Pandemic and environment

The environmental improvement that we are witnessing currently due to COVID-19 will also be short term if we do not make fundamental change in the economy and our lifestyle.

Representational image (PHOTO: Pixabay)

Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen across continents as countries try to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. Is this just a fleeting change or could it lead to longer lasting falls in emission? In matter of months, the world has been transformed. Thousands of people have already died and hundreds of thousands more have fallen ill from a coronavirus that was previously unknown before appearing in the city of Wuhan in December 2019. For millions of others who have not caught the disease, their entire way of life has changed by it. The streets of Wuhan, China are deserted after authorities implemented a strict lockdown. In Italy, the most extensive travel restrictions are in place since World War-II. In London, the normally bustling, pubs, bars and theatres have been closed and people have been told to stay in their homes. Worldwide flights are being cancelled or turning around in mid-air as the aviation industry buckles. Those who are able to do so are holed up at home, practising social distancing and working remotely. It is all aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 and hopefully reducing the death toll. Nevertheless, all this change has also led to some unexpected consequences. As Industries, transport networks and businesses have closed down; it has brought a sudden drop in carbon emission. Compared with this time, last year levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50 per cent, because of measure to contain the virus. Although the coronavirus lockdown has temporarily cleared the skies, it has done nothing to cool the climate, which needs deeper, longer term measures, the scientists say. This year is on the course to be the World’s hottest since measurements began, according to meteorologists, who estimates there is 50 per cent to 75 per cent chance that 2020 will break the record set, four years ago. Heat records have been broken from the Antarctica to Greenland since January, which has surprised many scientists because this is not EL Nino year, the phenomenon usually associated with high temperatures. Abnormal weather is increasingly the norms as temperature records fall year after year and month after month. This January was the hottest on record, leaving many Artic nations without snow in their capital cities. In February, a research base in the Antarctic, registered a temperature of more than 20 degree Celsius, for the first time on the southern continent. At the other end of the World Qaanaaq, in Greenland set on April, record 6 degree Celsius. Although the pandemic has at least temporarily reduced the amount of new emission, the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere remains a huge concern.

Pandemic and environment have a close relation. Throughout the history, epidemics have caused large scale deaths, reducing human influence on the environment. Europe’s “BLACK DEATH”, which killed about 20 million people during 1347-1351, led to a drastic reduction in toxic lead pollution in the air for the first time in over a thousand years. Researchers also believe that the Anthropocene-age of humans-started with an epidemic. This epidemic which happened around 1610 and killed more than 50 million people in Latin America, was caused by the transmission of smallpox virus from Europeans to the native population. The Impact of this epidemic was so significant that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in 1,610 dipped dramatically from the normal. Researchers have named this dip “Orbis Spike”. Most of the people who died were farmers; when their fields were no longer tended, trees grew back and sucked carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Lower carbon dioxide levels led to the cooling of the planet and triggered a “Little Ice Age”.  For the first time human activity had planetary implications, hence the beginning of Anthropocene.

But it is clear from history that environmental changes during pandemic have been short lived. The epidemic of 1610 also paved the way for large scale European settlement in Latin America. These settlers destroyed the environment; especially forests to feed the raw materials need of the colonisers. Likewise, lead pollution in Europe peaked in the 1970s and 80s. So there is no historical evidence that points to human actively mending their ways after a pandemic periods seem to have led to large scale exploitation of nature to fuel economic growth. The environmental improvement that we are witnessing currently due to COVID-19 will also be short term if we do not make fundamental change in the economy and our lifestyle. Fortunately, we have an opportunity to make these structural changes. COVID-19 is likely to cause the biggest economic collapse in the modern era. Unemployment has skyrocketed; a large number of companies will go bust. Experts predict a massive recession across the world. When the lockdown are lifted and life returns to what it once was, so too will the pollution that clouds the skies and with it the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming. In fact, the rebound could be even worse.

The real impact of the coronavirus crisis on climate could depend ultimately on choices made regarding how governments want their economies to look when the recover – and in particular, how much they will continue to rely on fossil fuels. The climate crisis continues unabated. The emission will go down this year, but concentration keeps on rising. We are very unlikely to be able to notice any slowdown in the build-up atmospheric GHG levels. But we have the unique chance now to reconsider our choices and use the Corona crisis as a catalyst for more sustainable means of transport and energy production. Many see the efforts to contain the economic fallout of the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate the shift to cleaner energy alternative, such as solar and wind. Options could include ensuring that economic stimulus programs prioritize investment in cleaner energy or conditioning assistance to business, especially in carbon – intensive sectors, on drastic cuts in emissions. Similarly financial industry bailouts could require banks to invest less in fossil fuel and more in climate change mitigation and resilient efforts. If coronavirus pandemic teaches us anything, it is that taking nature for granted has enormous costs. On 50th anniversary of Earth day, let’s remind ourselves of the massive environmental challenges that lie ahead and invest in building a resilient society, economy and ecosystem.

First Published:June 12, 2020, 9:01 p.m.

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