“Behind Blue Skies”

There is a cruel irony to the lockdown.   For the first time in years, the air in our cities is clean. Breathable. Especially in the notoriously polluted National Capital Region in north India. 
The hard stop on emissions across the globe has surprised everyone. In China, the epicentre, the low demand for coal burning led to emissions dropping by 25%.   The doomsday backdrop is truly unfortunate. But the rupture of modern life as we know it—planes grounded, traffic halted and all economic activity shuttered—is hard evidence of who the biggest polluters are.   It’s a second-order effect that climate change activists and scientists have been handed on a platter. But not one they really wanted
No silver lining, really   Three months is not nearly enough to rid the world of its carbon-using habits. Let’s go back to China for a minute, which has been slightly ahead on the Covid-19 time-curve. Coal consumption, power plants and oil refinery utilisation returned to normal levels by the fourth week of March. As did nitrogen dioxide levels. An inevitability of easing lockdowns, to inject life back into inert economies. The temporary climate gains are a blip.   But more drastic second-order effects are on their way
“If capital markets lock up, it’s going to become incredibly difficult for companies to secure the financing necessary to move ahead with any pending solar, wind, and battery projects, much less propose new ones…   Climate change has become an increasingly high priority for average voters in recent years, and the motivating force behind a rising youth activist movement around the world, building pressure on politicians to take serious action. But in the midst of an economic downturn and public health crisis, people would understandably become more focused on immediate health concerns and pocketbook issues—i.e. their jobs, retirement savings, and homes. The longer-term dangers of climate change would take a back seat. Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change, MIT Technology Review
A system that’s out of balance now (low activity=low emissions) will self-correct, and maybe even over-correct in countries thirsting for economic recovery.
But can’t we just switch off the ignition?   Not really. Since the peak of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the stupendous rise in emissions has only halted because of events that, put simply, are tragic in nature.
Source: Washington Post
In an excellent Twitter thread, Professor Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, spells out why temporary dips in emissions have been unsustainable:
Quote “The reason why the pandemic isn’t likely to reduce carbon ems long-term is because those ems [sic] weren’t reduced by sustainable changes in human behaviour, by increasing efficiency, replacing fossil fuels w clean energy, and drawing carbon down into the soil…
…instead, carbon emissions are currently being reduced by human behaviour changes that are not sustainable.” Professor Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University
Dips in emissions are associated with economic and social catastrophes. For human beings, the signal to thrive is a counterintuitive signal to pollute the environment. We have been hard-wired over centuries. 
A hard reset   What if we broke this chain of thinking, asks Hayhoe. Break the negative feedback loop and replace it with a systemic approach to economic recovery.   “Will we use our response to the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate for the future, or to increase our grip on the past? That decision is the one that will most profoundly impact our ability to tackle climate change.”   Hayhoe isn’t floating a completely crazy theory. A powerful, multinational body is toying with the same idea. Hint: it doesn’t involve the US or China.
“In an open letter published as European finance ministers met by video conference, 10 environment and climate ministers said any rescue package should support the European Commission’s Green Deal strategy to embrace a low-carbon future.   “We need to send a strong political signal to the world and our citizens that the EU will lead by example even in difficult times like the present and blaze the trail to climate neutrality and the fulfilment of the Paris Agreement,” the letter said, referring to a landmark 2015 accord to tackle climate change.” Ten EU countries urge bloc to pursue ‘green’ coronavirus recovery, Reuters
There are hold-outs to this letter, of course, like Germany and France. The hard reset requires countries to swallow two bitter pills together: economic recovery while meeting climate targets. This will need a whole new system. The pandemic is a global problem. So is climate change. But only one gets our attention once all of this is over.   That was Olina. Now, over to Kay.
Green light, red light?   The Malaysian government has a plan. As part of the national Movement Control Order (MCO), which came into effect on 18 March, the government has divided the country into four zones.  Red zones—areas with over 40 Covid-19 cases; there are 26 such areas Orange zones—areas that have between 20 and 40 cases Yellow zones—areas that have between 1 and 19 cases Green zones—areas that are supposed to be infection-free Green zones are in short supply, though. There are only 28 left across five rural states in Malaysia. The government is desperate to declare these ‘open for business’.   With the third MCO extension, till 28 April, the government decided to relax the restrictions on industries allowed to operate in the green zones. Barber shops and salons, laundrettes, hardware shops, optometrists, and auto shops are allowed to re-open, until the district is no longer infection-free or the MCO is lifted—whichever comes first, we suppose.    Let’s take a closer look at the official announcement
Senior minister Mohamed Azmin Ali said the government’s decision is “based on findings from studies” that beyond health impacts, the pandemic would “also have detrimental effects on the economy and the well-being of the people, in particular, the SMEs which constitute the largest contributor to the nation’s workforce.” Putrajaya lifts restriction on some sectors after MCO extended, including barbers, laundry, Malay Mail
Weirdly, the Health Ministry of Malaysia, which wasn’t consulted for the decision to relax MCO rules, urged the government to hold its horses and keep the current restrictions as they are. 
 
The story is not much different in India, says Arundhati.
Where are the green shoots   The good thing is the Indian government has a plan to restart the economy, with gems and jewellery, and sweets among the sectors to be reopened. It also wants to open up green zones. And these could end up being mostly in rural areas.    That’s a great opportunity to redistribute economic activity from its urban-centric concentration. A study shows that India’s urban population will contribute 75% of the country’s GDP by 2030. One way of redistributing economic activity is to make sure there are jobs for the people who live in rural areas, eliminating the need to migrate. Like what the Uttar Pradesh government was able to do
The Uttar Pradesh (UP) government helped reopen 5,281 industrial units during the lockdown period. These are mostly involved in manufacturing of medical supplies and essential commodities. A senior government official in the Haryana government said the state managed to retain around 50 per cent of the labour who were migrating back to their native places. Coronavirus lockdown: Govt may start economic activity in ‘green zones’, Business Standard
That’s a start to bridging the economic activity divide in the country. But all this harks back to identifying green zones. And here, India and Malaysia are in the same boat.   The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) reviewed the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) data on the spread of Covid-19 cases and said there are no green zones in the country.
The interpretation rests on a weighted average of six parameters collected district wise including the number of people older than 65, population density, number of active cases, number of people who came in direct contact with Covid-19 patients and medical facilities…(the data) actually shows even the previously green zones are now pink,” the official explained. (Pink is the least-risk zone.) Very few green zones as per current methodology: ICMR data, The Economic Times
So what really is the plan? And will it fructify by putting people’s health on the line?    Over to Rohin for the next section
The Republic of No   This is a wonderful explanation of the Indian state from a blog on public policy called “Anticipating the Unintended”. 
The Indian state, like all states, is coercive. Its power of coercion though works best when it denies something; when it says no. The executive capacity isn’t geared to enable the rights of citizens. But it is very effective at curtailing them. A state derives its legitimacy when it recognizes the ‘reasons of belief’ of its citizens and then exercises its monopoly of force over the citizens in a way that doesn’t repudiate those beliefs. In India, this is easy. The one strong belief among its citizens is that of the state as a ruler with unlimited powers. The Republic of No follows from here.   […]   The Indian state doesn’t yet see entrepreneurs and industrialists as employment generators and wealth creators. Sure, the state indulges in the rhetoric around this and occasionally rewards them, but it is wary of being viewed industry friendly. The state and the citizens reflexively think of the private sector as exploitative of the labour they use. The line between profiting and profiteering is very thin in their minds.
India has provided for the lowest fiscal stimulus among large economies so far while its economy has come to a standstill. The fiscal package itself had very little for the industry. The monetary package is primarily a deferral of the pain than providing a balm for it. What’s worse, the state has used moral suasion since the beginning of the lockdown urging all establishments to not reduce salaries or lay off people. Businesses are boxed in. They don’t have revenues, can’t reduce their costs and won’t get a fiscal relief package from the state. So, in effect, the businesses are funding a relief package themselves. What’s more, with the message to the private sector to not take any employee action, there’s no groundswell of support for lifting of restrictions among the vocal salaried class. In fact, there is a moral hazard built in right there. So far, the lockdown seems like a state-sponsored trip to purgatory for the private sector.   […]   The lockdown in India has been unique in the way the state has orchestrated events and symbols to rally people together at quick intervals. In other countries, in contrast, these gestures have mostly evolved organically from the society. The Italians were singing in their balconies because they collectively felt better doing it. Nobody asked them to. The collective clanging of the plates or lighting of diyas or torches to honour those on the frontlines are the unique contribution of the Indian state to the global pandemic response. The overwhelming participation of the citizens across sections suggest an intuitive grasp the state has about the psyche of its people. It is a powerful tool to effect a change.
Although anecdotal, the reactions to India’s lockdown (originally three weeks, now likely five) from its white-collar salaried workers are almost diametrically opposed to those from its entrepreneurs, founders, investors, and blue-collar workers. The former, to me, still appear to be living in a state of suspended animation. They still have jobs, with salaries coming on time. Their local grocery stores are well stocked. Internet access is fast and reliable. There are coordinated weekly events where they stand on their balconies and bang utensils and light candles. What’s not to like?
Alcohol is essential?   To government finances.   From the Business Standard.
An Assam government order on Sunday evening allowed liquor shops, bottling plants, and breweries in the state to open for limited hours from Monday, PTI reported. The Haryana government had issued a similar order on Saturday. Its excise department had instructed district administrations to ensure operations of distilleries, bottling plants, wineries with immediate effect and full operations after lockdown is lifted. However, these will not be allowed in ‘red zones’.   Both Haryana and Assam are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and this could enthuse other states to start manufacturing, bottling, and sale of liquor.   Meghalaya, too, decided to allow wine shops to operate in the state from Monday owing to demand from the people, said officials. Coronavirus lockdown: Govt may start economic activity in ‘green zones’, Business Standard
Taxing alcohol makes up 20-25% of the revenue of most Indian state governments, giving them an incentive to open up alcohol sales. But when they do, they engage in a zero-sum game with many poor families already suffering because of Covid-19 and economic lockdowns.
Equity is a big issue in alcohol taxation, says Sebastian. “Asking a daily-wage worker to pay 600 per cent tax on his drink is cruel. The government claim that by charging more for liquor, the poor will be dissuaded from drinking is absurd. “No matter what the price is, the habitual drinker will buy his drink. Only, the quantity of food on his children’s table will shrink.”   Every hike in the price of alcohol leads to a reduction in the household income of the poor, a cut in the nutritional level of children and denial of healthcare to the sick, contends Sebastian.  The alcohol economy, Hindu Business Line
From Tulip Mania to Tulip Crisis   Most of you might know about the Dutch “Tulip Mania” from the 1630s as one of the world’s first financial bubbles. Well, that was mostly not the case.   But a Covid-linked Tulip Crisis is very real.
About 400 million flowers, including 140 million tulip stems, were destroyed over the past month, estimates Fred van Tol, manager of international sales for Royal FloraHolland, the largest cooperation of flower and plant producers in the Netherlands.
[…]
Usually, the period from March through May — including the weeks in which International Women’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day fall — is the Dutch flower industry’s strongest season. It pulls in 7 billion euros ($7.6 billion), with an average of $30 million in flowers sold daily. Tulip growers put their wares up for sale starting in March, when the flowers begin to bloom. Tulip season usually lasts about eight weeks. Where Have 140 Million Dutch Tulips Gone? Crushed by the Coronavirus, The New York Times
India’s real estate sector has a stock problem   It has too much of it. 3.3 years’ worth of homes built up and ready to sell, with no one to buy them. How much might that be worth? $50 billion.    It’s so bad that even land (of the “they’re not making any more of it” fame) prices are expected to fall 30%.   So do US animal shelters   Besides toilet papers and hand sanitisers, Americans rushed to hoard pets—dogs, cats, rabbits, whatever could comfort them during the crisis. Shelter and rescue organisations nationwide saw unprecedented interest in fostering and adopting pets.
 
But, continuing animal rescue efforts and adoptions has become increasingly difficult due to social distancing restrictions. Vaccines, neuter programmes and other nonessential vet visits have been restricted, meaning rescuers are now unable to have animals cleared by a vet before taking them in.

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