Environmental politics and energy policy: Towards just, sustainable recovery from COVID-19

By Simi Mehta*

The COVID-19 Pandemic has highlighted the opportunity to maximize the impact of national and global energy policies while reducing air pollution and greenhouse emissions. The importance of the real-world package to drive energy transitions has never been felt so urgently as now. Opportunities for making amends to the past gaps remain at the disposal of the nation states. Domestic constituencies and compulsions remain at the core of all environmental politics and energy policy.

With that in mind, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi conducted a Special Lecture on “Environmental Politics and Energy Policy: A Just and Sustainable Recovery from COVID-19“. The IMPRI Center for Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development (ECCSD) hosted Prof Johannes Urpelainen, Director and Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor of Energy, Resources and Environment, and Founding Director, Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP), Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, DC, USA as the speaker for the talk. Dr. Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan, Associate Professor, Institute of Rural Management, Anand was the discussant for the talk, and Dr. Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director, IMPRI, New Delhi was the moderator.

The first observation was the timing of the pandemic when we were going through a public health crisis and witnessing increased problems with climate change. Concern and awareness of climate change reached an all-time high just before COIVD-19 in early 2020 with the Youth Climate Movement and governments.

Economic Recovery Post-COVID-19

The second observation was the impact on the economy and people’s changed lifestyle. A feature of the COIVD-19 recovery is the K-shaped recovery, where some parts of the economy are doing better than ever like some mega companies- Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Netflix. The other parts of the economy, where many people are working, have suffered. Globally, this is a misleading picture because in most countries you do not have many companies like that. As a result, in most countries, the economic damage is far more significant, which includes countries like India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.

Research on the COVID-19 economic stimulus policies in the group of the largest twenty economies shows the structure of depending on policies if it increased or reduced emissions and their spendings during the time period.

The Role of Public Transportation

Dr. Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan focused on the idea of transportation and building a system that is meant for the public and not for cars, where one thinks that one’s car is a  liability, not an asset. He further quoted Enrique Penalosa, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport”.

The efficiency was expected to lead to an inverted U, but what happened globally is a straight U because of many reasons, be it lack of availability and access of choices or consuming goods as status symbols. Lack of availability of decent public spaces and transportation forces even the conscious ones to opt for personal means.

He believes we need some fundamental change in terms of national decisions as far as India is concerned. Furthermore, we need to learn from European countries about renewable energy and other sustainable incentives.

Question and Answer

One question asked was that “The path dependence is organizational and infrastructural within energy transition debates. Do you think that the economic impacts of COVID-19, especially for developing countries like India is likely to downrate its climate ambitions, increase its dependence on carbon-intensive energy sources and kick the global energy transitions further down the road?”

He replied that path dependency is very important. The debuilding of fossil fuels is happening in both spheres. Ten years ago, it was a complete niche conversation but today it is mainstream. The path dependency has led to more progress.

Replying to the next question by another viewer about limiting the economic activities as COVID-19 affected during the tenure, which led to less carbon emission, he believes it is not going to be the permanent solution because it slightly declined the charts. We need to go to the decarbonized way rather than shrinking the economy to zero.

Dr. Nathan pointed to the governmental failure towards the decentralized establishments working in this direction rather than attracted to large scale plants which probably has some investment in stakeholder. The way forward is to empower the local decentralized bodies in the field which play crucial roles at the ground, smaller level for sustainable development.

*Inputs: Anshula Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Ishika Chowdhary. Acknowledgment: Annu, Research Intern at IMPRI

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