From Suva to Seoul, people wearing face masks is now a common sight in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past years, face masks have become a regular feature of everyday life to protect from the virus as well as from the damaging effects of air pollution - for those who can afford them.
The climate crisis has exacerbated the existing challenges of inequality. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change signalled 'code red' for human driven global heating; a warning that has been echoed by the UN Secretary-General.
One feature is common: the climate emergency and the pandemic are both critical drivers of vulnerability for marginalized groups across all societies. Lack of employment opportunities, declines in real wages, rising costs of housing and uneven access to healthcare services impact this segment of the population more acutely. ‘Leaving no one behind’ remains an unfinished agenda as countries move towards 2030.
Including nature in national development strategies
The commemoration of the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies puts global citizens at the forefront of addressing the health aspects of air pollution that prematurely ends the lives of millions. Some air pollutants, such as black carbon, methane and ground-level ozone, are also responsible for climate change. The recent United Nations Environment Programme report, Making Peace with Nature, recognized the interconnections between air pollution, biodiversity and climate change, and analysed their impact on human wellbeing and attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.
At the national level, particularly in developing and least developed countries, women, children and the elderly carry a disproportionate burden, as they are often more exposed to pollution from residential heating and cooking with fuel and kerosene.
In fact, policymaking is now being geared to reducing environmental harm, while at the same time ensuring the added benefit of decreasing inequality. Safeguarding the environment without addressing inequality is a failed policy choice.
Putting inclusion at the heart of post-pandemic recovery
Inclusive development outcomes are intertwined with improved human well-being across societies from the serene islands of the Pacific to the beautiful mountains and valleys in Bhutan. Yet, the ongoing pandemic-induced health crisis has shredded the fragile harmony between society and nature while sending shock waves across productive sectors and hindering learning opportunities for Generation Z.
With a growing fear of a “K-shaped recovery”, unequal societies tend to accept higher levels of pollution. At the same time, increases in pollution tend to cause productivity losses, widening inequality.
Evidence shows that death from cardiorespiratory diseases is closely linked with exposure to air pollution, which in turn is more likely among those with low levels of educational attainment. Moreover, those more exposed to air pollution are likely to suffer more - for example, through loss of school days and damaged health - causing a complex pollution-inequality nexus.
Inclusive policymaking brings together people in social, economic and political processes for increased empowerment and sustainability.
Advancing typology of policy approaches
As policy practitioners struggle to navigate the post-pandemic socio-economic recovery efforts, a variety of typologies can be introduced for resilience, while paying special attention to empirically measuring the impact of inclusion policies. Evidence shows that pollution and environmental hazards disproportionately harm low-income households.
Among different policy typologies, experts and policymakers may want to explore the hypothesis that pollution will have a damaging effect on inequality in countries with low income/low natural capital/low human capital and high inequality. So, sustainable socio-economic and environmental policies are key drivers to mitigate pollution and address inequality.
A broad-based and cross-country information portal of case studies should be developed to exchange experiences and best practices to harness knowledge networks, partnerships and technical and research capacity-building. The Asia-Pacific Risk and Resilience Portal and the Asia-Pacific Knowledge Management Hub are some of the existing online portals that can help build a better understanding of the role of policies and expertise in addressing the inclusion dimension.
There are several encouraging policy approaches in Asia and the Pacific, from “Green New Deal” to carbon neutrality, the Blue Pacific Continent to ASEAN centrality, encapsulating citizens’ aspirations for transformative systemic change. Through these sets of policy approaches and their synergies, policymakers are well suited to prepare a “menu” for inclusion in pandemic times.
Anticipating multiplier effects of policy shifts
In our global conversations, recognition of the world’s limited resources needs to be balanced with the principle of inclusion. If we have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, current levels of development and people’s aspirations need to be factored in.
And it seems that a consensus is building! Policy formulations are being anchored around integrating public health management and inclusion, with a view to protecting nature.
Harnessing an adaptive policy learning process is, therefore, essential to mainstream the challenges and opportunities of marginalized groups in an accountable, cooperative and democratic setting. Only then can the anticipated benefits of global interdependence be shared equitably with everyone, everywhere.