Covid-19 is an unfortunate and unprecedented public health emergency. The changes that this humanantarian crisis has unleashed have also created opportunity to test out solutions for the future. It is therefore important to leverage economic recovery post pandemic for clean air through more focused advocacy, better use of technology, by changing behaviour, catalysing innovation and building public and political support for harder decisions. Dramatic improvement in air quality during lockdown has demonstrated quite clearly that collective action can bring far reaching changes and big steps are needed if we want sweeping changes for significant air quality gains. We need to learn from this crisis to inform the way forward.
Big Gains in Air Quality During Emergency: Close to 40 drop in PM2.5 has been noted across NCR in the first week of lockdown 1.0. The NO2 levels witnessed a sharper decline of 49 per cent. Some pollution remained on account of power plants, burning of solid fuel for cooking, waste burning, some vehicles running and dust. NASA imagery showed that there was some crop burning in the region during lockdown. But during these summer months as overall pollution levels were low, we did not experience major spikes.
Science has Indicated that Polluted Regions are more Vulnerable to Pandemic: Mounting evidences from North Italy and parts of China have shown that effect of pandemic is more severe in more polluted regions. Lungs and respiratory systems already compromised by long term exposure to air pollution, are too weak to fight the virus. For future resilience against more pademics and to reduce overall health risk from air pollution, the fight against air pollution has to get more intense and stronger.
A Case for New Opportunities for New Normal: The economic recovery and reconstruction post-Covid-19 is an opportunity to integrate green deal. While revising economy and bringing back jobs and securing livelihood it is also possible to adopt clean pathways and make behaviourial changes to mitigate pollution impact of recovery. With economy taking a big hit, industry will be wanting to go full throttle after the lockdown and may resist the “go green” mandate. Besides, weak public and political support may slow down cleaner pathways. This needs strong and well informed public and political engagement to inform the process of economic recovery.
Reinvent People Centric Mobility: We need strategy to build confidence in public transport even as social distancing is being practiced. Public transport is needed even for the economy to reopen. Personal vehicle usage will increase. Ownership can increase somewhat within the limit of economic recession. There is a big opportunity to leverage the grand experiment initiated during lockdown to reduce unnecessary travel trips and work trips by practicing working from home. Big shifts have been possible – anticipated to be about 25-40 per cent for IT companies, that is also now been looked at as a longer term measure by these companies. This, has reduced vehicular traffic significantly. Post Covid-19, strategies for hygiene, social distancing and cashless ticketing can be further built upon to control overcrowding in public transport and to improve attractiveness. But stimulus package will have to provide financial support to revamp public transport and link this investment with mobility reforms including promoting walking and cycling, designing equitable road spaces for all. More people (not just poor but also middle and high income groups) will prefer walking and cycling as independent contactless travel modes within reasonable travel distances. Take immediate steps to create walking and cycling lanes with soft barriers – like European cities are doing – to create safe spaces for people when lockdown eases.
Look for Innovative Solutions and Greater Digitisation to Promote Public Transportation: Public transport revamp now will require more IT and digitisation for routes planning and service operations to link all neighbourhoods efficiently and equitably, and to optimise the network to cut interchange costs. Take forward cashless ticketing to integrate different public transport systems. Finding innovative solutions such as staggered timing, work from home crowd management etc can reduce pressure on the existing public transit systems while reducing congestion and pollution. Economic recovery cannot happen without a robust public transport system. The need to build institutions and systems to bring reforms cannot be understated.
Rebuild Economy Around Circular Economy: Economic reconstruction process will have to recognise that waste is resource and resource recovery from waste protects health and environment while creating jobs, livelihood and investments in new waste management infrastructure. This is the time to promote circular economy. Sustainable waste management practices such as segregation, decentralised waste management, investment in recycling while ensuring safety of sanitation workers, can strengthen urban economy and protect environment. The current urgency to improve awareness and disposal system of bio-medical waste related to Covid-19 can catalyse new systems. Enable recycling and reuse of waste. For instance, reduce GST on recycled C&D waste products and modify building approval system to scale up use of recycled material. Promoting circular economy could help increase employment opportunities.
Enable Clean Fuel and Technology Transition in Industrial Sector: Keeping in view that the industry sector will require and get stimulus and economic recovery package it is important to ensure that there is in-built resource support for small and medium scale units to undertake pollution control measure without economic dislocation and disruption of employment of workers. Bigger industry and thermal power plants need to stay on course to comply with the emissions standards. Need fuel pricing strategies to enable clean fuel transition across all sectors. There could be specific strategies for industries for reopening with phase in plan for cleaner technologies and more important safety drill to prevent industrial accidents. The stimulus package for automobile industry for instance should catalyse electric mobility especially in heavy duty sector.
Douse Dust with Eco-restoration Projects: Employment generation programmes like MNREGA and others need to be linked with massive eco restoration of Aravallis and Ridge, catchment improvement, green walling plantation and soil stabilisation programmes to protect the region from desertification, soil erosion to control windblown dust.
- Even in this humanitarian crisis we have collectively understood the value of clean air and importance of hard action. Citizens, civil society groups need to build strong engagement and campaigns to inform the post COVID 19 recovery to carry forward the gains. Need to build initiatives and undertake serious advocacy to deepen public understanding and involvement and leverage all public platforms including social media to push for better air quality during new normal.
- Opportune time for policy makers to integrate clean air reforms in industry and mobility sectors with economic recovery package in an innovative manner. This will need sensitive approaches to ensure that needs of the poor and vulnerable are equitably integrated and implemented while securing their livelihood.
- Need for out-of-box thinking, behaviourial change and technological solutions for better planning and management. Need much wider and sharper public awareness for lifestyle adjustment to reduce pollution footprint.