As humans, we have strong faith in technology and human ingenuity. Given our belief that we have won over nature, it was unfathomable for most of us that we could be stumped by a microscopic virus. However, that is exactly what has happened. The COVID-19 pandemic has served as an equaliser, with the rich and the poor equally affected; and the elderly and those with compromised immune systems at particularly high risk. We were not prepared for this. A Scientific American report reads, “Only a decade or two ago, it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harbouring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases like Ebola, HIV and dengue.“
“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour multiple species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates conducive conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19. In fact, an emerging discipline called planetary health focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living beings and complete ecosystems. To add insult to injury, we need to add climate change to this mix that will create conditions that adversely impact human health, food and water.
A new normal
We are all waiting for life to return to a new normal. However, we must keep in mind the missteps of the pre-COVID world. This year, April 22 marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The theme for this year is Climate Action. It’s a significant challenge but also presents vast opportunities!
Air, water and land resources have been ravaged by rampant pollution and incessant consumption in a pre-COVID world. Countries have focussed on GDP to measure economic success. Instead of focussing on development policies that help local economies to thrive, our pre-COVID world relied on cheap goods sourced from competitive locations. However, in our new world order, a few things will change forever and hopefully, for the better.
Vocal for real local
A local, resilient economy ensures adequate supply of food and essential items when faced with pandemics, natural disasters and wars. It supports local communities and generates livelihood. In fact, supporting the local farmer, Kirana store and community was core to our village ecosystem. Local Economic Development (LED) strategies are being explored by communities, cities and governments around the world to respond to the challenges of globalisation. What does LED do? For a start, it is much more than economic growth. LED means inclusive growth, people participation, connecting communities for better employment and resource utilisation resulting in three areas of impact – better quality of life; poverty alleviation and social Inclusion for preservation of local art/culture/food/crafts etc. Local is so powerful that it forms the crux of low carbon circular economies. Local barbers, gadget repair shops, tailors, cobblers, vegetable vendors, grocery stores, craftsmen and farmers in the vicinity need the patronage of those with resources and means. Government schemes for local economy revival must focus on organic, pest-free fruits, vegetable and grains. During the pandemic we have seen the middlemen chain being broken as farmers reached out directly to customers. At the end of the day, customers are also happy with the availability of farm-to-fork at reasonable prices. Local avoids travel and logistics and that is an important carbon metric, but its benefits extend far beyond.
The lockdown has taught us to be frugal. Friends and family have told me how they were going slow on bread, or how an unavailable ingredient was substituted with an innovative alternative. A frugal mindset is one that believes in ‘make do or do without’. As we enter Unlock 1.0, we have learned to consume mindfully. The real question though is whether our new-found frugality will persist?
We must re-evaluate and go easy on our ‘consumption’ mindset. There are signs that we are reaching climate breakdown. We need to look no further than the Amphan cyclone as proof! The ways in which we consume can be changed by evaluating each item that we buy. Is there anything toxic in it? Is it healthy? How was it made (coal-based plants or plants which run on solar)? What are the company’s climate commitments? Who made it (cheap labour in exploitative sweat shops or well-compensated local artisans)? How far has it travelled to get to you? Yet another perspective proffers that the fewer things we have to manage, the happier we are!
What we spend on determines the world we want - a conscious one, or the one which sets in motion an apocalyptic cycle of consumption which can trigger our planet’s tipping points.
We have realised anew the value of our homes as safe havens, as our fortresses. Working moms, newly-active dads, children whose worlds comprised absent parents and senior citizens who hitherto rarely had family at home are happy to be together, though the sense of forced confinement is a challenge. Home, however, continues to be truly where the heart is; and where health and happiness can be nurtured. Globally, residential real estate is poised for interesting times and in India, we can expect a surge in demand as those who have earlier deferred purchase decisions now resolve to purchase, in search of an improved quality of life. More people are working from home than ever before, resulting in the repurposing of spaces. There will be 230 billion square metres of new construction worldwide over the next 40 years. As a result, the energy demand in buildings is expected to increase 50 percent by 2050. The buildings and construction sectors combined are responsible for 36 percent of global final energy consumption and nearly 40 percent of total direct and indirect CO2 emissions.
The simple concept that we are often taught as a child when we are given pocket money, is that we cannot spend more than what we have. Applying this concept to buildings, a net zero building is one that consumes no more energy than it can self-generate via renewable energy (onsite or offsite procurement). And if we think even more innovatively, it is possible to design homes that generate more than they consume (carbon positive homes!). But wait – before we think ‘solar’, it will be important to reduce demand generated within homes. This can be achieved by climate responsive design. Passive architecture can reduce energy demand by more than 50 percent! As a home buyer, you should look out for well-ventilated homes, ample daylight, green roof or blue roof (solar), reflective roofs, water security and waste management. Home gardens and balconies for sit-outs are set to make a comeback and home offices are definitely here to stay. We might see more gardens and walking spaces – community spaces will undergo change. Gardens with native species create cool micro-climate and better air quality.
Cities for people
Cities need to be planned well to include normative capacity for green spaces, tree-lined walkable roads, and humane spaces for all sections of the society with focus on public health and hygiene.
COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of technology across the world. Digitisation and the CIO are the new stars. Be it collaborative platforms enabling work from home, options for remote controlled manufacturing or platforms for dematerialisation - digital tech and innovation will accelerate exponentially, making it easier for us to avoid travel, and manage work remotely. In the real estate sector, this translates into managing onsite projects with fewer workers, remote monitoring and virtual sales. Another sector that will experience a sea change is education.
COVID-19 has provided a respite to nature. At the same time, nature’s capacity to bounce back with reduced human activity has been established – almost like a miracle unfolding in front of our eyes. As ambient noise levels reduced, we heard the birds again; as air pollution subsided, the skies became bluer; and distant mountains once invisible to the naked eye were visible again. Reports on reduction of air pollution and the reduction of GHG emissions during this time have proved that our climate targets are indeed achievable! Biodiversity is key to human life on earth. This World Environment Day, let’s give nature a chance through #NatuResolution for building a low carbon, inclusive world.
We’ve just been given a second chance to reinvent, reimagine and recoup. Let’s keep our environment at the heart of every decision so that we can make use of this second chance to rebuild our planet in a better way.
Sunita Purushottam is Head of Sustainability at Mahindra Lifespaces.