Climate Change

Post-COVID-19: Govt has opportunity to build eco-institutionalism

Long-term planning needs standardising data to monitor environment, institutionalising climate-risk assessment

By Chayan Vohra
Published: Tuesday 25 August 2020

Scandinavian countries continue to lead the global effort towards sustainability, according to the 2020 Environmental Performance Index. India — despite the current dispensation’s proclaimed ambitions to lead the sustainability movement — was placed 168th among 180 countries.

Though a multitude of factors affect these rankings, the adoption of eco-institutionalism to incorporate a long-term ecological vision in short-term economic planning has played a definitive part in helping Scandinavian countries stay at the top.

It is understandably difficult for developing countries like India to balance economic and ecological imperatives in their national priorities. If we are to stay true to our stated policy of becoming a world leader in sustainability, however, we must not allow our situation to become our excuse, but translate it into opportunities.

Post-COVID-19 national priorities

During the 2008 economic crash, global emissions decreased by one per cent, only to rise by a ghastly five per cent during the recovery period beginning 2010. It was estimated the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic-induced reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would amount to a 5-8 per cent emissions loss by the end of 2020.

If the post-2008 financial crisis recovery is anything to go by, however, post-COVID-19 recovery may upset grand strategic plans adopted during the Paris Agreement. With an impending 2030 deadline, can we afford to continue to prioritise short-term economic gains over ecological security?

In a recent interview on the post-COVID-19 world order, Muhammad Yunus, economist and founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, said society has increased its capacity to take “outrageously bold decisions” in the face of crises, despite the punitive cost of the lockdown on the economy.

This pointed to a silver lining amid all the crises involving COVID-19: Governments across the world have the opportunity to overhaul their governance and policy apparatus.

Energy sector’s response to COVID-19

Underlying the decision to have nationwide lockdowns was an evidence-driven study conducted by the Imperial College, London, United Kingdom. It illustrated how even in the post-truth world, institutional decision-making continued to rely on data more than hysteria or the political aspirations of the ruling dispensation in setting national priorities and ensuing policies.

The recent spate of events in the energy sector, unfortunately, showed the avolition of our government to use data and evidence in policy formulation.

The offshore wind power sector registered a 49 per cent decline in financing, creating the need to increase solar power capacity addition. By providing a Customs duty exemption on solar imports from China for projects allocated before August 1, 2020, however, the government repressed investment opportunities worth Rs 50,000 crore for domestic manufacturers.

Of the 40 per cent of renewable energy (RE) capacity addition projects for 2022, RE commitments were allotted to states with distributions companies (DISCOM) that had a below-average rating, according to the International Energy Agency.

To make these 40 per cent capacity additions projects tenable for 2022, the targets focus should be laid on installing prepaid smart meters. Smart meters can help reduce collection inefficiency with DISCOMS and further improve demand data that will help in better management of grid and reduce aggregated technical and commercial losses.

It is well established that coal will remain a part of India’s energy mix to cushion the production variability impact of RE.

By opening coal mining to the private sector and deregulating quality control of procured coal, India risks increasing the emissions intensity of its gross domestic product.

Incentivising the widespread installation of Carbon Capture Utilisation Storage technology by introducing a regulatory framework that provides tax credits to power plants and increasing the rate of biomass co-firing could, instead, improve the performance of coal power fleets.

Legacy of Ram Rajya and ecological institutionalism

It was estimated that, until 2030, an annual drop of 6-7 per cent will be required in the global carbon emissions to limit our exposure to climate anomalies. If developing countries continue to avoid prioritising their short-term needs over their long-term ones, things may seemingly escalate to a tipping point of no return.

The seemingly ‘win some, lose some’ situation where we can afford to prioritise short-term economic gains over long-term ecological safety will rapidly turn into a ‘lose some, lose all’ situation, beyond the tipping point of 2030.

As the recent turn of events has shown, global shocks like a pandemic or an ecological disaster in the avoidable future can rupture fault lines of global supply chains and leave economies vulnerable to exigencies of a globalised world economy. 

We need to adopt ecological institutionalism to explore norms and policies opined by leading global experts and punch above our weight by planning over a longer time horizon in a limited-resource endowment. The shift to long-term policy planning will require standardising data on environmental monitoring and institutionalisation of climate risk assessment.

Creating a social laboratory of alternatives in economic and sustainable policy making, the government can explore ideas such as a social impact stock exchange for developmental organisations and non-profits to standardise impact data and funnel funding into high-impact green initiatives.

Green investments will not just create more jobs, but also help with quicker and sustained recovery of the economy post-COVID-19. Beyond tangible capital returns, green investment can also limit future climate risk exposure by nurturing a more resilient economy.

In the wake of a once-in-a-century pandemic and a politically weak opposition, the Union government has the opportunity to promote eco-institutionalism and set societal norms based on the idea of valuing sustainable development.

For a government that takes symbolic pride in the pursuit of the mythical Ram Rajya, losing the opportunity to normatively define and institutionalise it in an increasingly globalised, decreasingly sustainable world, can perhaps be its greatest normative loss.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of  Down To Earth.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.