COVID-19 and Climate Action
By Furqan Gilani
Is there a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic? There is not a binary answer to that question, yet. While we have seen significant improvement in air quality and drop in greenhouse gas emissions, the struggling world economies can reverse those benefits, just as quickly, by going back on their sustainability and climate change initiatives. However, governments and organizations should be following the mantra of Churchill – ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’ to capitalize on the findings and trends that have emerged since the spread of this deadly pandemic.
Undoubtedly, the COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc across the world in all forms. Apart from loss of human life, the financial and economic impact has been felt deeply as well. The environment, contrastingly, has benefited. Satellite images have emerged showing dramatic drops in air pollution, especially in the areas that have been impacted the most. Levels of NO2 and small-particulate pollution known as PM2.5 – both toxic byproducts of burning fossil fuels, fell by 37% and 10% respectively in the European Union, leading to an avoidance of 11,000 deaths from air pollution1. At the same time, research has shown that the mortality rate is expected to be higher in areas with higher levels of long-term air pollution2. “We found that an increase of only 1 gram per cubic meter in fine particulate matter in the air was associated with a 15% increase in the Covid-19 death rate,” said lead author Francesca Dominici, co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative2. Other research suggests the increasing occurrence of viruses like COVID-19 due to deforestation and rapid transformation of animal habitats into agricultural lands. David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times, “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”3 These complementary findings again highlight the importance of a clean environment and stable ecosystems to the naysayers of climate change and sustainability.
But, unfortunately, the economic toll of COVID-19 and governmental policies can still hurt sustainability measures. As companies try to survive in this unprecedented demand and supply shock, the base business would likely come to the fore and ESG matters could take a back seat. We are seeing both kinds of behaviors at the government level. In Milan, Italy, plans are underway to create 35km of new cycle paths to make cycling and scooter transport more accessible in order to emerge from the lockdown with cleaner transport options in place. This is being done to maintain the environmental benefits of COVID-194. Similarly, France is introducing a $20 million scheme to get more people cycling – to cut pollution and keep people safe. The scheme involves allowing people to have repairs at registered bike shops of up to $55, as well as paying for training and temporary parking spaces5. On the other hand, the European Union has also been under pressure to stop crucial climate initiatives. Countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic have called for the carbon trading program to be put on hold and the EU’s landmark climate bill to be abandoned, respectively6.
To conclude, we as a global community, stand at cross-roads. As we fight this pandemic, we must learn from the hard facts and endeavor to bring mother earth back to its original state, as close as possible. Governments and corporate institutions that build on the environmental benefits achieved through COVID-19 through drafting policies such as work from home, less air travel, better work-life balance, etc., stand to benefit in terms of improved reputation, better productivity and most importantly higher resilience in the face of such black swan events in the future. As we aim to re-open our cities with clearer skies and cleaner air, this juncture seems to have given us a great pivot to shift our thinking. Let’s make this world a better place!