(CNN Business)Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, India and China were positioning themselves as global climate leaders.
While virus lockdowns have provided temporary blue skies from Delhi to Beijing, and beyond, as China and India prepare to resuscitate their economies experts warn doing so without environmental regard could wind back their previous good work on climate.
That could have devastating effects on the health on billions of people. Air pollution already kills 7 million of us every year, damages our children’s health and development, causes serious breathing and lung problems, and even affects babies in the womb.
Now climate experts are demanding countries use this recovery period to enact policies that reduce emissions and invest in renewable energy and climate-resilient infrastructure. That, they say, will create jobs, be better for the economy in the long term and, crucially, save lives.
Bailing out fossil fuel companies and funding high-carbon industries, by contrast, will set back the planet’s chances of limiting global temperatures to within levels needed to stave off the worst of the climate catastrophe.
For Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, and a group of leading economists, this is a make or break moment.
“The recovery packages can either kill these two birds with one stone — setting the global economy on a pathway towards net-zero emissions — or lock us into a fossil system from which it will be nearly impossible to escape,” they wrote earlier this month in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy.
Building green, climate resilient infrastructure
Before the virus hit, India had clear targets on climate change.
It had committed to having 40% of its power generation supplied by non-fossil fuels by 2030, and had increased its target for renewable energy capacity to 450 gigawatts by then, too.
Demand for coal — which generates about 75% of India’s electricity — was down, as renewable energy became much cheaper, and on the world stage India had taken a lead in climate negotiations.
“Before pandemic hit the predictions were that India would surpass its targets,” said Aparna Roy, associate fellow and co-lead on climate change and energy at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED).
But the coronavirus lockdowns have wreaked huge economic disruption on India’s economy. More than 120 million people lost their jobs in April, mostly informal laborers and small traders, according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE).
To ease the economic pain, the Indian government last week unveiled $266 billion economic package aimed at building a “self-reliant India,” according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and will help micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.
The details of that package are still being rolled out, but government support for energy efficiency upgrades for businesses and targets for decarbonizing as conditions on funds could go a long way, experts say.
“Fossil fuel industries, facing extraordinarily low oil prices, are likely to request future tax breaks or bailouts,” the economists write in the Oxford University study. “While there may be good reasons for such support, such bailouts should be conditional on these industries developing a measurable plan of action to transition towards a net-zero emissions future.”
Subsidies for fossil fuels in India were already over seven times larger than those for alternative energy, according to a report from two environmental think tanks found in April, highlighting an area where India has to do better.
The disruption from the virus could also impact whether India meets its renewable energy targets.
The country wants to be a leader in solar power and is aiming for 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, with the majority of that to come from solar. But construction on solar projects was halted during lockdown as the majority of the components needed for these installations come from China, where factories shut during the pandemic.
India also depends on international finance to help reach its climate goals — a pot that could dry up as developed nations struggle with their own economic hardships.
“Most developed countries that are already regressing from their commitments, this is an opportunity to not commit the further finance that is urgently required for developing countries to make their transition,”