Urbanization after Paris, Part 2: COVID-19 Recovery

In January, I wrote an article about India’s unique position as the first major country to experience widespread urbanization after the historic Paris Climate Agreement. In the post, I described the opportunity India has to create a blueprint for climate-neutral urbanization—and argued that as one of the biggest global polluters and one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, this was not only an opportunity, but a responsibility.

Prime Minister Modi showing French President Emanuel Macron Solar Developments in India, 2018 (Photo Credit: Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India; Sourced by Greentech Media)

As I was reflecting on India’s green urbanization imperative, another story was developing—one that would transform the world around us faster than any event in modern history. COVID-19 went from a localized outbreak, to a multinational epidemic, to a full scale pandemic in a matter of weeks and combating the virus—and the economic fallout from it—seized the world’s attention. Climate change, an issue that had been gaining increasing attention—from multi-billion dollar corporate commitments to grassroots protests led by the world’s children—became one of the other vitally important issues that (necessarily and understandably) took a back seat in public consciousness. 

But as acute as the global pain from COVID-19 has been, it is a crisis inextricably linked to our environment and our relationship to the natural world—and one that can be a harbinger of challenges to come with unchecked climate change as well as an unique moment to see glimpses of a world without pollution and perpetual human interference. Crucially, it is a moment to decide if recovery means going back to “normal”—to a system at odds with a healthy climate—or if it means using this unprecedented pause in society to remake ourselves into a better version. 

And so India—the country that took some of the most aggressive, and controversial, COVID-19 mitigation measures in the world—finds itself once again in a position of high-stakes opportunity: to experience widespread urbanization after Paris, AND after COVID-19. 

Executive Director of the International Energy Agency Fatih Birol, highlighted the stakes of this moment in an article on the IEA’s website: “As they design once-in-a-generation stimulus plans, policy makers are set to make hugely consequential decisions that are likely to shape our energy future for many years to come.” In an study published on carbonbrief.org, five “clean policy” areas were highlighted for having outsized impact potential: 1) Clean physical infrastructure investments (grid modernization, carbon capture tech, renewable energy assets); 2) Building efficiency spending for renovations and retrofits; 3) investment in education and training on structural shifts from decarbonization and the impacts on the job market; 4) Natural capital investment to create resilient ecosystems and habitats; and 5) Clean R&D.

Critically, each of these areas have a direct linkage to the work of urbanization. The cities of the future need to have strong clean energy infrastructure—whether through retrofitting buildings and existing systems, or through building new systems as towns evolve into cities, as is happening across India. As rural communities move to towns and cities, the clustering effect necessarily requires grid modernization to accommodate the increased populations. With green investments in cities, new and existing residents will need to be trained and prepared to take on jobs in this emerging segment. From India’s thriving tech startup scene to its long tradition of engineering and manufacturing, clean R&D efforts will find the talent and entrepreneurial spirit to take off. Beyond cities, the highly rural nature of India means that 70%+ of the country’s population lives closely in partnership with nature, making natural capital investments a vital part of supporting those communities and making the transition to urbanization smoother and safer. 

The months of shutdown in India slowed the initial growth of the virus, but had devastating economic impacts, triggering the largest mass migration since the country’s partition in 1947 and causing unemployment rates to skyrocket. As the unemployment rates have started to normalize in the month of June, the initial shock of the crisis has been replaced by a desire, and need, to begin recovery—even as COVID-19 cases hit record highs. Before COVID-19, India was already making commitments to enact many of the policies listed above to become a leader on climate; in an interview with CNN, Aparna Roy, associate fellow and co-lead on climate change and energy at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED), said “Before pandemic hit the predictions were that India would surpass its targets.” But while early signs from the pandemic suggest that the clean energy revolution might be disrupted in India, the need for these changes has never been greater. 

India’s pre-COVID climate goals. Graphic Source: CNN

Despite the economic devastation of the shutdowns in India, Roy noted in the same interview that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of three areas for the country: food security; sustainable, reliable and affordable energy access; and the third is critical infrastructure, “Poverty alleviation will require India to have energy and food security,” she said, “at the same time its energy and food security are very vulnerable to climate impact.”

In India, a green COVID-19 recovery would look like doubling down on its pre-virus commitments to decarbonization and building better, cleaner infrastructure to accommodate its rapid urbanization trends. Rather than leveraging stimulus money to support struggling, high-pollution industries (such as coal, which still accounts for the majority of India’s energy), the government can solve several of its most pressing problems—air pollution in cities, unemployment, and climate risk—at once by investing in projects that align with the policies outlined in the carbonbrief.org piece. 

Before and after air pollution in New Delhi; Photo Credit: CNN

I wrote in my previous article that India has the chance to create a blueprint for clean urbanization for other developing countries, particularly those in the region that are vulnerable to the same climate impacts. In the COVID-19 era, India can accelerate the building of this blueprint and the transition toward this future by creating a blueprint for clean recovery, as well. While it remains to be seen how the first $266 billion stimulus from the Modi government will impact climate efforts (no explicit mention of India’s Paris Climate goals were mentioned in it), we can hope that its goal of creating a more “self-reliant” India will involve investing in an urbanizing infrastructure that enables the country to survive and thrive through climate crisis. 

Sources Consulted:

  1. https://www.iea.org/commentaries/now-is-the-time-to-plan-the-economic-recovery-the-world-needs
  2. https://www.carbonbrief.org/leading-economists-green-coronavirus-recovery-also-better-for-economy
  3. https://daily.jstor.org/indias-migration-crisis/
  4. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/joblessness-plunges-in-june-as-people-return-to-work-cmie/articleshow/76415642.cms
  5. https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/20/business/coronavirus-recovery-climate-india-china-intl-hnk/index.html
  6. https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/india-renewable-energy-outlook-coronavirus

Anjali is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Frontier Markets in Jaipur, Rajasthan. For her Fellowship project, she is creating a distribution model that is cost effective and efficient in providing rural households with access to clean energy products through a network of rural women entrepreneurs. Anjali graduated with a degree in American Studies, where she focused on how the design of the build environment—from school buildings to housing developments to monuments—shapes culture and society. While at Yale, she launched a consulting practice that paired Yale business students with undergraduate organizations to improve their strategy, infrastructure, and ultimately, impact. For the past five years, she helped grow The Future Project—a non-profit organization focused on helping young people develop the purpose and agency to build a better future for themselves. After wearing a variety of hats at the organization, Anjali found her professional passion as the company’s vice president of innovation, leading teams to incubate and launch new products, programs, and services to increase reach, quality, and economic sustainability. Inspired by her time working with young people, Anjali plans to devote the next phase of her career to pursuing this purpose through environmental work—developing clean and sustainable products, services, and systems that will ensure that we have a healthy planet for our young people to inherit. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Anjali is excited to dive into the world of clean energy and rural empowerment, reconnect with her Indian heritage, and spend time with her grandmothers who she hasn’t seen in years.

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