Interview: ‘COVID’s Environmental Impact Shows All Is Not Lost’

Bharati Chaturvedi

By Aashiq Hussain Andrabi

CORONAVIRUS might’ve proved to be bad in many ways, but it has created a positive environmental impact. Much of this can be attributed to social distancing, self-isolation and social shielding measures implemented by countries to limit the spread of the virus.

To know the detailed impact of COVID-19 on the Environment and Wildlife, Kashmir Observer talks to writer and environmentalist Bharati Chaturvedi, the founder of an India-based non-profit, Chintan, which works on environmental issues, with the poor and gender at the centre of its work.

Bharati has led Chintan to excel in the understanding and action of three linked issues: resource efficiency, circular economy and waste, air pollution and the informal sector.

She’s has a Masters degree in History from Delhi University and a Masters in International Public Policy from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, which also awarded her the prestigious 2009 Johns Hopkins Alumni “Knowledge for the World Award”. She has previously received the globally recognized LEAD fellowship and is a fellow at the Synergos Institute, New York.

Bharati writes a popular column for the Hindustan Times, GreenPiece, on environmental issues.

What’re some of the significant positive and negative effects of Coronavirus Pandemic on the environment?

Well, as you know, the outbreak has also led to a decrease in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, albeit temporary.

The biggest positive is that many urban dwellers have realized that it’s still possible to protect the environment, that all is not lost. They know this because of the many birds they see, the blue skies, the mountains, clean air-the romance is back. Essentially because of nature making an urban comeback. The best part of this is that there’s a renewed sense of urgency and energy to take positive action.

On the negative side, the outbreak hasn’t impacted the world’s worst polluters-the US and China. Indicators are both these countries will return with no sense of responsibility to BAU.

As you rightly pointed out, the worldwide lockdown has seen dramatic temporary drops in climate-changing emissions and harmful air pollution, what implications will these changes have on environment and the health of our planet in the long run? 

That’s a hard one, because it assumes that there’ll be a drop in emissions for a long-enough time to see change. We’ll find that hard, I think. What we can hope to see is enough global consensus that it is possible to make this change, and that it is essential to make it.

Already, the chatter around conservation is becoming louder, with a focus on combatting wet markets and poaching. You know, the Global Risk Report also lists for the first time, environmental factors as the biggest risks to us. In 2020, for example, the top 5 identified threats to the world according to this Global Risk Report in order of the probability of their occurrence: climate change failure, natural disasters, extreme weather, biodiversity loss and human made environmental disasters. In terms of the impact of the top five global risks, three were environmental.

Ten years ago, in 2010, not even one listed risk in either the occurrence or the impact category was an environmental one.

So I do hope that these shifts in perception will have an impact. I can assure you, that if they don’t then the future is grim and we’ll have such severe pandemics that as the human race, we won’t have much chance of bouncing back economically or in the way we understand society today.

If we talk about South Asia specifically, what impact is coronavirus pandemic having on the climate in particular and what lessons can we take from its impact on the environment in order to fight climate change and stop global warming in the future?

You see, one might claim that the factories have shut down and there is less coal being burned or even mined. But South Asia has paid a huge cost for this. Look at the job market. Look at the export economies. Look at how manufacturing has taken a long break. So we’ve to appreciate that we’ve all paid a very big cost – and this cost has hit our poor the most.

And it’s not even that climate change damage has stopped suddenly. India was hit by one of the worst cyclones in recorded history, Amphan, on the East Coast of Orissa and West Bengal. Bangladesh was not spared either. It’s just that an excellent disaster management plan prevented mass deaths. But it created damages to the tune of approximately 13 plus billion dollars – no one has ever experienced anything like that.

Who’s going to pay for this? The wealthy countries responsible for climate change? No! We ourselves have to take the hit. Meanwhile, Pakistan had a terrible GLOF [Glacial lake outburst flood] moment. And don’t forget locusts all over the North Western parts of the sub-continent. There’re ecological and climate change causes for all this.

So all these COVID-19 era crises need us to shift towards the circular economy, with strong focus on equity. While the middle classes and the elite have to take a serious look at their own consumption, which is in some cases on par with the wealthy, Northern countries, the poor must consume more – they don’t even consume enough calories today. This requires a gendered shift in policies.

We’ve to use instruments like taxation for some items and enable social security and food security for the poor or those who’re vulnerable. We need energy security, health. These’re all ways to adapt to climate change.

And importantly, we’ve to redesign goods so they last longer and can be repaired cheaply. We don’t have to keep discarding our electronics, fashion and all kinds of other goods. Otherwise this cycle of mining, manufacturing, discarding and poisoning won’t end.

I will keep it simple: we’ve to consume less and consume more equitably. There’s no option.

We’ve seen conservation organizations across the world pull back both human and natural resources from critical programs in a bid to play their part in curbing the spread of the virus. This means that dialing down of economic and social engagements which will have consequences. How have the changes in dynamics brought about by the pandemic affected wildlife and its conservation?

There’re many changes that are taking place. As countries in South Asia enforced lockdowns to check the spread of COVID-19, with even forest guards pressed into fighting the pandemic, those in search of illegal wildlife trading opportunities took advantage as they felt less likely to be caught. As a result, a surge in mass poaching and illegal hunting has been reported across South Asia.

Besides forest dwellers also experienced more encounters with wildlife, which is not good for them or their safety.

In the wake of this pandemic what incentives do you think need to be provided to keep conservation afloat?

We’ve to simply treat the forests, grasslands, wetlands, deserts, oceans, coasts, the high altitudes – all of these as inviolate and prioritize protecting them. We also have to help people in these areas. The communities associated with the conservation need rebuilding which demands every possible support to them.

What would you attribute to being the greatest advantage to the wildlife in South Asia in this pandemic period?

There’s less pressure in the ecosystem and lack of human interference in areas where we did not have poaching. This includes say, no lights, no vehicles on highways, no noise. No tourists, even. This is very important for the conservation of wildlife and also teaches us about the limits of tourism.

What’s the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the aquatic flora and fauna of the South Asia?

It’s too early for a definite answer to this question, but communications with our colleagues around the world suggest that the pandemic is affecting aquatic ecosystems and their conservation and management. I’m not sure yet if it was beneficial in a macro way. What I’m sure about is that there were less animals killed on highways, etc. But a few months’ respite is a short time for creatures who’ve been around for thousands of years.

Covid-19 lockdown has had dire effects on businesses including fruit industry in Kashmir. We are seeing an alarming increase in food wastage. The huge demand for disposable medical products such as single-use gloves, surgical masks and empty IV bags in the wake of the pandemic has created a deluge of medical waste. Besides, plastic packaging is enjoying an increase in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. So, what impact do you see Covid-19 is having on changing waste and recycling behaviors in South Asian Countries?

We’re all at home all the time, probably generating a lot more waste than we had been in the past and South Asia is no exception. Single-use masks, gloves and bottles of sanitizer shielding us from the spread of COVID-19 are ending up on the streets, in the seas and among wildlife.

But at the same time, it has also been noted that people strive towards reducing food waste and have developed positive attitudes towards food waste prevention. They’ve adapted their habits that have been found to be close to the good practices. Studies suggest that food waste prevention in South Asia is probably driven more by the socio economical context of the COVID-19 crisis, i.e., food availability, restricted movements, loss of income, than by a pro-environmental concern.

How can we minimize the impact of coronavirus on recycling and waste services, street cleaning and other key environmental services? Is there anything we can learn from this tragedy going forward to reduce waste?

We’ve been handling waste during COVID19 also, because at least in India, the fear was other health issues kicking in if we ignored basic hygiene. Waste pickers were collecting waste and so were municipalities. The key is to reduce waste.

Obviously you’ve to tax plastics and incentivize alternatives. More than that, we need decentralized models. Handle most of your waste on site. Compost, reduce, recycle and learn to work with your wastepickers. Municipalities have to give them I-cards, help them to make micro-enterprises and collect segregated waste, stop waste-to- energy or incineration (toxic and outdated).

By law, we need Extended Producer Responsibility so brand manufacturers are held responsible for collecting wastes like plastics and electronics at their own cost and prevent pollution. We all need to upgrade our repair workers-cobblers, the local market electronic repair man. These are all part of the overall waste handling eco-system.

Behavior change will only last if pushed and incentivized otherwise people get lazy, so here is an opportunity.

I’m saying all this because if we do this, we pollute less, we need to mine less minerals and we cut down less forests, put less plastics into the ecosystem and protect biodiversity. All this will give us a green armour. How else will we survive?

How should we deal with the waste if we’re self-isolating?

I believe, we do have special agencies that collect it and treat it like infectious waste. If that is not possible, then by law, you dig a deep pit and bury it with lime.

Is the increase in amount of time spent at home and using electricity powered appliances a steep tradeoff for the decrease in traffic and public electricity usage?

No, because first of all, we don’t use institutional level energy, such as for manufacturing or in massive air-conditioned offices etc.

Second, we don’t use gadgets and appliances endlessly and third, the way forward is to have more energy efficient appliances where the plastics have less toxics in them (currently, they have brominated flame retardants which are extremely hazardous, for example).

Environmental resuscitation is a slow process that has received a lucky impetus via COVID-19. At the same time - courtesy the lockdown backlog and industrial stimulus disbursed by the governments - the biome is set to receive a jarring repudiation. How detrimental could such an all blown comeback be to the environment and is there a strategic unroll which will help us maintain the positive impact of COVID-19 for a longer time?

At this point, South Asia is struggling with two things: COVID19 itself, and preparing healthcare facilities for other illnesses (the monsoon will bring in malaria, dengue etc) plus kick-starting the economy.

I mean, if a South Asian country depends on garment exports, then what does it do? It is dependent on the global economic trends and it has to find other innovative ways to keep afloat.

Some ideas will be green, but not all, because of the scale that comes into play in South Asia. One expects that in the middle term, policies will be greener as the first shocks and after-shocks are handled.

The time is still ripe for making an action plan on war footing for saving the global environment. We must take pragmatic efforts as summits have not yielded results. We must realise that environment is a global issue and relates to all humans, animals, vegetation, and environmental factors, which make up the mother earth.

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