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COVID-19 Has Exacerbated Climate Concerns

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WhyOnEarth logo mobEditor’s Note: Are you bothered by the drastic changes in our climate, causing extreme weather events and calamities such as the Kerala Floods? #WhyOnEarth aims to take the truth to the people with stories, experiences, opinions and revelations about the climate change reality that you should know, and act on. Have a story to share? Click here and publish.

By Rishika Das Roy

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the dominant narrative in the climate change space is ‘nature is healing’. This narrative has emerged from the decrease in air pollution across hotspots, and other climate wins. While it is important to highlight this, as it demonstrates the impact of human activity on nature, it also leaves out key considerations about how economies will recover and the impact of the pandemic on communities already coping with climate change. The financial impact from COVID-19 may, in the longer-term, leave millions more vulnerable to climate change.

Will Climate Change Take A Backseat During And After COVID-19?

As governments in India and across the world focus on responding to COVID-19, it is likely that climate change will be seen as a less relevant issue for the next few years. Governments may experience governance fatigue, which will reduce the political will and bandwidth to commit to climate action, and they may instead focus efforts on recovering economies by any means possible.

As per the United Nations’ Emission Gaps Report, we have already fallen behind the 2030 target to contain global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius and bring down global emissions. COVID-19 will pull us further back. The United Nations Climate Change Conference, which was scheduled for November 2020, has also been postponed to 2021, delaying action at higher levels of government.

The pandemic has hit the Indian economy hard, and it is predicted that the economy will contract by 5% in 2020-21. Millions are already grappling with the effects of the nationwide lockdown, as seen in the case of stranded migrant workers, the informal workforce, and Indian farmers. Given the urgent need to revive the economy, there is pressure on the government to lower environmental standards and reduce monitoring requirements.

Historically, disasters have often led to more extractive manufacturing booms, reversing any climate gains. For developing nations such as India, focussing on manufacturing and extractive industries to recover the economy might be low-hanging fruit, especially given the global fall in oil and coal prices. This could be seen as the only way to prevent the doubling of poverty due to COVID-19, as is anticipated.

The Need For A ‘Green’ Recovery

The recovery process that countries choose post-COVID-19 will determine how successful we are in keeping climate action and ambitions on track. A few countries, such as those in the European Union, are planning for a green recovery, or ‘building back better’, by being conscious of the climate in their COVID-19 recovery plans. Such a green recovery would be hinged upon clean or less polluting technologies, electric mobility and transport, and smart infrastructure as part of a longer-term stimulus for financial growth.

“There is an urgent need for central and state governments to think ‘green’ for the recovery of the economy post-COVID-19.”

However, in India, where an INR 20 lakh crore stimulus plan has been announced, it is not clear whether climate change will be taken into consideration, as the package barely provides social protection to the country’s population of 1.3 billion. There is an urgent need for central and state governments to think ‘green’ for the recovery of the economy post-COVID-19. Here are some ways in which this can be done:

1. Adopt a ‘no-climate regrets’ approach

With every rupee that is pumped into the recovery process, the central and state governments need to consider whether they are doing more long-term harm than short-term good. If a fiscal stimulus is needed in heavily polluting industries, the scope of mitigation measures and the use of clean technology must be evaluated.

Policymakers need to mainstream climate decisions into their fiscal decisions and interrogate past decisions through a climate lens. For instance, can certain polluting and emission-intensive industries be taxed at a higher rate in order to create a larger corpus for social protection measures?

sunderbans devastated by cylcone_covid_climate change
It is possible that the financial impact from COVID-19 will, in the longer-term, leave millions more vulnerable to climate change. | Picture courtesy: Anil Mistry/Flickr

2. Consider ‘green’ bailouts

As the government plans bailouts for industries—such as aviation and automobile—that have taken a hit due to COVID-19, there is an opportunity to think beyond the status quo and provide mitigation measures while stimulating these sectors.

For example, we could leapfrog to cleaner mobility options and electric vehicles, by providing tax breaks for electric vehicle production and infrastructure deployment, in line with the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020. Tax breaks at the consumer level to popularise these vehicles as opposed to polluting alternatives could also be a way forward.

3. Institutionalise behaviour change

The lockdown has enabled new behaviours and habits to emerge, especially among the corporate workforce, with remote working becoming normalised. Consumption patterns are also changing, with more focus on buying what is locally and readily available. Institutionalising these changes after the lockdown is eased or lifted can go a long way in lowering vehicular emissions, reducing air travel, and reducing the carbon footprint of both people and products.

However, for these micro-changes and habits to transition into norms, governments and policy experts need to understand how to nudge individuals and corporates towards them. The lockdown is a good opportunity to help people break out of their inertia when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint.

The Impact Of COVID-19 On Existing Climate Vulnerability

With economies and individuals under varying degrees of lockdown, air pollution and carbon emissions have declined globally. According to an International Energy Agency forecast, carbon dioxide emissions could fall by 8% in 2020. While this is good news and has important learnings for leaders, these changes are not permanent. The financial crisis of 2009, which saw a similar decease in emissions, also saw an increase of roughly 6% once the economy picked up.

In reality, the COVID-19 crisis will add to the climate crisis that many communities are already facing. The World Bank estimates that COVID-19 could push 49 million people into extreme poverty by the end of 2020—a majority of them in the climate-sensitive and vulnerable regions of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Additionally, a decrease in carbon emissions will not stop the impact of climate change or natural shocks and stressors. In May 2020, we have already seen the devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan in West Bengal and Odisha and the locust attacks on standing crops in North India.

“Failing to act on issues such as climate change and public health cuts into any development gains made in other sectors.”

Cyclone Amphan has severely affected the climate-sensitive and biodiversity-rich Sunderbans, a cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal. The 4.5 million people who live in the Sunderbans have battled climate change for decades: Rising sea-levels have swallowed up their land and salinisation has made the land unfit for cultivation. As a result of the lockdown, people have lost daily wages for more than two months, and any financial safety net they might have had to build back what was lost in the cyclone has been completely erased. COVID-19 has exacerbated their already existing climate vulnerability and reduced their coping capacity.

The ongoing pandemic has made it painfully clear that failing to act on issues such as climate change and public health cuts into any development gains made in other sectors. Given the oncoming monsoons, the growing number of COVID-19 cases, and the extent to which COVID-19 has further compromised the ability of communities to cope with climate shocks, the government must factor in climate change in every decision related to the pandemic.

This article was originally published in India Development Review.

About the author: Rishika Das Roy is a resilience and urban policy expert with Oxford Policy Management. She has over eight years of experience in areas such as climate change policy, climate adaptation and governance, and urban sanitation. Prior to this, she has worked on leveraging behavioral insights at BBC Media Action and on climate action and community mobilisation for Earth Day Network and Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. She has a masters in environment and international development from the London School of Economics.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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