The COVID-19 and the environment

4 min read

The favorite closing scene of every pro-environmentalist blockbuster (think The Day After Tomorrow) is the self-healing of Mother Earth. A giant shockwave or a storm wiping away the pollution caused by us. The first NASA images emerging about cleaner Chinese air in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdowns evoke feelings similar to the ending scene of the above mentioned movie, when the astronauts on ISS exclaim that the air has never been so clean before.

As of today, the catastrophic wildfires in Australia of just a few months ago are all but forgotten, the alarming information about the discovery of the highest ever concentration of microplastics on the seafloor is lost amidst the swarm of COVID-19 related news.

As reports emerge about “lower vibrations from cultural noise”, about “animals taking over empty roads, squares and channels around the world” and about the “unprecedented decline in global carbon emissions”, and as the front pages of newspapers are filled with before/after pictures of big cities, environmental activists are filled with joy. The Covid-19 pandemic has saved the Earth. From us. It is easy to see the upside of “the largest ever global air pollution experiment”.

Reduced emissions are good for public health: by some estimates air pollution kills 7 million people a year and causes serious health damage to even more. One researcher claimed that two months of lockdowns saved some 77.000 lives around the globe. (And, if the latest Italian results about the coronavirus sticking to polluted particles in the air would prove to be true, it would be another, and a very strong reason indeed to diminish air pollution.)

But while this sudden and unexpected improvement in air quality and reduced emissions might be good, it is also a warning sign.

The targeted reductions in annual emission levels are easy to maintain now, with most of the world under lockdown. Even in this situation, some experts warn that the crisis will have minimal effects on CO2 concentrations and global warning. Some pollutants (like NO2) disappeared or diminished drastically, others, like aerosols, didn’t change at all. All in all, lockdowns and extreme social distancing are hardly a sustainable way to reduce emissions. And there aren’t too many who are willing to pay the same price every year and even less are willing to take the drastic steps necessary to maintain current levels.

The restrictions have caused a massive plunge in fossil fuel use, while renewables are holding up during the previously unheard slump in electricity use. At least this is what was said by Fatih Birol, IEA executive director. The official concluded that “It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before”. The prognosis is that renewables are set to be the only energy source that will grow in 2020. Others have warned that even this sector might be hit, because the low oil and gas price will place pressure on it, too. Green investments might be delayed within companies stretched to their limits.

Furthermore, the overall environmental effect of the crisis depends on whether we’ll see a sharp rebound in emissions as economic conditions improve or not. Efforts to quickly ramp up economies can easily wipe away any change, the desire to help struggling companies might lead to changing or relaxing regulations. Some experts drew parallels with the 2008 crisis, after which China started the “biggest, dirtiest stimulus program in the history of mankind”. A scientist called this “revenge-pollution”.

But if the old system is to go, greater investments and smarter policies are needed to keep energy sources secure and to reform our production and consumption habits. If safe and secure packaging is a must, we should find a sustainable alternative to plastic and don’t backtrack on the ban on single use plastics, just because those might be safer (no need for disinfection). We should find a way to safely get rid of all the gloves, masks and shields that are used now and find more environment-friendly substitutes for them if they are here to stay for public health reasons. (It was unbelievable for a 19th century lady to leave her house without a glove, to prevent her hand from getting dirty. We could probably get this item back in fashion. I’m talking about textile or leather gloves, not plastic ones.)

The EU was already working on the Green Deal and it was recently announced that this deal must be at the heart of an intelligent recovery. With the German presidency coming in the second half of the year, there might be some improvement. Individual solutions are popping up all around the continent, as well, like the € 20 million French scheme to encourage people to cycle instead of using cars or public transport.

The UN could organize the COP26 climate conference online, instead of postponing it until 2021. (After all, who can guarantee that there won’t be a second wave and who can tell how long it will last.) With this, it would provide a good example on how international travel could be reduced, what a “new normal” for international diplomacy could be. Years of diplomatic efforts and preparatory work wouldn’t be wasted. And new green policies could be suggested and adopted.

But someone should convince the US administration about the necessity of change, too. A few days ago the EPA confirmed that regulations were relaxed to help the economy deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and rigorous social distancing rules made it difficult to execute checks on companies. In many states, disposable bags were made mandatory while reusable bags banned. There is no New Green Deal in sight, rather old and powerful industrial lobbies are working day and night to push through regulations or bailouts. And if one of the world’s largest polluter is not willing to change, reforms elsewhere might not be enough.

If one thing was proved by the pandemic, is that individual responsibility will not solve the climate crisis. Recovery efforts and damage control (including cleanup after bankrupted companies) will be paid by taxpayer money. Neither the pandemic, nor the climate emergency affects us all equally: the world’s poorest need more help, way above the level any individual is able to deliver. Just one example: air pollution is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels in most of the urban areas around the world, meaning that 80% of people living in these areas will continue to be exposed to unsafe air. In low-income countries, 98% of cities fail to meet WHO air quality standards.

The pandemic also proved that unbelievable amounts of energy and focus can be moved in any society to solve a threat. The question is whether these can be turned onto other issues, after the COVID-19 crisis is over. Whether these forces can transform our way of life for the better.

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