SOME have forcefully attached a silver lining to the coronavirus epidemic. With human activity on a lockdown, the planet is healing, they say.
There is no evidence to label the pressing global crisis as ‘nature’s revenge’: the idea that humans have brought Mother Earth to a tipping point, and she is now fighting back. Apart from knowing that the pandemic has its epicentre in China, we cannot really assume whether or not it is part of nature’s ‘cleansing’ ritual.
What we do have complete certainty on is that humans are primarily responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions, and that this in turn causes global warming. As provinces, states and entire nations are forced into lockdown, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen because schools are closed, many distracting avenues such as malls and restaurants are shut, factories have been bolted, international and national sports and entertainment events have been postponed, and travel has been curtailed.
According to climate campaigners, global air traffic decreased by 4.3 per cent in February. Controlling the spread of Covid-19 in China forcefully reduced emissions by 15pc to 40pc across key industrial sectors. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air has said that the reduction in emissions is equivalent to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide, which is more than half of what the UK emits in an entire year, or what Argentina, Egypt and Vietnam emit in one year.
Air pollution is estimated to kill over 7m people a year.
Air pollution is estimated to annually kill over seven million people globally through exposure to fine particulate matter, which is highly dangerous for our lungs. China’s ministry of ecology and environment announced that the number of ‘good quality air days’ in Hubei province increased by 21.5pc in February, compared to last year. Temporarily improved air quality over two months in China can prevent between 50,000 to 75,000 premature deaths, as per Prof Marshall Burke at Stanford University. So far, Covid-19 has taken the lives of up to 3,255 people in China. The aim here is not to undermine human fatalities due to the virus, but to highlight how deadly a killer air pollution is.
Other environmentalists have reported that fine particulate matter has decreased by 40pc in San Francisco, 28pc in New York, and 32pc in Seattle, compared to last year. Meanwhile, researchers at Columbia University say that carbon monoxide, another greenhouse gas mostly emitted from cars, has reduced by nearly 50pc in New York as traffic is down by an estimated 35pc.
According to the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite, which measures concentrations of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels fell drastically in northern Italy in recent days. A potent greenhouse gas that affects the respiratory system, NO2 is emitted primarily from vehicles, diesel-powered construction equipment, and power plants. High levels of NO2 can be extremely dangerous for those impacted by a virus which cripples the respiratory system.
All these changes are temporary, and in light of the pandemic, cannot even be termed good news. They will most likely jump back as countries race to recover once the immediate threat dissipates. As environmentalist Bill McKibben writes: “No environmentalist should welcome a crisis, but they can learn from it...”
The epidemic has drained stock markets and is threatening to plummet nations into economic recession. Bloomberg Economics estimates it could cost the global economy up to $2.7 trillion in lost output. An epidemic enforced greenhouse gas emission reduction framework is temporary and not sustainable. The promised recovery stimulus packages suggest that as soon as the epidemic is under control, an upsurge of carbon-intensive projects to boost economies will incite ‘retaliatory pollution’. With competing concerns such as debt, joblessness and recession, emission reduction will be brushed to the curb.
It is imperative that climate change be considered a deadly threat to the human race, expected to kill millions of people as it acts as a poverty multiplier, induces involuntary migration, exacerbates extreme weather events, spreads diseases, and threatens food security. We need a strict and sustained transition to a carbon-neutral economy, not short-term reductions in emissions, if we wish to achieve the 1.5°C temperature goal under the Paris Agreement. Governments should remember green measures they can take, such as tying emission reduction actions to the bailout of airlines, or even encouraging large companies to let some of their employees work from home.
It is unfortunate that it has taken a pandemic to make us realise that governments, companies and societies can function differently, and what these lifestyle changes can mean for the planet and human health. Once the epidemic is under control, we must remember these clearer skies, and embrace sustainable and eco-friendly practices.
The writer is a lawyer who specialises in climate change law and policy.
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2020