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Natural Environment

On the Brink: The opportunity for a green recovery in South Asia

On the Brink is a monthly column focused on the unfolding climate emergency. This month, with South Asia’s growth trajectory flattened by the COVID-19 crisis, will the region’s policymakers embrace the opportunity to chart a greener route to prosperity?

Mandakini Surie, International Development Consultant
10 December 2020

In the last decade, countries in South Asia have experienced significant economic growth, driven by structural changes, market reforms and a dynamic and aspirational middle class. This progress has pulled millions out of poverty and seen substantive improvements across a range of human development indicators including health, education, and living standards. COVID-19 is threatening to reverse many of these advances, potentially for decades to come.

Across the region, the economic and social fallout of lockdowns, travel restrictions and containment measures has caused unprecedented hardship, loss of jobs and livelihoods, exacerbating inequality and exclusion, particularly of marginalised groups and communities. According to the World Bank, the prospects for the region are grim as countries head towards an unprecedented economic recession.

Governments have scrambled to put in place fiscal relief packages to boost flagging economies, revive demand and inject much needed capital into the public and private sectors. Job losses have been particularly acute, with millions of informal workers and migrants losing out with little to fall back on in terms of social security or safety nets. As governments endeavour to revive local economies and boost jobs and growth, many have flagged the opportunity to not just build back but build back better and greener.

The idea is a simple one. Stimulus packages should bolster economic growth while protecting the environment and providing climate benefits that, in turn, futureproof against further climate shocks. In South Asia, a region particularly threatened by climate change, a green recovery is urgently needed.

In South Asia, a region particularly threatened by climate change, a green recovery is urgently needed.

2020 has been a perfect storm of climate change induced natural calamities in South Asia. Amid a public health crisis, countries in the region have endured a series of devastating floods, cyclones and extreme events displacing millions and causing significant economic damage, loss of lives and livelihoods. The worst may be yet to come.

All climate predictions indicate that if temperatures continue to rise, the region will face an ever-increasing number of climate related extreme events. This means more droughts, floods, storms and incidences of disease and pestilence. The depletion and degradation natural resources will intensify. Existing pressures on water, energy, food, and biodiversity linked to population growth and urbanisation will ratchet up. The World Bank estimates that, by 2030, climate change could pull nearly 62 million South Asians below the poverty line. The compounding impacts of COVID-19 may further inflate that number.

The World Bank estimates that, by 2030, climate change could pull nearly 62 million South Asians below the poverty line. The compounding impacts of COVID-19 may further inflate that number.

 

The pandemic has proved hollow the argument that unrestrained economic growth at the cost of environmental sustainability is in the wider public interest. Now more than ever, we are aware that protecting the environment is the biggest investment and dividend in securing a country’s economic growth and the safety, security, and livelihoods of its people especially the most marginalised and disadvantaged. The challenge for governments is to balance the scales between economic growth and development, and environmental sustainability and resilience.

Many governments across the subcontinent are already working towards a climate-smart transition. Schemes designed to improve energy and water efficiency in agricultural and food production systems have attracted significant investment. The move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and pumped hydro is gathering momentum. And across the region, strategically vital sectors including housing, infrastructure, and transport and mobility, have been incentivised to adopt greener practices.

The challenge for governments is to balance the scales between economic growth and development, and environmental sustainability and resilience.

At a country level, India has committed to making a clean energy transition, producing 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022 from renewable sources. As the founder of the International Solar Alliance and Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, India is also leading on climate resilience work across the global south. Neighbouring Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing economies in South Asia and routinely outperforms its larger neighbours on key human development indicators. On the frontline of the climate emergency, facing extreme weather, flooding and rising sea levels, it has called for greater political and financial commitment to combating climate change. The mountain kingdom of Bhutan is another fine example of growth that is grounded and premised on principles of ecological sustainability and human wellbeing. The country has a constitutional commitment to maintaining 60% forest coverage at all times. In Pakistan, the government’s Billion Tree Tsunami program has restored over 600,000 hectares of forest, with 10 billion more saplings to be planted across the country by 2023. COVID-19 is an opportunity to double down on these, and similarly promising, efforts.

At a regional level there is also recognition of the need for governments to work more closely together in building greater resilience to climate change. In October 2020, the governments of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan agreed to co-operate on climate impact mitigation work. Chief among their priorities will be protecting the ecosystem of the Hindu Kush Himalayas. The importance of this vast expanse of mountains to the people and places of the sub-continent cannot be overstated. The Hindu Kush Himalayas support 240 million people directly and indirectly provides water, food and other eco-system services to nearly 1.9 billion more.

As we head into 2021 with the promise of a vaccine, and a potential end to the pandemic, on the horizon, it is imperative that we do not use the long tail of the crisis as an excuse to return to a business-as-usual scenario. This will not be an easy argument to win. Carbon intensive growth pathways will always remain attractive for the quick wins, returns, jobs and opportunities they provide. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that our health, safety and security is tied to the health of our environment. They say every crisis is an opportunity. For South Asia, the opportunity is to embrace a greener, more inclusive, equitable and sustainable future.