The timeout that Covid-19 has imposed on the world has participated in a neat increase in air quality. Heavy pollutant activities such as the air, road and sea transport as well as major production industries have faced an unpredictable halt due to countries closing their borders and establishing national lockdowns in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. In order to understand the relationship between this pandemic and global climate change, it is crucial to have a look at the contribution of the aforementioned sectors and activities to the phenomenon and establish the consequences of their pause.
Transportation, be it for people or for goods, has been decreased the most by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the transport sector is "a leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission" and accounts for 12-70 percent of particulate matter (PM) emission towards the total air pollution. In addition, this sector's pollutants also include ground level ozone, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and methane. The transport sector can be classified in three main pollutant categories: road, air and sea transport.
Cars are the most commonly used means of transport worldwide. They are used for everyday common transport for mobility within cities as well as industrial transport for supply chain deliveries. This divides the road transport category into two: light-duty vehicles and medium/heavy duty vehicles. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) consider two types of pollution related to cars: primary which are related to the pollutants directly released in the atmosphere and secondary which are the results of chemical reactions between pollutants. As a result, 80 to 90 percent of a car's environmental impact stems from fuel consumption and GHG emission (National Geographic).
Air transport: GHG emissions have been growing rapidly within the aviation sector. In 2018, the United Nations Aviation body predicted a CO2 production of 900 million metric tons which is to triple by 2050. The International Council on Clean Transportation elaborated on those numbers and claimed that the actual growth rate of these emissions might be 1.5 times faster. The carbon footprint of the aviation industry may very well take up to a quarter of the world's total emissions within the coming decades.
Sea transport: The not-for-profit research centre Clear Seas for Responsible Marine Shipping states that marine shipping accounts for 2.2 percent of carbon oxides emissions, 15 percent of nitrogen oxides emission and 13 percent of sulfur oxides emissions annually. Considering that 80 percent of the world's goods are transported using these means, marine transportation is a significant contributor to global climate change despite it being more energy efficient than the aforementioned methods.
Impact of the pandemic on industries
Production industries have also been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Among these we can name the car production and sale industry and the food industry. On one hand, car production requires materials such as steel, rubber, glass and paints whose manufacturing hold a heavy carbon footprint. On the other hand, the livestock in the food industry accounts for ⅔ of agriculture's GHG as well as 78 percent of methane emissions and the food wasted is evaluated up to 7000 billion dollars of environmental cost globally according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In the organization's words, "global food loss and waste generate about 8 percent of humankind's annual greenhouse gas emission".
When the pandemic was declared, international and national restrictions started being put in place by each country as they see fit. One measure of international caliber that has been observed by multiple countries is the border shutdown. Airports and maritime ports worldwide started being closed to commercial and/or industrial transports in an attempt to control the virus' access.
Such travel restrictions came without a warning therefore, flights were cancelled and the airline industry faced an unprecedented slow down.
Nationally, social distancing rules have been established in several countries which encompasses the avoidance of gatherings of all sorts (academic, professional and social), the closing of non-essential businesses and national lockdowns resulting in the confinement of individuals in their homes. Schools, offices, restaurants, clubs and several other businesses stopped their operations. With the movement of citizens within the country restrained, road traffic and the demand in products have also decreased. As an illustration, car sales in China have hit the negatives.
Environmental consequences of the pandemic measures
A logical aftermath of the stop of pollution-related human and industrial activities would be the decrease in air pollution. Several examples from the countries with the most pollutant productions are to be noted. In the Indian capital New Delhi, there has been a 70 percent decrease in the emission of nitrogen oxide and PM2.5 particles. In China, the source of the pandemic, a drop in carbon dioxide emission of 18 percent between February and March has been noticed. In the EU, daily emissions have dropped by 58 percent and in the Northeast United States fuel pollution went down by 30 percent.
Globally, the International Energy Agency predicts a reduction in greenhouse emission of 8 percent which would be the largest decrease ever seen within a year. Will this reduction make enough of a difference in the course of the climate change emergency? Will it be maintained after the pandemic or will we go back to previous emission levels? What comes next?
Climate change post Covid-19
The climate change dagger has been dangling over the world on a loose thread as scientists predicted a point of no return. The United Nations Environment Program's (UNEP) ultimatum states that there needs to be a decrease of 7.6 percent yearly for the coming decade in order to maintain global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Failure to do so would result in irreversible global warming impacts. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have put the world on the right track to achieve such a decrease for the year 2020 but at what cost? Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University states that "we don't want tens of millions of people being out of work as a path to decarbonizing our economy".
In other words, this is not the right track towards reducing emissions and reverting climate change. The lack of sustainability of this system that would lead to the collapse of economies around the world makes it unfit to generate a long term emission reduction. As an example, during the 2008 financial crisis, the global CO2 emissions faced a 1.4 percent drop by 2009 only to climb back up at 5.9 percent as countries began to rebuild. However, despite its unsustainability regarding climate change, the pandemic might give us a clear insight towards what the UNEP recommendation could look like if followed. In Jackson's words, "It's as if a third of the cars on the road were suddenly electric, running on clean electricity and the air pollution is plummeting". Thus, we can say that the pandemic in itself is not a solution for climate change but it acts as an experiment that would allow us to visualize the path towards reverting climate change. When it comes to an end, whether nations consider it as the crisis that it is and gives it its importance while rebuilding their economies will be a crucial determinant of where the world is headed.
The irony of the relationship between coronavirus and climate change is the fact that a crisis is necessary in order to notice the impact of another crisis, even though the latter may be more detrimental in the long run. The spontaneous response to coronavirus that lacks in the fight against global climate change stems from how immediate its consequences are on the world economies, especially the powerful nations of the global north. The decrease in emissions and its impact revealing itself as the pandemic progresses should be an eye opener. How these impacted powerful nations will react to it afterwards may make or break our ability to reach the global climate change goal by 2030 before the inevitable occurs. In summary, the coronavirus pandemic is giving us a taste of what a healthy environment will look like but it relies on decision makers to keep it moving forward.
Dr Nazmul Alam, Associate Professor of Public Health, Asian University for Women
Mame Diarra Bousso Mbacke Ndiaye, Student, Bachelor of Public Health, Asian University for Women