4 min read
Green recovery – a COVID era buzz-phrase – has achieved instant stardom. It creeps into every discourse on the economy and the post-COVID state of the world. Although its definition and contours are nebulous, it broadly refers to ensuring that the post COVID economic recovery has a positive impact on climate change.
As with many concepts that emerge from the affluent West or the corridors of multilateral organisations, the question for developing economies, or the ‘Global South’, is whether this is a valid paradigm in their context. Can countries which, even during the pre-COVID era, struggled to meet the basic needs of their people, afford the luxury of expensive, environment-friendly solutions yielding far-future socio-economic benefits – while striving to fuel their economies back to at least 2019 levels? In other words, is ‘green recovery’ a practical option?
The stark reality
Consider the Indian context. Around 230 million individuals slid below the national daily minimum wage threshold (Rs 375 per day) during the first wave of the pandemic, based on a study by the Azim Premji University. Simultaneously, the Pew Research Centre estimates that India’s once burgeoning middle-class fell by over a third during this period.
While the impact of the second wave is yet to be estimated, there are clear indications of further devastation, particularly in the rural areas of India. The immediacy and gravity of the crisis defines the priorities and agenda for rebuilding India: address the ravaged socio-economic fabric of the country. This, above all.
The other reality that India, and indeed all developing economies, are grappling with is limited financial resources and the need for near-instant results at an unprecedented scale. Consequently, the bias is for the ‘cheapest’ solution, capable of delivering immediate and widespread impact.
For whom the bells toll?
Is this then the death knell of green recovery? The answer is more nuanced than a binary yes or no; it is contingent on the extent and speed that green solutions can steer India’s economy back on track.
In some sectors such as recycling, this seems possible. There are a few scalable and replicable models in place, albeit requiring elaborate collaboration models between diverse and highly local stakeholders.
On the other hand, even in the ‘most efficient of cases’, there is a gestation period for boosting investment in areas such as green mobility and clean energy, which, thereon create jobs in manufacturing, servicing and maintenance of these technologies. Moreover, these are moderate to high skilled jobs, thus requiring training – adding to the time-to-execution. In the current Indian context, the need is now. Hence, trade-offs in favour of the short term are inevitable.
Finally, India’s vast population makes it critical that solutions deliver at-scale outcomes. Unfortunately, while many green solutions do have the potential to deliver scale, their capability to be scaled up is currently uncertain, either due to the limited installed infrastructure or solutions operating at pilot-stage.
That said, ‘green’ is a continuum, not a digital 0 or 1. All countries have environment related laws in place and 197 countries, including India, have signed the Paris Accord signalling their commitment to combat climate change. It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that any country (definitely not India!) will drastically reverse existing legislation or make it significantly more lenient. A few deviations are possible, but a throwback to ten years or earlier is highly improbable. The question then becomes: can India recover green-er?
Creating new pathways
To facilitate a green-er recovery, green-zens need to actively support policy makers with information and ‘how-to’ playbooks. A number of successful green technologies and business models are often not top-of-mind or in popular domain. Collating these concepts, including the mechanics of execution, could be a powerful start. Simultaneously, there is a need to spark innovative thinking for real problems in the Indian context by setting up mini grand-challenges; providing incubation support and test bed facilities; and mentorship.
It is critical, though, that in the endeavour to go green and meet international commitments, we do not lose sight of the dire reality in India. All proposed solutions must necessarily soften the urgent socio-economic catastrophe we are currently grappling with. It is time to change the lexicon from ‘green’ to ‘sustainable’, taking cognizance of the societal and economic impact, alongside environmental.
Can India afford a sustainable recovery? It cannot afford not to.
The views in the blog are personal and don’t represent any organisation or institution.