Falling air pollution early rejoice
In the short term, the change is seemingly miraculous. Satellite images show reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels that causes respiratory problems, across major cities. The unintended air pollution declines from the virus outbreak are just temporary, experts say.Scientists argue that the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on climate change will depend on how countries and corporations respond to an economic crisis. If economic stimulus packages drive money away from clean energy investments by infusing fossil fuels industries with short-term capital while ignoring clean energy supply chains ... we could see a domino effect that would push us further away from our clean energy goals. If companies are hurting, they may delay or even cancel climate-friendly policies that require investments up front. Hence, our response to this crisis will shape the climate crisis for decades to come. The efforts to revive economic activity — the stimulus plans, bailouts and back-to-work programs being developed now — will help determine the shape of our economies and our lives for the foreseeable future, and they will have effects on carbon emissions that reverberate across the planet for thousands of years...
Arunima Sen Gupta
COVID-19 has driven the global economy to a near-halt as the pandemic sweeps the globe. With factories shuttered and cars parked in garages, air pollution has dissipated in cities. But environmental science and policy experts warn not to call this a silver lining; any sustainable reduction in emissions and pollution will need to happen in a way that doesn’t totally splinter society. And, moreover, they expect that pollution levels will return when the coronavirus ebbs—and in some cases may come back with a vengeance.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare, co-founder, Care for Air NGO, said the low AQI and the blue skies proved beyond doubt that a lot of the polluted air was “anthropomorphic, that is, man-made”. “Obviously, slowing down the economy to such a degree is not the ideal way to bring down air pollution, but at least it proves that it can be done. We can achieve the same outcome by doing this mindfully, using technology and low-emission alternatives,” she said. Lavakare emphasised on the need to realise that air pollution weakens the lungs, so countries like India with higher pollution and lower nutrition levels will be more affected by COVID-19, and morbidity and deaths are likely to be higher. Ravina Kohli, environmentalist and part of the #MyRightToBreathe campaign, said it was a “huge wake-up call” for governments obsessed with development at the cost of the environment. “For the first time, I believe our present generation will discover the critical importance and need for a focus on public health and the quality of air we breathe,” she said. Jai Dhar Gupta, environmentalist and founder of Nirvana Being that sells masks and purifiers to combat pollution, said humans need to figure out if they wish to go back to the normal that was there before or find a more sustainable normal. “This has been a fantastic wake-up call and I think we had a reality check and we need to figure out a new normal. This is an opportunity, a chance to find a new sustainable life,” he said. International experts are also skeptical. “I see it and I don’t think of a silver lining,” says Wade McGillis, an associate professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University. “I see it and I think: those poor people who are not moving around and sheltered in place, and their lives being ruined.”
According to the Centre-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the impact of the measures taken due to the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in a drop in PM2.5 (fine particulate pollutant) by 30 per cent in Delhi and by 15 per cent in Ahmadabad and Pune. The level of Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) pollution, which can increase the risk of respiratory conditions, has also reduced. NOx pollution is mainly caused due to high motor vehicle traffic. In Pune, NOx pollution has reduced by 43 per cent, in Mumbai, by 38 per cent and in Ahmadabad, by 50 per cent. Gufran Beig, a scientist at SAFAR, says generally in March, pollution is in the ‘moderate’ category (Air Quality Index range: 100-200) while presently, it is in the ‘satisfactory’ (AQI 50-100) or "good" (AQI 0-50) category. “It is the lockdown impact. Local factors like shutting down of industries and construction and traffic have contributed in improving the air quality. Rain is also helping, but the curbs on local emissions are playing a significant role,” he said. According to the data of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the air quality in the national capital is presently in the ‘good’ category. In Kanpur, which has high pollution levels, it is in the ‘satisfactory’ category. Moreover, 92 other cities with CPCB monitoring centres have recorded minimal air pollution, with the air quality in the range of ‘good’ to ‘satisfactory’. As many as 39 cities have recorded ‘good’ air quality and 51 cities have recorded ‘satisfactory’ air quality in the last few days, the CPCB data showed. An AQI between 0-50 is considered good, 51-100 satisfactory, 101-200 moderate, 201-300 poor, 301-400 very poor and 401-500 severe.
In the short term, the change is seemingly miraculous. Satellite images from the European Space Agency show reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels that causes respiratory problems, across major cities on the continent including Paris, Madrid and Rome as countries lock down and restrict travel. Cities across the US have seen similar effects as Americans stay home in traffic-prone cities like Los Angeles and New York. “In terms of a shift or a change that really happened overnight, this has been unprecedentedly dramatic,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, author of the Carbon Brief report and lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
In theory, this sharp decline in pollution and carbon emissions is a positive development for the planet and the humans who live on it. For one, air pollution contributes to millions of deaths across the globe every year, aggravating cardiovascular disease and respiratory health. Clearer air may also deliver some brief relief to those suffering from COVID-19, making it easier to breathe for patients who are struggling, though health experts say that years of exposure to pollution has likely made many people more susceptible to the disease. “The damage is already done,” said Sascha Marschang, acting secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance in a statement. “Years of breathing in dirty air from traffic fumes and other sources will have weakened the health of all those who are now embroiled in a life or death fight.” The decline in emissions may also seem like a win for the fight against climate change. Climate scientists have warned that global carbon emissions need to peak in the coming years for the world to have even a remote chance of keeping temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C by the end of the century, a level that would likely bring a range of dramatic consequences from mass climate migration to the loss of the world’s coral reefs.
Nitrogen dioxide is produced from car engines, power plants and other industrial processes and is thought to exacerbate respiratory illnesses such as asthma. While not a greenhouse gas itself, the pollutant originates from the same activities and industrial sectors that are responsible for a large share of the world’s carbon emissions and that drive global heating. The World Health Organization describes NO2 as “a toxic gas which causes significant inflammation of the airways” at concentrations above 200 micrograms per cubic metre. Pollution particles may also be a vector for pathogens, as well as exacerbating existing health problems. The WHO is now investigating whether airborne pollution particles may be a vector that spreads Covid-19 and makes it more virulent. Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, predicts there will be important lessons to learn. “We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen,” he said. “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.” Monks, the former chair of the UK government’s science advisory committee on air quality, said that a reduction in air pollution could bring some health benefits, though they were unlikely to offset loss of life from the disease. “It seems entirely probable that a reduction in air pollution will be beneficial to people in susceptible categories, for example some asthma sufferers,” he said. “It could reduce the spread of disease. A high level of air pollution exacerbates viral uptake because it inflames and lowers immunity.” Agriculture could also get a boost because pollution stunts plant growth, he added.
As a coronavirus-related economic fallout, carbon emissions could decline in 2020. But, without a concerted effort, they’re unlikely to stay down. The situation in China shows how quickly emissions and the related air pollution can bounce back. In China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide emissions declined by a quarter in mid-February from a few weeks earlier, according to an analysis published in Carbon Brief. Scientists recorded similar declines in other pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in the country, which has spent years trying to clean the air in smog-choked cities. But, by the end of March, coal consumption and nitrogen dioxide pollution had returned to normal levels, according to Myllyvirta. A bigger long-term question remains: will the country use this moment to fund green stimulus measures to foster economic growth? Across the globe, policymakers will need to answer similar questions.
The unintended air pollution declines from the virus outbreak are just temporary, experts say. But the pandemic’s unintended climate impact offers a glimpse into how countries and corporations are equipped to handle the slower-moving but destructive climate change crisis. So far, researchers warn that the world is ill-prepared. “In the midst of this rapidly moving global pandemic, it’s natural that we also think about that other massive threat facing us — global climate change — and what we might learn now to help us prepare for tomorrow,” said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and founder of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley, California. “As for the environmental benefits we see from the slowdown of day-to-day life and economic activity in terms of improving air quality and other slight benefits, it’s a good sign that our ecosystems are somewhat resilient if we don’t completely destroy them. But it would be nice if we could improve our environment without having to cripple our economy,” he added. Scientists argue that the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on climate change will depend on how countries and corporations respond to an economic crisis. The International Energy Agency, or IEA, has warned the virus will weaken global investments in clean energy and industry efforts to reduce emissions, and has called on governments to offer stimulus packages that consider climate change. But an economic stimulus package that considers global warming will likely not be the response from many countries. For example, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic recently urged the European Union to abandon its landmark green law focusing on carbon neutrality as it grapples with the virus outbreak. The Czech Republic depends largely on nuclear energy and coal. Furthermore, major US airlines are asking for billions of dollars in government aid as they face potential bankruptcy from travel decline, which President Donald Trump has endorsed. Air travel is expected to bounce back after the pandemic subsides, and the industry's emissions are expected to triple by 2050. Climate researchers warn that the virus will hinder climate change action from corporations and countries in the long-run. Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, said companies that are hurting financially will likely delay or cancel climate-friendly projects that require investment up front. Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist and environmental justice activist, said that the way in which the world recovers from the pandemic is vital in the fight against climate change. “If the actions here continue to bail out fossil fuel companies and multinational corporations and banks, and invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, then we are digging a hole deeper into a more violent and dangerous place,” Myhre said. “I think that there's potential for this pandemic to become a moment of mass awaking of our ability to have compassion for each other,” she added.
“If the lesson learnt is, let’s get back to the status quo ante, then (the virus) probably will slow down the energy transition,” says author and climate activist Bill McKibben. “If the lesson learnt is, you have to take the physical world and its risks seriously, it could make governments more likely to move fast — especially since interest rates in much of the world are now effectively zero,” he said. Solar manufacturers across the world are citing production and project delay, and analysts are warning of higher costs for green manufacturers and a hit to global operations as the virus spreads. Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, said the virus will hinder climate change action from corporations and countries despite the short-term drop in carbon emissions from the outbreak. “If the global economy crashes, emissions will drop short term as we produce fewer goods, but climate action will slow. Employment trumps environment in politics,” Jackson said. “If companies are hurting, they may delay or even cancel climate-friendly policies that require investments up front.” Airlines, for example, have seen a dramatic decline in air travel and emissions in the short term as the virus spreads. While demand will likely bounce back after the worst of the pandemic is over and people return to flying, the industry has cited financial turmoil from the virus as a reason to weaken or delay environmental programs in place to reduce emissions. Aviation accounts for 2% to 3% of global carbon emissions. “For companies, the outbreak is already introducing doubt into renewable-energy global supply chains and challenging company balance sheets,” said Dr Melissa Lott, a researcher at the Center of Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. As major economies across the world begin to prepare economic stimulus packages, the IEA has called for governments to focus on driving climate action and building out low carbon infrastructure in those plans. In the U.S., the Trump administration has considered providing assistance for hard-hit industries such as the cruise ships and airlines, as well as offering low-interest loans to oil and gas producers that have seen declines in oil prices — a move that would further lock in carbon-intensive investments.“We have not yet seen similar offers for clean energy companies,” Lott said. “If economic stimulus packages drive money away from clean energy investments by infusing fossil fuels industries with short-term capital while ignoring clean energy supply chains ... we could see a domino effect that would push us further away from our clean energy goals,” she added.
Our response to this crisis will shape the climate crisis for decades to come. The efforts to revive economic activity — the stimulus plans, bailouts and back-to-work programs being developed now — will help determine the shape of our economies and our lives for the foreseeable future, and they will have effects on carbon emissions that reverberate across the planet for thousands of years. Sweeping changes in individual habits — particularly in wealthy countries with high per capita consumption — could lead to lower emissions, which would be an unequivocal good. But personal habits may matter less because of direct reductions in carbon emissions and more because of “behavioral contagion,” a term from the social sciences that refers to the way ideas and behaviors spread through a population and can, in terms of climate action, lead to changes in voting and even policy.Which is to say, in order to be meaningful for global emissions, changes in consumption habits as a result of the virus would need to extend beyond individuals to the larger structures that shape our lives.
A global recession as a result of coronavirus shutdowns could also slow or stall the shift to clean energy. If capital markets lock up, it will become difficult for companies to secure financing for planned solar, wind and electric grid projects, and it could tank proposals for new projects; renewable energy projects around the world are already stumbling because of disruptions to the global supply chain. (A huge share of the world’s solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries are produced in China.) Going forward, a shutdown of trade between China and the United States — for economic or political reasons — would also hit these projects hard. The clean energy analyst BloombergNEF has already downgraded its 2020 expectations for the solar, battery and electric-vehicle markets, signaling a slowdown in the clean energy transition when we urgently need to speed it up. If oil prices stay low, that could be bad news for the climate, too. Falling demand has converged with skittish investors spooked by the pandemic and with an oil price and production war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Cheaper energy often leads consumers to use it less efficiently. Low prices could help depress electric-vehicle sales and make people less inclined toward projects like retrofitting homes and offices to save energy. Coronavirus is bad for the climate even on the most macro levels. Lockdowns and social distancing have slowed climate research around the world or ground it to a halt. NASA is on mandatory telework. Research flights to the Arctic have been stopped, and fieldwork everywhere is being canceled. No one knows how much climate data will never be collected as a result, or when research might be able to start up again. Gatherings of world leaders to address the climate crisis also have been delayed or canceled, and the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow planned for November could be next, meaning that the pandemic will very likely slow already sluggish international action. This could derail climate talks at a time when, under the Paris Agreement, countries are supposed to announce new pledges to reduce emissions. Such a derailment would make it even more likely that countries would blow past warming-limit goals. Going forward, public attention is likely to be diverted from the climate by ballooning fears over health and finances, and climate activism that depends on large public protests is being forced indoors and online.
Tip of the iceberg
Is it possible, then, that it was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics in Mayibout and elsewhere in the 1990s and that is unleashing new terrors today? A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems. “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
“Pathogens do not respect species boundaries,” says disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s department of environmental sciences, who studies how shrinking natural habitats and changing behaviour add to the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to humans. “I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” he says. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.” Humans, says Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between host animals – in which the virus is naturally circulating – and themselves. “We fully expect the arrival of pandemic influenza; we can expect large-scale human mortalities; we can expect other pathogens with other impacts. A disease like Ebola is not easily spread. But something with a mortality rate of Ebola spread by something like measles would be catastrophic,” Gillespie says. Wildlife everywhere is being put under more stress, he says. “Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Species that survive change are now moving and mixing with different animals and with humans.” Gillespie sees this in the US, where suburbs fragment forests and raise the risk of humans contracting Lyme disease. “Altering the ecosystem affects the complex cycle of the Lyme pathogen. People living close by are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying Lyme bacteria,” he says.
Yet human health research seldom considers the surrounding natural ecosystems, says Richard Ostfeld, distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. He and others are developing the emerging discipline of planetary health, which looks at the links between human and ecosystem health. “There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it,” he says. Ostfeld points to rats and bats, which are strongly linked with the direct and indirect spread of zoonotic diseases. “Rodents and some bats thrive when we disrupt natural habitats. They are the most likely to promote transmissions of pathogens. The more we disturb the forests and habitats the more danger we are in,” he says. Felicia Keesing, professor of biology at Bard College, New York, studies how environmental changes influence the probability that humans will be exposed to infectious diseases. “When we erode biodiversity, we see a proliferation of the species most likely to transmit new diseases to us, but there’s also good evidence that those same species are the best hosts for existing diseases,” she explains.
Disease ecologists argue that viruses and other pathogens are also likely to move from animals to humans in the many informal markets that have sprung up to provide fresh meat to fast-growing urban populations around the world. Here, animals are slaughtered, cut up and sold on the spot. The “wet market” (one that sells fresh produce and meat) in Wuhan, thought by the Chinese government to be the starting point of the current Covid-19 pandemic, was known to sell numerous wild animals, including live wolf pups, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, civets and turtles. Equally, urban markets in west and central Africa sell monkeys, bats, rats, and dozens of species of bird, mammal, insect and rodent slaughtered and sold close to open refuse dumps and with no drainage. “Wet markets make a perfect storm for cross-species transmission of pathogens,” says Gillespie. “Whenever you have novel interactions with a range of species in one place, whether that is in a natural environment like a forest or a wet market, you can have a spillover event.” The Wuhan market, along with others that sell live animals, has been shut by the Chinese authorities, and last month Beijing outlawed the trading and eating of wild animals except for fish and seafood. But bans on live animals being sold in urban areas or informal markets are not the answer, say some scientists. “The wet market in Lagos is notorious. It’s like a nuclear bomb waiting to happen. But it’s not fair to demonise places which do not have fridges. These traditional markets provide much of the food for Africa and Asia,” says Jones. “These markets are essential sources of food for hundreds of millions of poor people, and getting rid of them is impossible,” says Delia Grace, a senior epidemiologist and veterinarian with the International Livestock Research Institute, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya. She argues that bans force traders underground, where they may pay less attention to hygiene. Fevre and colleague Cecilia Tacoli, principal researcher in the human settlements research group at the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), argue in a blog post that rather than pointing the finger at wet markets, we should look at the burgeoning trade in wild animals. “It is wild animals rather than farmed animals that are the natural hosts of many viruses,” they write. “Wet markets are considered part of the informal food trade that is often blamed for contributing to spreading disease. But … evidence shows the link between informal markets and disease is not always so clear cut.”
So what, if anything, can we do about all of this? “We must think about global biosecurity, find the weak points and bolster the provision of health care in developing countries. Otherwise we can expect more of the same,” Jones adds. “The risks are greater now. They were always present and have been there for generations. It is our interactions with that risk which must be changed,” says Brian Bird, a research virologist at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine One Health Institute, where he leads Ebola-related surveillance activities in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. “We are in an era now of chronic emergency,” Bird says. “Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments, change in human behaviour, and it means we must listen to people at community levels.”
A first lesson we are drawing from the COVID-19 pandemic and how it relates to climate change is that well-resourced, equitable health systems with a strong and supported health workforce are essential to protect us from health security threats, including climate change. The austerity measures that have strained many national health systems over the past decade will have to be reversed if economies and societies are to be resilient and prosperous in an age of change. For example, the people of Haiti would have been much more adept in coping with and recovering from the lasting effects of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew – which was exacerbated by climate change – if they had had a resilient and well-resourced health system in place to support them. Similarly, many Iranian lives could have been saved at the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, if its beleaguered healthcare system had been better prepared for what was to come.
Secondly, the ongoing pandemic illustrates how inequality is a major barrier in ensuring the health and wellbeing of people, and how social and economic inequality materializes in unequal access to healthcare systems. For example, the health threat of the novel coronavirus is, on average, greater for cities and people exposed to higher levels of pollution, which are most often people living in poorer areas. The same is true for the health impacts of climate change, with one of its major causes, the burning of fossil fuels, also adding pollution to the air and disproportionately impacting the health of those in poverty. The WHO estimates that by reducing the environmental and social risk factors people are exposed to, nearly a quarter of the global health burden (measured as loss from sickness, death and financial costs) could be prevented. Creating healthy environments for healthier populations and promoting Universal Health Coverage (UHC) are two of the most effective ways in which we can reduce the long-term health impacts from – and increase our resilience and adaptive capacity to – both the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
Third, the global health crisis we find ourselves in has forced us to dramatically change our behaviour in order to protect ourselves and those around us, to a degree most of us have never experienced before. This temporary shift of gears could lead to a long-term shift in old behaviours and assumptions, which could lead to a public drive for collective action and effective risk management. Even though climate change presents a slower, more long-term health threat, an equally dramatic and sustained shift in behaviour will be needed to prevent irreversible damage.
Lastly, crises like these offer an opportunity for a regained sense of shared humanity, in which people realize what matters most: the health and safety of their loved ones, and by extension the health and safety of their community, country and fellow global citizens. Both the climate crisis and unfolding pandemic threaten this one thing we all care about. When we eventually overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, we can hopefully hold on to that sense of shared humanity in order to rebuild our social and economic systems to make them better, more resilient, and compassionate. The financial and social support packages to maintain and eventually resuscitate the global economy post-pandemic should therefore promote health, equity, and environmental protection. Ultimately, public health is a political choice. A choice we are now confronted with, and one we will have to make over and over again as we transition to a more resilient, zero-carbon, just and healthier future. (The writer is a climate change advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO). He writes in a personal capacity, his views do not necessarily represent WHO or any of its member states)