What we can learn about climate action from COVID19

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Guest blog by Dr. Cara Augustenborg,
Co-host of Down To Earth on Newstalk FM and former Chair of Friends of the Earth Ireland

While our planet gets a brief rest from human activity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, our former Chairperson explores whether anything can be learned from this experience to support future environmental protection. This week, she chatted with her Down to Earth co-host, Ivan Yates, on Newstalk about what lessons we can learn so far and writes about these lessons in our guest blog.  

How is the planet responding to coronavirus?

Near real-time satellite data is has already shown the pandemic response has a remarkable effect on air pollution with a significant drop in the pollutants produced by vehicles and the burning of wood, peat and coal. Globally, poor air quality is responsible for approximately nine million deaths per year, and those who already have lung damage from air pollution are potentially more susceptible to COVID-19. Stanford professor, Marshall Burke, estimates that in the two months China curtailed manufacturing as a result of the virus, it has likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in the country. This compares with the 3,300 deaths China endured from coronavirus.  However, Imperial College projects up to 40 million deaths worldwide from the coronavirus if no protective measures were implemented (though less than 40,000 people have died at the time of writing), so it remains uncertain whether this short-lived air quality side-effect is a net gain for humanity or not.  

Climate expert, Professor Katherine Hayhoe argues the death toll already caused by climate disruption will outstrip worst case predictions for coronavirus mortalities. The World Health Organisation estimates between 2030 and 2050, climate change could cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress, but the U.S. alone is bracing for approximately 200,000 deaths from coronavirus in the coming months. In an interview with the Irish Times, Hayhoe explained that as the planet warms, the flu season could become a year-round occurrence, giving viruses more time to mutate into more dangerous strains and making climate change a “threat multiplier” for future pandemics.

It is still too early to say what effect our response to the coronavirus will have on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Director of the NASA Goddard Institute, Gavin Schmidt, points out that while transport emissions have decreased, electricity is still being consumed in our homes, particularly increased internet usage. As long as our power generation is derived largely from fossil fuels, this may not be a big win for the climate. In Ireland, the last few weeks of “lockdown” have been marked by relatively calm days, with wind energy comprising approximately 45% of electricity production for the month of March, down from 56% in February. Our lack of solar farms is a missed opportunity to capitalise on the good weather these last few weeks, which could have compensated for a shortage of wind.

Nature appears to be quickest to capitalise on the pandemic, moving in almost as soon as humans move out. Anecdotal reports show the usually murky waters of the Venice canals now clear and habitable for fish because less sediment is being kicked up by boats and gondolas. In Sardinia, a dolphin was filmed in one of the largest seaports in the Mediterranean Sea, typically too jammed with ships for wildlife to frequent. In the U.K., shorebirds are nesting on beaches they haven’t been seen on in years, prompting wildlife enthusiasts to worry that if restrictions are lifted too early nesting birds may be disturbed by humans again at a critical time in their offspring’s development. While we won’t know the full environmental impact of this unprecedented emergency for some time, it is providing copious scientific data to help us better understand how our planet responds to human activities and to design more effective solutions for environmental remediation.

Five planet-saving things we can learn from covid-19, so far

  1. How linked our economy is with pollution – In Ireland, the 2008 economic crash caused the only significant drop in our greenhouse gas emissions in the past 20 years. As the COVID-19 pandemic inflicts even faster falls in economic activity, we can expect greenhouse gas emissions in some sectors to drop, but the extent depends on how long it takes us to return to “normal” consumption patterns. The pandemic may have bought us a few years to reduce emissions, but as the IPCC argues we have just ten years left to halve emissions and stay below 1.5C of planetary warming, a few more years is relatively insignificant. Our President Michael D. Higgins has recently called for us to re-evaluate our economic model and put people at the centre of it as we come out of this emergency. 350.org’s co-founder, Jamie Henn, put it simply when he explained: “Coronavirus has turned off the global economy. Let’s install a new operating system before we turn it back on.
  2. A sneak preview of what a climate-driven financial crisis could look like – Just like COVID-19, an extreme climate-related event acts as an external shock that destabilises our financial systems. The current pandemic is caused by just one virus with relatively clear solutions (e.g. wash your hands, socially distance, test and provide ventilators to the sick), but climate change could cause multiple extreme weather events and impacts around the globe simultaneously, making our response far less straight-forward. In this current emergency, we are fortunate that food (and toilet paper) shortages are not an issue. However, in a climate driven crisis, we are likely to have the added pressure of impacts to global food supply, causing a level of panic we’ve managed to avoid in this current emergency.
  3. What's good for the planet is good for us – In the climate action arena, many of us have advocated for more localised production to reduce emissions. The COVID pandemic demonstrates just how globalised our supply chain is, with shortages of a wide range of goods resulting in empty shelves in many of our retail stores last month.  More localised production is a smart way to protect supply chains from many risks be they viruses or extreme weather events linked to climate change. This is particularly important for our food security as an island nation.
  4. We CAN radically change our lifestyles when there is strong political will – For me, the biggest “Aha moment” of Ireland’s response to the pandemic has been the political leadership and individual sacrifices made in the midst of so much uncertainty. We can be very proud of how we have answered the call to “flatten the curve”. The sacrifices we need to address climate change are relatively unimposing by comparison: less air/vehicle travel, less meat, less fossil fuels, and less consumption. Now, we’ve demonstrated we can do far more than that. The restrictions on travel, in particular, have taught us to employ effective work-from-home habits without travel-related emissions. With transport emissions and congestion sky-rocketing in Ireland since our economic recovery, this could be the biggest lesson of all for us with respect to climate action.
  5. We need to talk about nature, urgently – So far, COVID-19 appears to have originated from bats which transferred it to pangolins, scaly nocturnal animals among the most trafficked mammals in the  world. In February, China banned the trade and consumption of pangolins, finally realising that the toll pangolin sales may have taken on their economy and society far out-weighs the alleged benefits of eating them. This may be good news for the nearly extinct pangolin and other wild species, as the Wildlife Conservation Society is now calling for an end to all commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption (particularly birds and mammals) and an end to so-called “wet markets”. However, ecologists argue further destruction of natural habitats for resources such as wood and minerals brings us in closer contact with disease-carrying species. Here in the Global North, we need an urgent conversation about how our thirst for consumption encourages biodiversity destruction across the globe if we want to do our fair share to prevent another pandemic.

What should we do post-COVID?

Understandably, there is a long line of industries asking for Government assistance as part of an economic recovery from the COVID-19 emergency. However, many of these industries (e.g. aviation, cruise liners and fossil fuel companies) are heavy polluters, and some were already in decline as the world shifts to cleaner energy production. In these chaotic times, our political leaders could offer bail-outs to such industries without little to no public consultation, enabling them to continue polluting activities for longer than the market would have allowed otherwise and creating a “snapback” effect that ultimately increases greenhouse gas emissions. After the 2008 financial crisis, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement decreased by 1.4% in 2009. However, World Resources Institute reports that the following year they grew 5.9%, more than offsetting the decrease from economic collapse. We witnessed a similar trend in Ireland at the time. Now is the time to ensure we don’t turn a blind eye to bail outs and repeat the mistakes of our past.

Clearly, as part of a just transition, we can’t let any industries die overnight, but we should insist that any Government assistance for carbon-intensive sectors is contingent on measures to reduce environmental pollution. Climate journalist, David Roberts of Vox.com, has written a comprehensive instruction manual for how to use climate solutions to drive a post-COVID economic recovery. It should be required reading for all our elected representatives. His report argues that the proposals set forth in the Green New Deal (transformation of energy, housing and transport systems) are the kind of Government stimulus that could make communities more resilient to future emergencies and reduce unemployment at the same time.

As Naomi Klein pointed out in “Shock Doctrine”, we can already see polluting industries leveraging this crisis to their advantage, with reports coming from the USA that the American Petroleum Institute is  asking Trump to roll back environmental standards and the coal industry asking to reduce payments to miners with black lung disease to alleviate them from further burdens. This opportunism is something we can’t afford to take our eyes off.  However, just like these dirty industries never waste a crisis, nor should we. In the midst of tragedy, coronavirus inadvertently provides a test-bed for many of the policies environmentalists have advocated for to address our climate and biodiversity emergencies. While we hunker down in our cocoons, we can reflect on what really matters to us so that, just like a butterfly, we emerge metamorphasized into a society that is better for people and planet.

Dr. Cara Augustenborg is an Environmental Policy Fellow at University College Dublin, a member of President Higgins’ Council of State and co-host of the Down to Earth slot on Newstalk FM. She formerly served as Chairperson of both Friends of the Earth Ireland and Friends of the Earth Europe.


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