Climate Change

Earth Day@50: Fixing our broken relationship with nature

COVID-19 is the grimmest reminder of nature’s revenge

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 21 April 2020

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020, we have the toughest and the grimmest reminder of nature’s revenge. Today, Delhi’s smog has cleared; the air is simply sublime ― we can see the blue skies and the birds are just loving it. Chirping birds have replaced the honking cars.

In all our cities across the world ― as we lockdown to deal with this mutant virus that is killing people and making our world tragic and horrendous ― it seems almost that nature is reclaiming her space. 

There is news of how rivers in Indian cities ― earlier declared dead because of zero oxygen levels and called sewage canals ― are bouncing back; beaming with life and freshwater.

There are images of lions ― from neighbouring forests ― venturing out and basking in the sun in the port lands of Junagadh in Gujarat; civets strolling in the streets of a small town in Kerala; vibrant flamingos making their way to the salt pans of coastal India; and, dolphins dancing in the waters. I could go on. 

But what is clear to us on this Earth Day is that this joy of nature has come at an enormous and unacceptable human cost to millions in the world, who have lost their loved ones to the virus or are seeing their livelihoods collapse. 

I can say with absolute conviction that this is not the way we want to clean our air or our water ― however desperately we need this to happen. But what we should remember are two things for post-COVID-19 times. 

One, that we did, momentarily, gets this sense and smell of what clean air, clean rivers and exuberant nature means. And we must value it. We must remember this time as the way we want it to be, when our lungs can inhale and exhale without the stress of toxins.

But two, and most importantly, we must remember that at the current levels of pollution, it took as much as shutting down everything to get blue skies. Yes, this is what it will take.

So, when in winter in Delhi, we have smog days again, we must remember that cleaning up will mean taking all vehicles off the roads, and not play odd and even with a few cars absent. It will mean shutting down all day-to-day business so that no trucks need to come into our cities. In this last month, truck movement is down from 4,000 per day to less than 400 per day. 

It will mean shutting down all industries ― not just a few here and there ― so that there is just no combustion at all. It means stop to all construction. Everything that makes up our life and livelihoods. This is how we got from black, smoggy skies to blue skies and clear lungs.

I say this not because this is what we must do in winter. This lockdown, I hope, we will never have to repeat as it is the darkest days in human history. But I say this, because, if we want to have clear skies, then we will have to move heaven and earth to get much more done so that we can have livelihoods as well as our right to breathe.

No more doing bits and little pieces of stuff, which always keeps us behind the curve. We need to be aggressive about what we do and how fast we can get there. This is something again that this terrible COVID-19 times should teach us―we do not want to be in this situation again.

So, what will it take to clean our air ― to keep it as pristine as the lockdown days when the lockdown is over and behind us? 

First, it will mean realising that we need to get vehicles off the road, but not people. It means fast-tracking everything we can do so that we move people ― not cars ― at speed, convenience and safety. Public transport will have to take into account concerns about personal hygiene and public health. 

We should set ourselves goals so that in the next few years (yes, so quickly) we can upgrade our systems so that 70-80 per cent of the daily commute is through high-speed and low-emission transportation ― from trains to bicycles.

Second, it means not shutting down, but shifting all industries ― lock, stock and barrel ― to clean fuel, by starting with natural gas and then ramping up with all combustion moving to electricity from much cleaner power generation.

Today, it is the price of natural gas, and not its availability, that is the obstacle to this transition, as gas is competing with the dirtiest and the cheapest of fuels, coal. 


But if the government was to include natural gas into goods and service tax (GST) ― and I am not talking about all petroleum fuels, only natural gas ― it would turn the tables on coal. At present, coal or other such dirty fuels are included in GST and have a much lower taxation than cleaner fuels. So, we can do this.

But it again needs to be thought about as the big solution ― something that can be done fast and at scale.

I could go on. But the bottom line is scale and speed. In this COVID-19 times, we have seen disorder and disruption at scales we never thought would happen in our lifetime. So, now we need to fix what is broken in our relationship with nature. This then is the biggest challenge in the coming days. 

Will we do things differently, recognising what COVID-19 has brought to light? Or will we want to rebuild our economies with more smoke and more pollution because we need speed and scale to get back on our feet.

The future, like never before, is in our hands. Nature has spoken. Now we should speak gently back to her. Tread lightly on Earth.

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