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Environmentalism in a time of COVID

Image credit: Apollo 17 / Public domain

Last year, Time magazine named Greta Thunberg their Person of the Year. The now-seventeen-year-old climate activist from Sweden has inspired a global movement, assuming the role of a bastion for environmentalism. Across the world, young people have protested for their future, for the future of their environment, and their planet – including in India. 

Thunberg has taken world leaders to task in very public forums – among them Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom she challenged in a video published last year by Brute India. “Dear Mr Modi,” she said, “you need to take action now against the climate crisis, not just talking about it because if you keep going on like this, doing business as usual, and just talking about and bragging about the little victories, you are going to fail. And if you fail, you are going to be seen as one of the worst villains in human history in the future. And you don’t want that.”

The world at present is beset by a number of crises. There is, of course, the global pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) – more commonly referred to simply as the coronavirus. There are mass protests over racial injustice. And in the midst of all this, there is the environmental crisis we have been grappling with for quite some time – one which poses nothing less than an existential threat, should we fail to act.

India is particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis. On the occasion of Mother Earth Day earlier this year, I wrote

“India, of course, is no stranger to how nature’s suffering is leading to an inclement climate, a ravaged ecosystem characterised by instability, and the manifold byproducts. Just last year, swathes of the country were lashed by floods – in one instance effectively submerging one of its major cities, Mumbai. The country is vulnerable to extreme heatwaves, to water scarcity (as World Water Day earlier this year reminded us), and to the spread of infectious diseases owing to temperature changes. Climate change is wreaking havoc across swathes of the country, whilst air pollution chokes out those living in cities and rural areas alike whilst it lacerates the environment around them.”

Of the many public health threats India faces, from malnutrition to disease, climate change would serve only to exacerbate them in the absence of concerted action. To India’s credit, it has taken steps to address its environmental crisis – yet to balance its socioeconomic needs with the necessity of action to preserve the environment and fight climate change is a difficult balancing act to maintain. 

Stockholm, Sweden. 12 April, 2019. Climate activists joining 16-year-old Swedish Greta Thunberg for school strike against climate change. Image credit: Per Grunditz / 123rf. Environmentalism protests.
School strike for climate protesters led by Greta Thunberg. Climate change marks a major threat to child health and wellbeing the world over. Image credit: Per Grunditz / 123rf

In a sense, this is analogous to the COVID-19 crisis. After a period of lockdown, India is beginning to ease restrictions – but experts have warned that such a move may be premature. As my colleague Nicholas Parry wrote earlier this week, “removal of the lockdown measures is on the cards across the coming months, all while community transmission is occurring under the radar. It is likely that as lockdown measures are removed more cases will continue to spread unnoticed and pass into so-called “green zones” in which transmission is not yet occurring, spreading the disease further.” 

Some have theorised that the COVID-19 crisis may actually be a boon for environmentalism. Many of India’s air pollution hotspots, for example, saw dramatic improvements in air quality amidst the lockdown. Yet the silver lining may be fleeting. 

As the World Health Organization (WHO) has acknowledged, “efforts to control COVID-19 transmission have reduced economic activity and led to temporary improvements in air quality in some areas. In contrast, as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that drive climate change persist for a long time in the atmosphere, temporary emissions reductions only have a limited effect on atmospheric concentrations. 

“Carbon dioxide levels at observing stations around the world in the first months of 2020 have been higher than in 2019. Environmental improvements resulting from the COVID-19 response may be reversed by a rapid expansion of polluting economic activities once the measures have ended, unless there is a clear focus to promote equity, environmental health, around a just transition to a green economy.” 

A view of Mother Ganga from Shivpuri. Image credit: Aditya6521 / CC BY-SA (

India has a way to go in this regard – rethinking its energy infrastructure, curbing the rate of deforestation, and making concerted efforts to improve air and water quality are among the challenges the country faces. Mother Ganga is a case in point – but it is not alone. That most sacred of rivers epitomises the public health and environmental disaster that is the grim state of India’s rivers, many of them too polluted to sustain human life.

Proponents of environmentalism have much to do in India. On World Environment Day last year, I wrote of the manifold public health and socioeconomic crises plaguing India as a consequence of its environmental crisis. This year, climate protests have gone virtual. We are seeing a so-called ‘carbon crash’ – one that BBC News describes as “an unrivalled drop in carbon output.” Yet environmentalism efforts must continue. As the BBC report acknowledges, “even though we will see a massive fall this year, the concentrations of CO2 that are in the atmosphere and warming our planet won’t stabilise until the world reaches net-zero.”

India has been regarded as the worst country in the world for environmental health. No phenomena – the present COVID-19 crisis included – pose as grave a threat to humanity as does the degradation of our environment. As we look towards reopening the economy, we must consider seriously whether we can afford business as usual. 

The World Economic Forum and Thomson Reuters Foundation last month published an article containing a number of measures – scaling up green public transport, planting more trees to combat deforestation, and bolstering infrastructure. It notes that “building seawalls, dikes or other protection against growing risks from flooding and sea-level rise could save about $250 per $1 spent in India by 2050.”

In fighting climate change and stepping up environmentalism efforts, India has much to gain. To forego this, India has much to lose. World Environment Day occurs in circumstances both anomalous and familiar. In a time of global reflection, the onus is on all from the bottom up to work together to preserve our environment. COVID-19 has shown the disruption a public health crisis can exert in a few short months. Without committing to environmentalism, we will see this play out again and again in the years and decades to come.

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