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Can Covid-19 Help Ease the Climate Crisis?

The Global Pandemic Offers Chance to Embrace Clean Energy

A forest fire rages in Santo Antonio do Matupi, southern Amazonas state, Brazil, August 27, 2019. © 2019 Associated Press

It’s been three months since governments around the world implemented lockdowns in response to Covid-19. The virus has killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions more into joblessness and destitution. With the global transport of people and goods severely curtailed, once-polluted skies have turned blue again and some people are rethinking their environmental footprint. But what effect will this temporary shutdown really have on our planet? Stephanie Hancock asked senior environment researcher Felix Horne how the fight against climate change can succeed amid a global pandemic.

Plane and car emissions have fallen since the pandemic struck. Has Covid-19 in some way helped the environment? 

We’ve certainly given the earth a bit of a breather because the rate we are emitting greenhouse gases has dropped, although by less than many expected given the slowdown in industrial activity. Air pollution has dropped dramatically in a number of places, which is great and will save lives. But remember that the levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are already the highest they have ever been. We’re still in a very dangerous situation.

What do you think will happen as lockdowns are lifted?

It depends how governments respond. Massive amounts of money are being given for recovery programs to get economies going, and some countries are trying do so in a more green and sustainable direction. Policymakers and scientists largely agree that to slow the impact of the climate crisis we need a rapid transition from polluting fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas to cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar. So these recovery packages are an opportunity to address the climate crisis. Unfortunately the early signs are that some governments are going to continue with their “business as usual” model.

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, shown obscured in smoke in November 2018, after the disastrous Camp Fire occurred north of Sacramento. US Interior Secretary at the time, Ryan Zinke, said wildfires in California in 2018 released roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as are produced each year to provide electricity to the state. © 2018 Eric Risberg/AP Images

Governments are spending so much money on fighting the pandemic. Will there be enough left to fund a move to cleaner energy?

Look at the massive government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. And they are asking for more. A wiser approach would be to prioritize assistance to the clean energy sector. Why not try to resolve both crises, instead of trying to fix the economy while simultaneously making the climate crisis worse?

In areas of higher air pollution, people are more likely to die of complications from Covid-19. What’s the link here?

Air pollution is a massive problem globally but gets little attention in part because it’s an invisible killer. The World Health Organization estimates 4 million people die prematurely from it every year. Air pollution affects the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, plus air pollution typically makes people more susceptible to respiratory diseases and may lead to more severe symptoms or increased deaths from respiratory infections, including Covid-19. Groups disproportionally impacted by air pollution – including older people, the chronically ill, and those living in poverty – are also at higher risk from the virus.

In many parts of the world poorer people live in more heavily industrialized areas, which tend to have the highest air pollution. In these often more densely populated areas, more people live under one roof so social distancing is almost impossible. These people often have poorer health baselines, due in part to air pollution. So it’s all linked.  

Many people have lost their jobs. What would be the impact on jobs of a transition to renewable energy?

The impact could be positive both for people and the environment, and it will take leadership. The European Union has talked about a green deal, with ambitious plans to transform their economies to green alternatives. Supporting people whose livelihoods relied on the fossil fuel industry is challenging and expensive, but not impossible. Our economies need to continue functioning and that requires continued energy production. All types of energy create jobs: it’s just a question of whether we want that energy to be polluting and lead us into another crisis.

A man wearing a mask is seen in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing, October 18, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

How is Covid-19 affecting environmental protections? 

This is one of our biggest concerns: that the Covid-19 pandemic will give governments a reason or a pretext to roll back or relax environmental protections. It’s clear that lobbyists representing car, aviation, plastics, and fossil fuel industries are taking advantage of Covid-19 and pushing governments hard to give them a pass on environmental standards.

The Trump administration has announced a temporary ban on most routine environmental monitoring and reporting requirements if companies can show a Covid-related reason. They also rolled back car emission and air pollution standards. In Canada, in the oil-rich province of Alberta, they’ve announced a similar ban on enforcement of environmental regulations. We’ve seen European governments, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, urging the relaxation of some environmental standards, and it’s happening in Brazil too. Many of these standards help protect human health, so to cut them during a public health crisis is counterproductive.

But these protections are an additional cost for businesses, right?

There is a cost of upholding these standards, of course, but it should be seen as a cost of doing business. Many operations like oil, gas, and mining have been deemed essential services in certain countries, so they’re continuing to make revenue but are trying to trim expenses around regulations that protect human health and the public good. But ignoring regulations has a significant long-term cost to society in terms of health care cost and a less productive workforce.

Plastic waste has soared with high demand for disposable medical and hygiene products. Do you worry about this?

Yes. Especially because most plastics don’t break down very quickly, so we’re just adding to the amount in our oceans, rivers, and landfills. Progress was being made on banning single-use plastics, the biggest problem, but we’re seeing that being rolled back now because of Covid-19. And the plastics industry is intimately connected to the fossil fuel industry – there are significant fossil fuels in manufacturing these plastic products. Often there are sustainable alternatives to plastic.

In this March 10, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, agents from Ibama measure illegally cut timber from Cachoeira Seca indigenous land in Para state in Brazil's Amazon basin. © 2018 Vinicius Mendonza/Ibama via AP

What’s it like for climate activists right now?

Climate marches have been very effective at raising awareness and, with so many young people taking part, creating the leaders of tomorrow. Fridays For Future [started by Greta Thunberg] has moved online now, but it’s harder for people to mobilize and make themselves heard.

Many activists also operate in remote, rural areas and have limited funding, so with financial markets in meltdown there’s a concern they will find it hard to keep operating. Where activists risk their lives to protect their community, such as in the Amazon in Brazil, it’s visibility that helps protect them. With less attention on activists, they may be more at risk.

The speed of lockdowns shows governments can act fast if they want to. Does this give you hope for the future?

Most governments were willing to put in place pretty strict restrictions to protect human health during this pandemic. It shows that happens when there’s political will and public buy-in.

It also shows what’s possible when science is central to political decision-making. On climate change the science is clear, yet governments are still very slow to act. Part of the problem is that climate change is seen as something far off and abstract, which it really isn’t for many communities.

People living in polluted and flood-prone areas have suffered so much from climate change. What does their future hold?  

Modeling shows there will be more extreme weather with a greater impact on marginalized communities. Hurricane season is coming up in the Caribbean, and modeling predicts this year’s season could be the worst on record. The Covid-19 pandemic will make it harder to coordinate emergency responses to disasters because of less funding and travel restrictions for humanitarian workers. And think of typical aid responses, with people lining up for food and water and housed in crowded conditions. We will have to rethink this.

If you could snap your fingers and instantly bring about one big change in climate policy, what would it be?   

To transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy. There is clear scientific consensus on this. We have the solutions. We just need the political will.

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