It has been estimated that countries around the world may have spent a total of $6 trillion to deal with the economic consequences of Covid-19, not counting the billions spent in laboratories around the world to fast-track an effective vaccine. The existential nature of the threat from the pandemic justified this extraordinary response even though nations failed to pool their scientific and financial resources to enable a collective and collaborative response.
This is the second time during this millennium that we have witnessed an international response on this scale. There was a massive deployment of economic stimulus packages by G-20 countries to respond to the global financial and economic crisis (GFEC) of 2007-08. This was successful in averting a meltdown of the global trading and financial system. Both during GFEC and the current crisis we hear the same exhortation — that countries should engage in a green recovery from the crisis, that they should rebuild their economies in an ecologically-sustainable manner, that these crises are urgent intimations of the threat to planetary survival, which are ignored at our collective peril.
But if current indications are anything to go by we are witnessing the revival, even intensification of the ecologically-damaging production and consumption patterns, which have landed us in this predicament. Carbon emissions are rising once again as economies begin to revive. Environmental safeguards are being relaxed on the plea that industries badly hit by the pandemic cannot bear the burden of such regulation at least for some time.
The United Nations (UN) recently convened a virtual Climate Ambition Summit at which the secretary-general called for member-states to declare a Climate Emergency and take drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enable climate adaptation. While several states committed themselves to achieving carbon neutrality by mid-century they gave little evidence of their willingness to come together to deal with what the incoming United States (US) President Joe Biden has described as an “existential threat of our time”.
Should not there be an urgent mobilisation of world’s top scientists to deliver climate-friendly technologies with the same urgency as they have created effective vaccines against Covid-19 within just a year? Should not countries deploy large economic recovery funds to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to non-fossil and cleaner sources of energy? The climate challenge will unleash a crisis of a scale and severity before which the current pandemic will pale into insignificance. Are the lessons of the pandemic going to be left unlearnt?
The chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Hoesung Lee, had this to say in his brief remarks at the summit: “We are currently on a path risking serious, pervasive and irreversible impacts.” Do we need any more convincing?
The pandemic has generated a welcome debate on what constitutes true value and how may this be measured? Our accounting systems, on the basis of which we calculate business risks and profits and losses, are biased towards demonstrable, quantifiable and immediate effects. They undervalue effects which may manifest over longer periods or for which we have not yet developed measuring tools.
Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything which can be counted counts. There is an added problem of measuring feedback loops among inter-related domains. For example, food, water and energy security are closely inter-linked and intervention in one domain has knock-on effects in other domains. Our current accounting systems can only handle linear effects in single domains. It was loss of biodiversity that shrunk wildlife habitat, bringing unfamiliar viruses carried by wild species into contact with domesticated animals and human beings. What may have been justified by arguments of food security and expanding human settlements had no means of assessing the serious health risks this generated. This is related to the classic problem of dealing with external economies where it is not possible to relate individual cost incurred to individual benefit received as the latter is socialised. Challenges such as climate change and public health require such socialisation of costs and benefits and because they are global in dimension, they can only be dealt with through multilateral processes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has starkly exposed the perils of the rampant degradation of our planet’s fragile ecology. Linked to this is the industrialisation of food production, based on mass-breeding of beef, cattle, sheep, pork and poultry in conditions that make the spread of infections and contamination of the food chain all but inevitable.
Plastics may be convenient to use but they are now clogging our rivers, lakes and the ocean. These are all cross-domain issues and need to be treated in a comprehensive frame and through global efforts. Could India take the intellectual lead in pioneering new methods of measuring value?
The Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is scheduled to be held in Glasgow at the end of 2021. This gives Indian diplomacy a year in which to mobilise the international community in favour of a path- breaking outcome based on science and the principle of equitable burden-sharing. On this, India’s interests are fully aligned with the world at large.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and senior fellow, CPR He was Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Climate Change 2007-2010
The views expressed are personal