As parts of the world emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, many argue there is a “crisis of social imagination”, as we straddle between two historic periods: B.C and A.C, before and after coronavirus. The lockdown has been temporarily good for nature, like reduction in air pollution, with the Himalayas visible in some parts of India after 30 years.
Yet, commentators fluctuate between sustainable utopias and cynical despair with regards to long-term environmental implications. Whilst there are numerous proposals for how governments and cities can build back a sustainable future, this World Environment Day, we ask, what can citizens and young people do?
Lockdown has significantly changed our behavioural patterns: whether it be travelling, eating, shopping or time we spend in nature. Putting aside macro-level debates on sustainable recoveries, this article proposes four practical steps that citizens can take:
Lockdown has put a standstill to our journeys, whether it be work or leisure. A sustainable world necessitates reflecting on the essentiality of these commutes. Tourism, for instance, can substantially determine emissions patterns at the individual level. For many middle-class Indians, fewer and shorter-distance holidays can be one way of reducing carbon footprints.
The most significant journey to make is work travel. Can some of your work be done from home? Is it possible for you to go into the office fewer days per week? Service sector workers and employers are recognising that a substantial share of business travel is non-essential. Employees need to convince their workplaces that new ways of working are feasible post-lockdown.
Many young entrepreneurs in India are welcoming the change with 53% being optimistic about working from home and 51% primarily motivated to work from home few days a week to reduce commuting time.
In cases where it is essential to go back to work, we need to adopt sustainable modes of transport. Coronavirus’ health implications could lead to the demise of public transport, as people opt to use cars. This could considerably deteriorate air quality, affecting our health and the planet.
In this vein, the World Health Organisation has advocated walking and cycling. Cities around the world are banning or taxing cars in central areas and introducing cycling lanes and footpaths instead. For example, Bogota, Colombia created 76km temporary cycling lanes to increase mobility and reduce transmission risk. As C40 Cities argues, cycling can be an “affordable lower-risk mobility” option given the pandemic.
These arguments are especially true for young Indians who have a mobile and active lifestyle. Cycling may be unreasonable for long distances, but can you ditch the car to walk or cycle short distances, like local shopping, meeting neighbourhood friends or going to workplaces in the vicinity? Walking and cycling is not only good for the environment, it can also improve physical and mental health, especially given the sedentary lifestyles during lockdown. Cities such as Chennai were already contemplating cycling introductions prior to the virus – citizens should urge local leaders to realise these plans.
As a result of coronavirus, many are shopping locally and consuming items with less packaging (to reduce transmission risk). All of these lifestyle changes are good for the planet and should be continued post lockdown. Supporting local traders can boost the local economy whilst reducing our overall carbon footprints.
Local traders and farmers are often engaged in more sustainable practices and utilise less packaging which contributes to waste. As per Unilever and the World Economic Forum, plastic packaging alone represents an $80-$120 billion loss to the global economy, this is before the hidden emissions costs and biodiversity loss is added, like when plastic ends up in the ocean. In fact, 90% of plastic polluting our oceans, comes from only ten rivers, with Indus and Ganges ranking second and sixth amongst the world’s dirtiest rivers. Given the pandemic is disproportionately affecting farmers, consuming locally can be environmentally-friendly whilst supporting livelihoods of the most vulnerable in society.
The financial prudence that coronavirus has necessitated, sadly due to shortages and economic hardship, has reinforced a new concept of essentiality. Reducing overall consumption, whilst devastatingly hurting the poorest, has introduced a much-needed break to the “use and throw” culture which has dominated urban middle-class lifestyles. Being homebound, has given a chance to consumers to reduce food waste by eating out less, and be more energy efficient, like turning off non-critical appliances. Not only has this reduced unnecessary energy consumption, it is also reducing our electricity, gas and water bills at a time when many are strapped for cash.
The theme for World Environment Day 2020 is “time for nature”, calling for urgent action to protect biodiversity. The lockdown measures have reconnected many of us to nature, especially those living in cities, who are longing for green spaces in concrete jungles. There is a newfound appreciation for local wildlife and plant species and community parks. Many have taken up to gardening, tree planting and exercising outdoors.
Sadly, most Indian cities do not meet international guidelines of having 25-35% of areas earmarked for recreational, open and green spaces. In the short-term, these spaces will become even more essential as governments recommend socialising outdoors to prevent virus transmission. Thus, this is an opportune time for us to rally behind community projects advocating for nature conservation and reforesting urban areas. Citizens across India have been involved in tree planting initiatives and involved in grassroots campaigns to save trees, as in Mumbai which has one of the world’s worst ratios of open spaces to people. Sustained activism and funding is required to jettison these movements, and gain support of community leaders and city planners.
The coronavirus has demonstrated the government’s ability to take drastic and immediate action in crises. Governments need to similarly respond to avert the climate crisis. Whilst the pandemic was sudden and associated measures unprecedented, the failure to respond to ongoing biodiversity loss and the global climate crisis, is one of the biggest public policy failings of our lifetime.
World Environment Day is an opportune time to call for action and highlight the climate emergency. Local governments can promote lifestyle changes discussed above by investing in pedestrianisation, creating cycling lanes, providing subsidies for bikes, investing more in green space, protecting biodiversity hotspots and supporting local farmers who are financially worst hit during this crisis.
They can take this opportunity to retrofit public infrastructure to make buildings more energy-efficient whilst creating jobs. Other initiatives include promoting sustainable and nutritious food by letting local farmers operate in government buildings, which can reduce overall travel and transmission risk, whilst reducing food waste. Nationally, seizing the moment means capitalising on green jobs, like financing the renewable energy sector and only bailing out firms, like airlines, which are committed to an environmentally sustainable future.
As we emerge from lockdown, our sustainable lifestyle changes can act as a catalyst for change. This Environment Day, let us demand change and most importantly, be the change we want to see in the world we will inherit. Urgent action to protect the environment is required for the future we want.