Harnessing the Positive Environmental Dividends of COVID-19 in the Longer Carbon Run

We stand at a critical juncture in history. COVID-19 outbreak has significantly altered the current world order in every aspect. Nature has hit an unforeseen pause, as we tried to contain the novel coronavirus by self-isolating and conforming to innovative ways to keep the work going. A major decline in global carbon emissions has been witnessed as a by-product.  Though this progress gives hope in this stressful time, at the same time it will be only fruitful if these outcomes are sustained in the post COVID-19 world as well, where the future depends on how we rekindle our economy in a greener way that will harness the current positive environmental outcomes of COVID-19.

It has been calculated that the patients of the novel coronavirus residing in high polluted areas are 15% more likely to die from the disease than patients in lesser polluted parts of the country.

Prior to the pandemic, the transport industry alone contributed around 23% to the global carbon emissions, in which automobiles constituted 72% and aviation contributed 11% majorly. Therefore, after the imposition of lockdown and physical distancing, there has been a 40%  fall in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the air. Along with emptied highways, closed factories and industries, there has been a significant decline in air traffic. Moreover, air pollution has decreased by half and cultural noise has lowered as well. Consequently, these provisions have reduced the global demand of oil, causing an unprecedented dent to the fuel industry. Therefore, these advancements are improving the quality of air and reducing the risk of heart attacks, asthma and other lungs diseases. It is believed to be the first decline in global carbon emissions since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

The quality of air that we breathe determines the resistance of our lungs and consequently their immunity to fight viruses SARS-COV-2. It has been calculated that the patients of the novel coronavirus residing in high polluted areas are 15% more likely to die from the disease than patients in lesser polluted parts of the country. Although this correlation needs to be further examined through multiple studies.

This rise in global temperatures is increasing the animal migrations which will, as a result, enhance the risk of further pandemics happening in the future.

If the current fall in emissions is not sustained, we are likely to heat up the planet as per the predictions. According to various climate models, there is an expected rise of 3-4oC till the year 2100. Scientists expect that there will be a rise in disasters due to heat waves, tropical cyclones, wildfires and floods. This rise in global temperatures is increasing the animal migrations which will, as a result, enhance the risk of further pandemics happening in the future. The rising sea levels will consequently make present day low-lying islands and coastal regions uninhabitable. Because these areas comprise of nearly half the earth’s population, therefore, it could result into two billion refugees by 2100 according to the estimation. In the post COVID-19 world, policies and decisions will be influenced by the lessons learnt from this pandemic. Though, through an unfortunate way but the pandemic has shown a plausible solution to the issue of climate change. To take up these leads before it’s too late, “Petersburg Climate Dialogue” took place in April, which was a two-day online environmental conference of 30 countries. The UN Secretary General gave a six-point agenda which is needed to be followed if carbon neutrality is to be reached by 2050.

The eco-friendly economic transformation will require the continuation of the existing teleworking and remote meeting trends. Due to such transformation in modes of working, travelling for work seems unnecessary, consequently lowering the carbon emissions.

The agenda calls for producing greener jobs and resuming businesses with a green approach in the post COVID-19 world. In addition to working together as a global community, the global financial system also needs to shape up its policy and infrastructure by taking climate into account. The Secretary General stated: “Fiscal firepower must shift economies from grey to green, making societies and people more resilient through a transition that is fair to all and leaves no one behind.” The online conference aimed to peruse the COP26 agenda, which was scheduled to be held later this year; aimed at an international agreement on carbon cuts. Such ambitious goals depend on how not only the impacts of the pandemic are sustained but also on long-term political decisions to harness these changes.

The head of the United Nations Environment Programme calls for a “systemic shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet.” Thus, it will provide with real opportunity to reset the clock and meet the market demands with green packages of renewable energy investments, smart buildings, green and public transport, etc.

Whereas it is expected that in the aftermath of this pandemic, as travel will be resumed there will be a spur in demand of petroleum. Only a few developed countries are expected to deliver on green stimulus and recover their economies in a greener way. Others, however, are ready to thrive on their fossil fuel economies once the crisis ends. The eco-friendly economic transformation will require the continuation of the existing teleworking and remote meeting trends. Due to such transformation in modes of working, travelling for work seems unnecessary, consequently lowering the carbon emissions.

With bailout packages to aviation companies and petroleum industry, barriers are increasing to a greener economic approach.

With an end to this pandemic, the feelings of panic and fear will eventually subside as well. Making the adaptability of these new ways of working and meeting each other the only normal and possible way to carry on with life. Therefore, state-initiated smart investment plans should be adopted towards residual emissions. This will incentivise public at large to convert to low waste and greener daily routines.
Globally, every society has learned to make the best of this unconventional way of living, which has shown results in the form of a clearer sky and fresh air. As the pandemic has taught us how difficult life is with shortage of food and supplies, people in the future are perhaps expected to be mindful of the food they consume. Such transformation on community level will be of significance  to our climate, if we sustain with these practices in the future as well.

Policies like suspending the enforcement of environmental laws, criminalising fossil fuel protests, deferring taxes to oil and gas explorers are being implemented under the umbrella of the pandemic.

Due to the pressures of globalisation, it seems impossible to slow down the economy, yet it has been done in a cruel way. But it is argued that as a result of this forceful pause, the powerful will reinforce their interests, disregarding the battle of climate and biodiversity. With bailout packages to aviation companies and petroleum industry, barriers are increasing to a greener economic approach. Not only the top most polluting industries are getting heavy packages, but also the construction of oil pipelines has continued despite the lockdown. Policies like suspending the enforcement of environmental laws, criminalising fossil fuel protests, deferring taxes to oil and gas explorers are being implemented under the umbrella of the pandemic. National coal industries are getting heavy bailout packages form their governments. Moreover, permits for new coal-fired power plants are on their way as well. Such policies of highest carbon emissions-contributing countries reflect the priorities of the developed states.
Therefore, before it is too late and we are back to square one regarding climate debate, the positive dividends harnessed from this pandemic should be conserved. The governments need to be pressurised to remodel a pro-green economy rather than incentivising and facilitating world’s heaviest polluting industries. At the end of the day, it is we humans, and not the virus which will determine whether this pandemic is a bane or a boon for the environment. The first step is adhering to a less waste and less carbon footprint lifestyle on individual level which will create a ripple effect. The post COVID-19 future of climate depends only on how much the climate change as an issue is of priority to us.

Rida Anwar

Rida Anwar

Rida Anwar is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She has studied International Relations from the National Defence University, Islamabad.

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