Connecting the dots: climate change and the pandemic

With the emergence of the Coronavirus, highly restrictive measures had to be taken from the beginning of this year. In this case, China was the first nation in the world to impose social distancing, isolation and quarantine. The combination of these three measures has temporarily halted the life of the state and its citizens, interrupting the production chain as well as the frenetic movements to which we are now accustomed. As a result, Chinese pollution fell dramatically in the first month of quarantine, bringing clear skies back to Shanghai. The benefits of the precautionary anti-pandemic measures were later found in other large towns such as Milan and New Delhi (National Geographic, 2020a). Based on data progressively collected worldwide, it has begun to be assumed that the arrival of the Coronavirus could be a benefit in the fight against climate change.

Despite the clear improvement in the environmental situation, it is necessary to consider the short and long term effects of the pandemic. If in the short term, the effects of the precautionary measures are generally positive, the same cannot be said for the long-term consequences. This is because the fight against climate change goes hand in hand with economic and financial conditions. In order to understand the actual contribution of the Coronavirus to the environment, it is necessary to analyse both time phases, without necessarily attributing negative or positive meanings to the virus.  We should consider instead the effects in the short term, moving on to those in the long term, in order to understand how the virus defies the current global system and the legacy of the pandemic for  the world population.

Short-term effects

Decrease in CO2 levels

As indicated by Carbon Brief, pollution levels in China have dropped dramatically. In early February, reductions in the use of coal and crude oil led to a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions (Carbon Brief, 2020). This is equivalent to about 100Mt of CO2, or 6% of global emissions in the same period. As of March 30, however, the figures are less encouraging. Coal consumption in power plants and oil refineries, at its lowest in early March, returned to normal by the end of that month, about seven weeks after the country’s return to work on 3 February. Similarly, nitrogen dioxide pollution levels, measured by both NASA satellites and Chinese government stations, have returned to normal, indicating that current emission levels in urban areas and industrial centers are close to pre-crisis levels (ibid.).

The example of China at this moment is of fundamental importance: Beijing was the first to face the pandemic and, compared to the rest of the world, is already in the emergency exit phase. This allows us to analyse the effects and possible reactions to the shock created by the pandemic ahead of time. In fact, it is clear that the benefit can only be temporary and partial, especially if national economies, at risk of recession, will have to recover the losses of the past few months and will therefore be pushed to overproduce with traditional energy sources. In the long term, the positive effects of the coronavirus on CO2 emissions will only be seen with a greater commitment to the energy transition and a green governance plan, which will also lead to constant and drastic drops in global CO2 emissions (Johnson, 2020).

However, caution is needed when considering the pandemic as the only key factor in reducing emissions. Taking into question the Italian case relating to the Lombardy and Po Valley areas (i.e. the areas most severely affected by the virus), it can be seen that the meteorological factor has had an impact in reducing climate pollution. As reported by La Stampa (2020), the reductions in PM10 and NO2 concentrations that took place in Lombardy on February 26-27 are the result of the hot wind, Foehn, that swept through the region. With regard to the cleanliness of the air, this factor had a much greater impact than the decrease in motorized traffic, and travel in general, induced by restrictive measures. It should also be remembered that the level of air pollution is normally higher during the period of January and February, falling drastically with the arrival of spring, thanks to more dynamic weather phenomena (ibid.).

The return of wildlife

The idea that quarantine has allowed nature and its species to reveal themselves again in areas previously occupied by humans is partly true and is only a short-term effect, on which there is much misinformation. National Geographic has taken into consideration the famous video of swans and dolphins at the canals of Venice. In both cases it is manipulated news: “Venetian” dolphins were filmed at the port of Cagliari (National Geographic, 2020b), while swans have always been present in the canals of Burano (Daly, 2020). Leaving aside the temporary territorial reconquest of wildlife, the Coronavirus could have positive effects on this in the long term. The transmission of the virus would seem to derive from a species of bat (Nature, 2020b), ergo it would be worth reconsidering our physical proximity to animals and wildlife, understanding when human invasiveness could harm the fauna as well as our own health.

In the Chinese case, the proximity between fauna and humans in the market of Wuhan, a megalopolis, has created favourable conditions for the spillover of a virus from one species to another, as well as for further transmission between humans (Franza, 2020). As a result, China has finally decided to implement new regulations regarding the commodification of animal species (Pratesi, 2020). This is the real positive effect of the pandemic, however, to be considered in the long term. The destruction of ecosystems and the illegal trade of endangered species are therefore guilty in the spread of the new pathogen. Perhaps this may lead many nations, and not only China, to reconsider their  impact on the animal sphere and their habitats, now invaded by human work (ibid.). 

About closing the ozone hole

As evidenced by recent studies published in Nature, the ozone hole is shrinking (Nature, 2020a). But as with the reduction of CO2 emissions, this is a temporary effect and is not related solely to  the restrictive measures taken to combat the epidemic. The “healing” of the ozone layer is mainly due to the measures taken under the Montreal Protocol (The Independent, 2020). 

So, once again, the pandemic’s effect in relation to ozone is bound to be short-lived unless this condition leads national governments to rethink their production methods. And even if this were the case, the results would not be rapid, even considering an uneven recovery in different global areas; in some, it could happen in the next two decades, and in others much later in the century. 

Plastic that saves lives

One consequence with a very negative environmental impact in the short term is the overuse of plastics, for health and other purposes. In the United States, the governors of Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable shopping bags, resulting in many more paper bags being used. Oregon suspended the new plastic bag ban this week, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, announced a suspension of the plastic bag bans. Even in the case of cups and other utensils, as seen recently with Starbucks, their reuse is likely to be a propagation vehicle for the pandemic (Chaudhuri, 2020). The fight against plastic overuse has certainly failed in the face of the pandemic crisis, possibly cancelling out some of the progress made so far.

At the health level, the need for masks and gloves is greater than the environmental need to reduce the use of plastics. In both cases, these instruments are necessarily disposable, with limited durability (as in the case of Fp2 and Fp3 masks). Other instruments damage the fight against the use of plastics, considering also: nylon-plastic swabs, plastic vials used for test kits, fans, chemical reagents needed for testing, pharmaceutical production for any drug or vaccine eventually developed, and finally hand sanitizers and personal cleaning products (Degnarain, 2020). 

Far from suggesting a revolution in healthcare instrumentation during the crisis, the resulting revolution should motivate synthetic biology and alternative plastics companies to make a stronger contribution to combat current and future sustainable challenges in the medical and pharmaceutical supply chain.

Long-term effects

Slowing down the energy transition

There are two different schools of thought about the effect of the pandemic on the energy market. In the first case, it is assumed that the pandemic will slow down the energy transition. In the other, it is thought that the current collapse of the energy market will speed it up the transition. For this to happen, three challenges related to the virus must be successfully addressed: supply chain disruptions that can lead to delays in the completion of green projects under development; the risk of not being able to benefit from government incentives ending this year; the likely decrease in investment due to pressure on public and private budgets, combined with uncertainty about future electricity demand. The last is probably the most important factor. It is difficult to imagine how transition to non-fossil energy can take place without the money needed to invest in these new solutions — within the context of what appears to be a new global recession.

In addition, with an incipient recession to cope with, world markets will aim to achieve their pre-pandemic economic status, with the energy sources available and without further investment that at the moment would be like a paying vacuum. This could therefore result in over-utilisation of crude oil and coal, with a low market price, which would annihilate the temporary environmental achievements that came with the arrival of the Coronavirus. If the pandemic is believed to help renewable energies, their supply chains must also be considered.

Wind energy

In the case of wind energy, it is highly interconnected globally. Europe is a major wind turbine manufacturing centre, and European factories initially suffered interruptions in the supply of parts from China in February. Production facilities in Italy and Spain have been closed since mid-March due to severe containment measures. In addition, the recent blockade in India required the closure of most non-essential production facilities —including manufacturers of wind turbines and solar photovoltaic components — until mid-April. The effects are already tangible in the US, where several projects have been notified by suppliers about possible delivery delays by manufacturers. Uncertainty about the timing and impact of potential blocking measures in other countries could further delay the completion of many projects worldwide (IEA, 2020a).

 Accelerating towards energy transition

On the other hand, the crisis in the energy market, especially the oil market, could create new opportunities for sustainable economies. The International Energy Agency’s analysis describes it as a “historic opportunity” to advance clean energy. If governments flood the economy with liquidity, investment in renewable energy projects would put people to work in the short term and, in the longer term, create decarbonised energy systems. The biggest stumbling block remains the economic factor and the depreciation of oil, which certainly does not tempt governments to look for more expensive energy sources at the moment. Nevertheless, the costs of solar and wind technologies are much lower than in previous periods, when governments launched stimulus packages. It is therefore up to governments, or rather the world market leaders, to take this difficult path. The latter would be facilitated by a shared governance plan, as in the case of the Green New Deal (Trinità dei Monti, 2020).

In contrast to the trend shown above, we must also reflect on the fact that renewable energy capacity has increased by 176 GW (+7.4%) in 2019. Solar energy continued to drive capacity expansion, with an increase of 98 GW (+20%), followed by wind energy with 59 GW (+10%) (IRENA, 2020). This is why governments need to ensure that they maintain clean energy transitions as a priority while responding to the rapidly evolving crisis. IEA analysis shows that governments directly or indirectly drive more than 70% of global energy investments. Today they have a historic opportunity to steer these investments towards a more sustainable path (IEA, 2020b).

Current global energy consumption

No less, the percentage of world energy consumption resulting from so-called modern renewable resources (wind, solar, etc.) is still a small part of the total energy mix with 10.4%, while fossil resources still support 79.5% of such consumption (REN21, 2019). The growth of the renewable sector remains steadily increasing, as shown by Chinese investments in the solar sector, which alone exceed the total funds used by developing countries. Again, this will be a long-term eventuality and it will be necessary to have historical memory of what is happening.

Reversing ecosystem erosion

With regard to the issue of wildlife (which has already been addressed), it is necessary to find long-term solutions that are not only legislative, but also behavioural and infrastructural. On an educational and social level, it is urgent to get the message across to hunters, loggers, traders and consumers about pathogens and possible diseases. This is because the spillover effect can occur with just one or two people. Solutions therefore start with education and the provision of tools, including educational ones, to increase public awareness (Vidal, 2020). In a recent IEED publication, authors Fevre and Tacoli support the rethinking of urban infrastructure, particularly within low-income and informal settlements. They call for a review of current approaches to urban planning and development, which may also review the invasiveness of urban complexes in relation to wildlife habitats (IIED, 2020).

Rethinking the global supply chain

The arrival of the pandemic has destroyed the interdependent connections on which the global supply chain is based.  This is on the same wavelength as renewable energy, which is almost self-evident in taking into account that production is unsustainable without adequate energy input. The global supply chain, as we know it today, is made up of multiple production steps, where components are produced and shipped from different countries, all flowing to the producer. This logic stems from the comparative economic advantage, which has led buyers and suppliers to look abroad in the first place. However, the specialisation and uniqueness of the producers of intermediate goods, or components, has become harmful to the global economy. Perhaps there is a need for greater competitiveness in the intermediate goods sector, so that there is more supply. However, this brings greater economic and profit risks, especially for suppliers of intermediate goods (Foreign Affairs, 2020).

Although we are talking about a long-term process, a better solution would be to adopt the circular economy. This is because the reuse of productive or waste materials would, first of all, allow for greater domestic subsistence and a better interconnection between suppliers, producers and consumers — interchangeable and not necessarily interdependent. Circular systems use reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, regeneration and recycling to create a closed-loop system, minimizing the use of incoming resources and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions (Ilsole24ore, 2019). This effort would have a huge positive effect on the environmental impact of production, enabling the pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the fight against climate change.

Conclusions

Having noted the short and long term effects, it is possible to understand the relationships and possible benefits that the environment can derive from this situation. In fact, the momentary global shift induced by the pandemic has created a favourable scenario for either accelerating climate change negotiations, or slowing them down (WRI, 2020). The outcome of the deceleration, or not, will depend on the economic and financial response of local and global markets. If there is a lack of timely and appropriate action on climate change, the long-term outcome could be incredibly more drastic than the pandemic.

Improvements in air quality and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions during the recent period, for example, have made us realise that the measures needed to slow down or reverse the climate change process are drastic. We now have a clear example of what it would mean to reduce the production activity of entire nations, and we are aware of the impacts that such a reduction would have on the climate. It is now clearer what the socio-economic implications are for achieving a climate-friendly system, offering food for thought for climate negotiators, activists and politicians active in this area. 

The pandemic has, therefore, offered a reality check of what climate change could cause in the long term — and also a yardstick for the measures needed to achieve the hoped-for emission reductions.

Courtesy of Think Tank Trinità dei Monti (Rome, Italy). Translation by Luca Mazzacane.http://trinitamonti.org/

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