By Kiran Mazumdar Shaw
The coronavirus pandemic has led to the loss of thousands of lives, put brakes on economic growth and pushed the world into a recession. At the same time, the crisis has forced us to pause and reflect at our lives, our economic priorities and our consumption patterns. It has revealed that humankind has been on a path of unsustainable consumption, growth and ecological degradation, which is simply not sustainable.
Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions fell across continents as countries tried to contain the spread of the new coronavirus with strict lockdowns. Decreased economic activity in most parts of the world had far-reaching effects in a span of just two months.
When India implemented one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, the country witnessed a dramatic improvement in air and water quality. Pollution levels in the Delhi National Capital Region reduced by around 80% during the initial phase of the lockdown. The waters of the Ganga and Yamuna saw an increase in dissolved oxygen and reduction in nitrate concentration.
While rebooting the Indian economy, we will need to integrate sustainability in our growth models as the penalty of poor environmental health is enormous. In the ‘new normal’ post-COVID-19, the government will have to focus on a low carbon economic growth strategy based on Renewable Energy, Reduction of waste, effluents, emissions and consumerism based on Recycling & Reuse.
Traditional sources of energy production such as coal, oil and natural gas contribute to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution alone is estimated to cause 7 million premature deaths every year by contributing to strokes, heart disease, respiratory disease and cancers, and costing the global economy an estimated USD 225 billion annually in lost man hours.
India is amongst the highest coal consumers globally with nearly 74% of the energy demand supplied by coal and oil. As we redirect the economy towards consumption and economic growth, there is an urgent need to deploy renewable energy to sustain economic development, improve energy security, expand energy accessibility and mitigate climate change.
Whilst the government has announced ambitious targets and undertaken concrete steps towards these goals, which include doubling of renewable power capacity in the last four years, building of solar parks, announcement of an offshore wind policy, hydropower installations, biogas plants and green energy corridors, there is tremendous scope and compelling economic reasons for doing much more. We need a cultural shift towards more responsible transport and consumption patterns that involve greater use of electric vehicles, expansion of mass rapid transport systems and making our cities pedestrian friendly.
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows in the renewable energy sector in India amounted to USD 6.84 billion between April 2000 and June 2018. There is immense potential to increase this through establishing clean energy infrastructure, decreasing FDI constraints in the sector, upskilling and training the workforce and improving ease of business.
Higher investments in this sector have the potential to create thousands of jobs, increase female participation in the workforce and reduce poverty.
Renewable energy initiatives created 11 million job opportunities globally in 2018. Women currently represent 32% of the renewable energy workforce, substantially higher than the 22% average reported for the global oil and gas industry.
It is encouraging to see the Indian government’s intent of making India a manufacturing hub for electric vehicles (EVs) in the next five years. The government’s target of one EV charging station for every 3 km in cities and every 25 km on both sides of highways can have a multiplier effect on job creation.
While India has launched biofuel-driven public transport at a pilot scale in Nagpur, expanding the program across the country could lead to significant job creation besides cutting air pollution in our cities.
Reduction of Waste
Urban India generates 62 million tonnes of waste annually and is predicted to generate 165 million tonnes by 2030.
A sustained effort is required to introduce zero waste technologies in production and effective waste management technologies to convert waste into energy, organic fertilizer, and biofuel. Unlike Western countries, India’s waste comprises of a major organic component, which offers the potential for generating a large amount of compost cheaply, if waste is segregated at source and effectively managed.
The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the waste problem. Millions of single-use masks, gloves and sanitizer bottles disposed every single day is adding hugely to plastic pollution globally. Hospitals are estimated to generate six times as much medical waste at the peak of the outbreak as they did before the crisis began.
We need innovative solutions like biodegradable personal protective equipment to ensure we don’t create a bigger plastic crisis.
Moreover, there is an urgent need for building more affordable and efficient sewage systems across India to keep our water bodies from turning into cesspools of disease.
Recycle & Reuse
We currently live in a linear economy world over, where goods are manufactured, sold, consumed and then discarded as waste. The need of the hour is a rapid transition to a circular economy that repurposes, redesigns and reuses goods prolonging their lives to the highest value and keeping them out of our oceans and landfills.
India’s environment ministry drafted a National Resource Efficiency Policy in 2019, aiming to double the recycling rate of key materials to 50% in the next five years and enable upcycling of waste.
The draft policy aims to achieve a 100% recycling and reuse rate polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic by 2025.
The government now needs to enforce this policy on ground and move India towards sustainable use of resources.
The smart use of enzyme technology to treat industrial and domestic waste can repurpose them for use that is more productive.
To achieve the full potential of the opportunities offered by a green economy transition, we will need to adopt the current good practices at a much greater scale and find new cohesive ways of thinking and working across territories and sectors. Cooperation, innovation, rural entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer must be encouraged and supported.
 World Bank
 World Energy Scenarios Composing energy futures to 2050 (2013), World energy Council
 Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion
 IRENA Annual Report