of cloth masks or hand wash instead of sanitizers – some simple actions that will tremendously help in reducing waste but need more public knowledge.

Conclusion

Management and containment of COVID-19 is a lot of work and governments and organizations globally are currently under a lot of pressure. In such a scenario, it is important that the other developmental initiatives are not left aside or halted instead are steered in a direction that prepares the future world for the change. Both technological and policy interventions combined with innovational products and procedures are required to address the environmental concerns that are arising out of COVID lockdown. Not only this is a preferred action but it is needed in order to contain COVID and many more potential disasters.

Ishani Palandurkar
Ishani Palandurkar
Author is a Consultant with a Delhi based waste management NGO and has worked on sustainable livelihood, climate-resilient practices, waste management, and environment and health.

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