Let’s not shy away from demanding for the world what we desire for ourselves and our future generations
If you had told someone in pre-COVID Jalandhar that it was possible to see Himalayan peaks from the city, the statement might have drawn disbelief. But half a month down the first phase of the countrywide lockdown due to COVID-19, Jalandharis woke up one morning to witness this miracle.
The development was reported widely, not just in India but also the rest of the world. Well, you don’t see snow-clad Himalayan peaks every day from Jalandhar, even if it is possible, thanks to the severe air pollution.
Similarly, air quality improved drastically all over the world. Heavily polluted cities like Wuhan, Seoul and New Delhi experienced 44 per cent, 54 per cent and 60 per cent decreases in PM2.5.
Many rivers in India, including the Yamuna that is considered ecologically dead in its course after Delhi, were found to be thriving. Even wild animals were spotted frequently on deserted streets and were seen exploring human habitations. Such positive news brought much-needed cheer during the pandemic.
However, as restrictions were imposed on traveling and we were forced to stay at home, a drastic change in consumption patterns was observed due to the disruption of global and local supply chains. This resulted in a reduction in the global carbon footprint by 17-25 per cent.
Once the restrictions were lifted and things started going back to ‘normal’, pollution and carbon emissions also reverted to their pre-COVID levels or even higher as many countries are now pushing for greater economic growth to make up for the losses.
It is clear from this pandemic that nature has the ability to bounce back if we stop doing business-as-usual and embrace transformative change — “a fundamental, system-wide change that includes consideration of technological, economic and social factors, including in terms of paradigms, goals or values”.
This means that we need to move from an anthropocentric approach to an ecocentric one, by inculcating changes in our perceptions, actions and consumption patterns.
Collectively, our little acts of change can help in transitioning to a new normal post-COVID world where we value nature for itself, sustainability is preferred over endless growth, and the world is a just and safe place for all.
Every individual act matters
Development at the cost of nature and our inability to anticipate drastic events have resulted in pandemics like COVID-19.
If we do not change our ways, the future of our planet and humanity seems bleak, according to the latest reports of agencies including Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Union Ministry of Earth Science (MoES), Government of India.
The IPBES global report estimates that our pursuit for economic growth has put one million species at risk globally, which are the very foundation of our well-being.
The IPCC warns that if carbon emissions continue as usual, we are very likely to exceed our carbon budget by 2030 and make our world warmer by 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C), which is expected to have adverse irreversible impacts on the planet.
According to the MoES report, the first-ever climate change assessment of India, the average temperature of India has increased by 0.7°C during 1901-2018, mainly because of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
It also warns that if the present rate of emissions continue, India would experience extreme weather events more frequently by the end of the 21st century.
We are already seeing the signs — flash floods, wildfire, storms, cyclones etc, becoming more common and worse to handle. In short, the well-being of the whole planet and humanity is at risk, and our future generations are going to bear the brunt of our present choices.
But in order to ensure a safe and sustainable world, do individual efforts really matter? Scientific evidence says they do.
A recent Oxfam study based on understanding the linkages between the consumption patterns at different income levels and global carbon emission states that between 1990 and 2015, the world’s wealthiest 10 per cent were responsible for 52 per cent of global carbon emissions while middle income 40 per cent were responsible for 49 per cent.
The figures are alarming and indicate that the rich need to change their lifestyles and not the poor.
Another Oxfam study found that collectively, our ‘individual consumption choices’ were accountable for 64 per cent of global emissions, which means that everyone has a role to play in saving our planet.
COVID-19 compelled us to live a minimalist lifestyle and proved that it is possible to change for good.
Less is more
During the initial phases of the lockdown, we were flying or going out less often, consuming less fancy food, clothes and other lifestyle items. We had to survive with the bare minimum and utilise the resources efficiently and creatively, which helped in bringing down our carbon emissions.
Food, fashion, fuel (for transportation) and flying are estimated to be responsible for about 26 per cent, 10 per cent, 15 per cent and 2.4 per cent of global carbon emissions respectively. We should continue to pay attention to these four lifestyle choices.
Our choices as consumers fuel demand for goods and services. We should decide consciously in choosing ethical brands, recycle / upcycle as much as we can and educate ourselves on the ways we can help the environment.
After becoming well-informed, we must advocate for our choices. We should also encourage our younger generation to keep themselves informed as they are the future of our world. They ought to know the power they have in their hands to bring the change.
Likewise, switching to alternative, organic and locally grown food can help in curbing emissions, pollution and waste. Buying local shortens the supply chain, which brings down the cost and energy of transporting the food and also supports the local agro economy.
However, the best is to grow our own food. During lockdown, social media was flooded with pictures and posts of the produce that people got from their kitchen gardening. Many of our relatives, friends and colleagues were growing their own food in their balcony, terrace or backyard.
It is fantastic to be able to grow food in our homes and even better if we do it collectively. You might be surprised to know that the concept of ‘urban / community gardening’ is actually getting popular in cities like Bengaluru, Paris and New York.
With a surge of fast fashion sites and apps, it has become easier to buy trendy clothes (and contribute to carbon emissions and resource exploitation) in the comfort of your home. However, we appeal to you to go slow on fast fashion.
Choose fewer, essential and high-quality clothing that will last for years over numerous low-quality items of clothing with short shelf lives. These days, there are also many online thrift stores operating through social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. Rental shops like Flyrobe have made it possible to rent quality clothes for special occasions and festivals.
While living car-free for a year saves about 2.4 tonnes CO2-equivalent emissions, we understand it is not possible for all to forego personal vehicles completely. So the next best option is to carpool, use bicycles, or to simply walk, especially for small distance commutes within cities or towns.
For domestic travel, trains, buses and cars are better options than flight in terms of the carbon emissions. We can try to fly less, with no or less stop-overs and only when it is inevitable.
Climate advocates had been urging all of us to take these small actions and make that big change. But it took COVID-19 to make us realise that we need to rethink some of our consumption choices.
It is important to cut down our carbon footprint and adopt a minimalist lifestyle to share what is left with us. If we can do it for a few months then why not make it a habit.
We have only one planet to live on. And lastly, transformative change is not completely possible with just these small actions but requires deep systemic changes through long term and sincere commitments from our governments, policy-makers and corporate leaders.
Let’s not shy away from demanding for the world what we desire for us and our future generations and also do our bit for the same.
The authors are PhD scholars at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun
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