Will COVID-19 have a lasting impact on Climate Change?

Dolphins spotted swimming in the port of Sardinia, Italy. Goats are taking over a village in the UK, Deers roaming freely in the streets of Japan. Sea Lions waddling on the paved roads in Ecuador. Otters having fun in Singapore. Ducks crossing a road in Israel. Rabbits in Milan and Coyotes in San Francisco.

Closer home, Dolphins, having fun off the coast of Mumbai. Nilgais in Noida. Sambhar in Chandigarh. An elephant making its way through a street in Dehradun. Malabar Civet on the roads of Kozhikode. Oliver Riddley turtles nesting in Odisha.

It almost seems that nature is full bloom in conjunction with the retreat of humanity as countries across the world have enforced a lockdown, bringing the economic juggernaut to a halt. Nature, it seems is enjoying the respite from the machinations of ape-like species. Things seem strangely harmonious.

And it isn’t just the odd sightings of animals; the over-all weather seemed to be positively impacted by the lockdown as well. Take the case of New Delhi. The bustling capital of India is renowned for its terrible air pollution. The city is a permanent fixture on the worst air polluted list for the past many years. Things have gone so out of hand, that spending a day in Delhi is akin to smoking two packs of cigarettes.

Yet, the coronavirus epidemic-induced lockdown seemed to have brought some respite for the beleaguered residents of the city. Recently, Delhi saw a third straight week of clean air, as the 21-day lockdown continued to reduce pollutants from industries, along with air and road traffic pollution. On the last Sunday of March, the overall Air Quality Index in Delhi stood at 82, which falls under the ‘satisfactory’ category, per the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR). The weekend before this saw the best air quality in the national capital region (NCR) in 2020, with an average AQI of 46. The weekend before that, it was at 159.

The nocuous air also could have increased the vulnerability of Indians to the coronavirus pandemic, because of compromised respiratory tract. According to a news report on CNN, India has one of the highest rates of respiratory disease in the world and the world’s highest number of tuberculosis cases. Such widespread lung damage could potentially increase the risks associated with the coronavirus.

For the moment, though, Delhiites seem to be breathing better. But then, it is not a surprise, since a similar trend is discernible across the globe. From China to Europe, from the US to Japan, everywhere as people hunker down to brace for the coronavirus impact, the economic inactivity is having a positive role on the environment. For instance, we don’t hear about new Oil digs or fires in Indonesia or Amazon. With factories shut, planes off the skies, transport off the roads, carbon emissions are going down. The best instance would be to talk of the largest CO2 emitter; China. Satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency that many have seen showed a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in China from January to February. According to some experts, Germany will be able to reach its climate goals this year, due to the shutdown. The same is true for the rest of Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Rob Jackson, who chairs the Global Carbon Project, which produces widely-watched annual emissions estimates, said carbon output could fall by more than 5% year-on-year — the first dip since a 1.4% reduction after the 2008 financial crisis. “I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5% or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two,” he told Reuters.

But before we bring out the Champagne from the Cellar, or cuddle up to Greta Thunberg in joy, there’s an asterisk here that we seem to be missing. The positive impact on CO2 emissions has been under the duress of an unimaginable global catastrophe. The big question is what happens when the crisis passes? With the economic structures in doldrums, governments would be disinclined to bother about emissions. They would only obsess on kick-starting the economy, bringing back the pollutions and raising the CO2 emissions. We are already witnessing something similar in China, as the country restarts its factories, the massive chimneys have started to belch pollutants into the atmosphere. The aviation sector, which is responsible for 7% of global CO2 emissions per year, will begin befouling the atmosphere, once the epidemic is controlled.

Back in 2007-2008, the world greenhouse gas emissions dipped in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, but they shot back up a whopping 5.1% in the recovery, according to Jackson.

This could be the case with Coronavirus epidemic as well. As the trucks, trains and ships return on the global supply chain, the emissions will return too. COVID-19 is cutting air pollution for the moment, but it will not slow climate change in the long-run. There’s also the danger that countries will try to over-compensate in terms of economic activities when the epidemic passes, and some normalcy returns.

Meantimes, 2020 was also an important year in terms of climate change negotiations. Countries across the globe were supposed to submit their 2050 plans to the UN, stating what they plan to do to align with the Paris Agreement in both the short/long term. The coronavirus crisis has already delayed several crucial deadlines that should be met before the conference. The annual COP26 meeting that was to be held in November in the UK, has been cancelled for this year, and rescheduled for next.

The only hope we can have is that we will not revert to our earlier ways, and try to attune our economies to be more harmonious. For instance, COVID-19 is coercing corporates to embrace remote working. This is nudging them to put in place carbon management strategies, without even being conscious about it. The hope is that the pandemic might be putting in place the systemic structures necessary for long-term emissions reduction. The fact remains, without systematic changeover, the climate change crisis will not be averted. COVID-19 would be a blip on the radar.

For the moment though, the smog has cleared to reveal the beautiful blue skies. And nature shines in its true glory. Will we able to hold on them, to savour this moment, is a question even the gods can’t answer.

— Shashwat DC


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